Celebrating the Rebirth of the Boutique Packaging Agency

Posted by | July 19, 2016 | , ,

Written by Fred GammonIn the Beginning

Package Design as a marketing tool emerged at the same time as businesses were putting consumer goods into packages for wide distribution in the early 20th century. The great practitioners were creative artists and boutique designers who could tell the brand story in a single picture frame (the package). They didn’t have moving images, sound or long form copy to work with. They had a momentary interaction with a consumer at a store shelf. The best of these designers were poster artists, painters, architects, and typographers.

When Advertising Was King

Advertising propelled the growth of brands and dominated consumer marketing through the second half of the 20th Century. The role of package design diminished to reflect the advertising and to cement the product image in the ad to remind consumers what to look for in store.

Ad agencies absorbed packaging design, public relations, and sales promotion agencies under a big tent to capture all the marketing expenditures and focus all communication on a single message. Over time, product and process technology peaked, categories became competitive, products became more generic and marketing companies turned to image, flavor variety and line extensions to sustain growth. Packaging reflected this trend and so the core brand story in package design gave way to fashion or flavor of the day.

21st Century Transformation 

Meanwhile consumers were changing. Population growth was slowing and new consumers were looking for more authentic products. This has led to a new revolution in product development and to a whole new source of new product offerings.

Big Dogs Retreat

Today the big consumer products companies are in decline in the US. They still have growth potential in emerging markets where the middle class is growing and are attracted to Western products. But in the US they are shedding brands to concentrate on their most lucrative businesses. They are rapidly trying to reformulate their products and to create new products to respond to the changing consumer. Similarly the companies acquiring the slow growing or declining brands are also seeking to reformulate and reposition the brands to new and existing consumers.

And New Dogs Emerge 

The major competitive force in all this is the wave of new products and new brands from smaller entrepreneurial companies who have developed products that are distinctive, artisanal, natural, less processed and highly appealing to Generation X and Millennials.

The Battle at Retail These consumers are the prize that the up and coming companies, the acquirers of distressed brands and the established super brands are all battling over. This war is not fought at 30,000 feet with blanket advertising. It’s fought at retail with store chains who want to attract consumers by being on the right side of health and nutrition issues while offering competitive value. It’s fought over very attentive consumers who are alert and discerning of ingredients, product source, health benefits and wholesome offerings.

Packaging is the Key 

The principal asset in this new competitive environment is the product and the packaging. That is where the trust and the bond with the consumer can be established. It calls on the skills of the creative package designer to tell the story and reassure the consumer using the package as the canvas. The ability to use color, type, layout, visual images and copy to take the consumer through the sale is a special talent that boutique packaging agencies offer through experience. They are not “jack of all trades” but masters of the art of one-on-one visual communication. The package designer addresses the consumer as an individual at the shelf, making a purchase decision, not as a mass audience which may or may not be interested in the category at that time. This retail interface is where consumers are persuaded, loyalties are upended and new brands gain ground.

Connecting with the Consumer 

In addition to communicating the key attributes and benefits of the brand the package designer must also establish an image for the brand that fits its role in the user’s life. Is it modern and contemporary, is it an artisanal and crafted image or perhaps a retro style harking back to when products were less processed? This is a critical component of the brand selling strategy as the brand will live in this trade dress for a lot longer than any advertising execution or sales literature will last.

What not to do 

Package design is not a fast change component in the marketing mix. Too frequent and too dramatic a change can cause users to question the authenticity of the product. Celestial Seasonings (story here) found this out the hard way and lost customers who thought the contemporary packaging meant that the product had changed. They have since reverted to the old packaging. And yet, changing too little too late can leave your brand behind in a category that is undergoing change.

Looking at packaging through the lens of advertising can be a fatal mistake. It is not just a punctuation point in an ad; it represents the history and the trust between the consumer and the product. Two of the worst blunders in package design were promoted by agencies and implemented by leading marketing companies. These were for Tropicana Orange Juice and “New” Coke. In both cases the companies failed to recognize that the brand design represented an established expectation about the product. In the case of Tropicana (story here) the radical design change called the product’s authenticity into question and challenged the whole perception of the product as a premium brand.

In the case of New Coke (story here) the mistake was the exact reverse. Instead of creating a radically new package for the great but different new formulation, Coke launched it in the traditional Coke graphics. The use of established Coke brand graphics for a radically changed product led to a consumer revolt especially as the original product was discontinued.

The Right Thing

In this brave new world of authenticity it is wise to choose your agency partners with an eye to experience, knowledge and insights around a particular area of the marketing mix. Following the “they are experts at everything” approach in agency assignments is sub-optimal and can lead to a proverbial train wreck.


Fred Gammon is President and Founder of Gammon Ragonesi Associates.