Trend-spotting always grabs attention and makes for intriguing reading. But just citing trends is never enough to make a significant impact on any business or brand.
To be really useful, trends must be well understood, appropriately contextualized, and once applied to the brand, confirmed as being effective. Only after all of that has been done can a business begin to benefit from exploiting the latest trends.
What are Today’s Trends?PRS conducts some 700 packaging-related research studies every year, giving us a preview as to where design is heading before it is obvious to the world at large.
Broad societal trends such as the economy, the environment, technology and fast-paced lifestyles have been covered extensively elsewhere. I will discuss the trends in package design that have emerged from these.
In times of angst, turmoil, uncertainty and change, it is often comforting to hearken back to a simpler time (or what is now considered to have been a simpler time). This is evident in the popularity of “retro” styles of clothing, furniture, restaurants and music. Nickelodeon capitalized on this idea with its popular Nick at Night cable channel and now there’s the TV Land network, where baby boomers can enjoy many of their favorite childhood TV programs. More recently, AMC’s Mad Men television series, set in the 1960’s along Madison Avenue, provided another example.
In popular fashion we see the lure of nostalgia fueling the resurgence of Fedora hats and the tenacious ubiquity of Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers. Some well established brands have been tapping into their rich history by reverting to their old package designs for limited times to help reinforce their credentials, as well as connect with a time that seemed slower, safer and simpler. This includes many cereal brands made by Post, Kellogg and General Mills, chocolates made by the Hershey company, and various products under the A&P brand umbrella, to name a few.
It is often said that “simpler is better”, and lately this has been applied in many ways to product ingredients, including, but not limited to, fewer of them, natural or organic, preservative-free and “healthy” (low calorie, low fat, low sugar, high fiber, etc.).
Examples of brands capitalizing on this trend include the Simply line of refrigerated, ready-to-bake cookies from Pillsbury and Green Way, the Organic line from The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company (the company that owns the A&P grocery chain).
Interestingly, many consumers have little understanding of what really constitutes organic or all-natural (and often confuse these characteristics). Nor do they fully grasp the implications of adopting these approaches (such as limited shelf-life, compromised taste, higher cost). Yet, they clamor for these products with almost religious zeal.
- Smaller indulgences
With a need to cut back on large purchases such as homes, cars, vacations, jewelry and the like, consumers are now turning instead to premium indulgences to feel good. These include high end versions of chocolate, ice cream and coffee that may be expensive for their respective product categories, but are a relatively modest expenditure for the shopper, nevertheless.
These act as a reward for hard work, a diversion from current financial woes, or just a confidence boost when needing to feel “worth it”.
- Making a statement
Consumers can choose which products they purchase based, in part, on some connection that product makes with a cause that the consumer cares about. These products might comply with Fair Trade practices (benefitting producers in developing countries), make donations to causes such as cancer research, education, community services, etc, or use packaging that in some way benefits the environment.
One of the most notable and successful examples of tapping into this “cause marketing” trend was Campbell Soup Co.’s limited edition pink ribbon soup cans which promoted breast cancer awareness and donated a portion of sales to the Susan G. Komen Foundation. Consumers felt so strongly in favor of this move that Campbell’s sales doubled.
Additionally, Coca-Cola just made a big sustainability move by announcing that their new “PlantBottle”, made from sugarcane and molasses derivatives, will debut at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
Once trends have been identified and their meaning understood, it’s crucial to avoid the pitfalls of going too far when adopting them for a well-established brand. Specifically, with regard to the four trends cited above, the dangers include:
- Nostalgia: the brand could be seen as boring or out-dated and too caught up looking backward, and not innovating with an eye toward the future.
- Simplicity: stark, simple packaging that is fitting for the message of pure and wholesome can also be perceived as cheap or generic.
- Small indulgences: these “special treats” may be too special and not provide a sufficient base of business to be viable. In addition, the more premium packaging with layers of material, much of it rather exotic looking, may be perceived as wasteful.
- Statement: there is a risk of a backlash if seen as false (“green washing”), self-serving or preachy, and a potential turn-off to those not in favor of supporting the cause.
- Be sure they’re real
- Apply them wisely
- Assess executions in context
For example, the mass media decried the death of civility as a “trend” after a politician shouted during President Obama’s healthcare speech, Serena Williams cursed at a line judge and Kanye West grabbed Taylor Swift’s microphone at the MTV Awards, all in the same week.
As such, it’s essential to have credible data about a sustained interest among your target market before investing your brand’s resources and risking its reputation. To properly assess a trend among a meaningful sample, one must ask the right questions and also ask them the right way. Otherwise, it’s easy to fall into what I call the “Do you love your mother?” trap.
When asked directly, very few consumers would say they don’t think it’s important to raise money for breast cancer research, or use packaging that is less harmful to the environment. That’s why it’s critical to frame the question in a shopping context that includes all of the variables that could influence their tendency to purchase (e.g., price, durability, product satisfaction, etc).
Applying Trends WiselyOnce a trend has been assessed and confirmed as real, the next crucial step is to determine how best to apply it to your brand. There are three strategies that can be used:
Participating in a trend is a short-term, limited approach. It can consist of contributing a portion of sales to a cause by running a promotion during a specified time. Such promotions enable the brand to benefit from an association with the trend (making a statement) in a way that presents relatively little risk to the brand’s reputation. Of course, this approach is also limited in terms of evolving the brand’s long-term image and presence.
By not overly committing, the brand maintains flexibility in its ability to participate in other trends and activities. It also minimizes the possibility that the brand will dilute its core essence or that a significant part of its user base will be permanently turned off by this association.
A more significant commitment to a trend would be achieved through extending the brand, such that a permanent entry is introduced into the marketplace that addresses the trend, while the base business remains intact (and secure). Examples of this approach include Clorox’s Greenworks eco-friendly line of household cleaners, and Haagen-Dazs’ Five line of simple (limited number of ingredients) ice cream. In each case, the new line is an obvious and overt means of addressing a trend that goes beyond a short-term promotional gesture, thereby reaping more rewards if the trend really takes hold. And, if the trend turns out to be short-lived or less meaningful than originally thought, then the company will not have risked the survival of the base business.
Finally, a brand is transformed when the trend is so compelling that the old way of doing things is no longer feasible. An example is Western Union discontinuing its telegram business in light of e-mail and other emerging communication technologies.
More typically, this most significant level of commitment to a trend is realized through new product (and brand) development, such as The EcoSmart line of environmentally safe pesticides.
There is an obvious trade-off in choosing which of these strategies to employ. The best option for your brand will depend on how sustainable you believe the trend is, how well it fits with your brand’s essence, whether your brand is thriving or declining, and how this trend is likely to impact that status going forward.
Assessing in a Shopping ContextOnce a meaningful trend has been properly identified, determined to fit appropriately with the brand’s essence, and a compelling vehicle has been found to convey the connection between the brand and the trend, there’s one more step to ensure success. The execution must be properly evaluated, or else all of these efforts can turn out to have been for naught (or worse, damaging to the brand).
Using online research or focus groups can confirm that the messages are being communicated properly and the brand imagery is being enhanced. But these methods may be limited in assessing the true impact on the brand. That’s because they cannot adequately determine how the shopper will react to this offering in the context of a realistic shelf display that includes competitive products, pricing and merchandising variables.
Whether creating a short-term promotion, a brand extension or a new product offering, it is critical to assess whether the packaging performs at the shelf. Specifically, one must determine if the package is:
- seen: If a lighter color palette conveys the right association with a more natural image, but the package is too recessive on shelf, then the shopper will not have a chance to buy it (unseen is unsold)
- understood: If shoppers are confused about what they’re seeing (is it still my brand, what’s the benefit of this one, will it taste as good/perform as well, am I paying more), they may resort to a competitive offering
- compelling: Even if seen on shelf and clearly understood, the proposition must be sufficiently meaningful - amidst all of the other options available - to actually be purchased. Simply hearing people pay lip service to how wonderful the idea is can be dangerously misleading.