In an era when cross-category marketing is increasing and marketers try to exploit new ways to connect with customers, packaging becomes an even more vital component to a brand’s success. That’s why package designers often look to other categories for inspiration and new ideas.
Kelly Munson, a designer at Mono, says the company finds inspiration from outside categories or industries to create designs that provide the right utility, but are also fresh and different for their categories.
“Consumers today are so sophisticated when it comes to design,” she says. “In most categories, there are so many options to choose from, and in that environment of infinite choice, consumers are looking for brands that connect with them. Sometimes when designers focus too much on the [direct] competition, we forget that products that are really successful tend to really differentiate.”
David Moritz, president and co-founder for Viceroy Creative, a boutique agency with a focus on packaging design within beverages and spirits, says it’s often necessary to look outside the category you’re working in to create a great packaging design.
“Chances are you can find that something different in a mature approach in another category, so look there for inspiration and learning about how to execute it,” he says. “That might mean looking at Champagne marketing to sell bottled water, automotive messaging to create inspiration for home décor, architecture for structural design of glass bottles, or even looking closer in at American whiskey to innovate Scotch whisky.”
Scott Jost, vice president of innovation and design for Studio 111, the design studio for Berlin Packaging, warns that relegating yourself to swimming in the same pond of ideas in the FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) category is a surefire way to be a contributor to what he calls “the sameness.” He explains, “This is especially true in mature categories such as nutritional supplements and fabric care, where the category shape language rules have been static for years. It’s important to map the competitive set and understand the category vernacular, but it’s at least as important to come up for air and get fresh perspectives from other categories.”
Yael Miller, a partner in Miller Creative, agrees. Her agency focuses primarily in the food and beverage category, but also serves a wide range of brands in health and beauty, wine, consumer electronics, home goods, specialty toys and more.
“Our process is the same regardless of the product category, and always begins with strategic insights through our category immersion process,” she says. “Part of this process is where we look at the competitive space and related markets (where the products may compete or be sold alongside other goods with similar characteristics), to see how the visual language is defined for that space. Interesting insights always come out of this exercise that are not always obvious or expected.”
Borrowing from another product segment is an exciting way to differentiate and create interest in the product on a fundamental level. As an example, Miller cites packaging luxury soap in a polystyrene foam clamshell case as unusual and highly unexpected.
“This gives the brand a differentiated edge among any other brand, without necessarily adding extra cost,” she says. “There are many examples of this technique, and packaging is a great way to play with consumer expectations and thus get them to ‘sit up and notice.’ In addition, this tactic is a great way to surprise and delight consumers, who are often preconditioned to expect certain things within each product category.”
Lorrie Frear, a packaging design teacher at the Rochester Institute of Technology, agrees some of the best, most innovative ideas come from looking outside the product category that is being explored.
For example, Emporio Armani is using a flowrapped bag, more commonly used for products such as potato chips, over the box that contains its perfumes to create a modern, edgy feel.
Re-imagine use scenarios
Jost’s recent work on the award-winning Permatex Fast Orange package is a great example of leveraging tangential category cues to bring aesthetic and functional attributes from the power and hand tool categories into play. The user opens the package by “rocking” it to one side and closes it by tapping it on a flat surface—interactions found in the world of power tools but not typically associated with those packages.
“Another example is the award-winning Patricks men’s grooming line. Patricks’ pricing strategy called for an experience above and beyond anything in the category, so rather than looking to other hair care products we took inspiration from automobiles and personal electronics,” Jost says. “This translated into the use of heavy aluminum plate and rubber gaskets to create a product that looks, feels and sounds like nothing else in hair care.”
Moritz says he looked at emerging fashion trends a few years ago to get inspired to create the first-ever velvetized bottle for Skyy Vodka, using a baroque pattern and put it into production just before the Italian fashion shows were awash with baroque velvet decoration and trims.
“We looked at luxury cosmetics such as Burberry and exotic cars as inspiration for our redesign and future plan for Colgate’s Speed Stick, which just proves that this can be successful anywhere,” he says. “We looked to music, fashion and cultural icons to come up with the John Varvatos limited edition platform for Patron Tequila, which helped to kick-start the aged Anejo tequila trend in the U.S.”
Pitfalls to avoid
Miller says marketers need to be careful to not confuse consumers if they are expecting something else.
“For example, packaging raw sugar in a paperboard tube may confuse consumers into thinking the product is actually a cereal (like rolled oats or granola), unless your packaging clearly communicates what it is,” she says. “The consumer will have to rely on proximity to other sugar products on the shelf near it for context if it’s not totally apparent that the product is indeed sugar.”
Another pitfall is over-packaging, where the product looks more expensive than it really is, thus positioning it outside the consumer’s expectation for what they are looking for.
“On the other hand, it does pay to change up the packaging format that is expected for a product category when you are trying to position your product as a more premium offering,” Miller says. “This helps you stand out and get noticed as a higher-end item. We’ve had a lot of success with brands that did small incremental improvements, like a matte finish instead of a glossy finish for stand-up pouches, to dramatic upgrades to packaging, such as Bunches & Bunches Snaps cookies with matte soft-touch finish, sculpted emboss and letterpress end seal.”
According to Jost, one challenge that comes with ignoring existing conventions is the perception of being categorically inappropriate.
“Taking form inspiration from motorcycle cowlings would certainly lead you to a distinctive baby shampoo bottle, but a direct application of that form language would be likely pretty off-putting to the target consumer,” he says.
Finally, the most important principle in gathering extra-categorical inspiration is balance. Expanding your horizons will result in a broader palette of diverse options, but the process of selecting and refining design solutions should be informed by an understanding of the target category, user and consumer.