Research Is Elemental to Ensure Strategy Comes Before Structure

Posted: September 21, 2009 by
Ted Mininni

In recent articles, there has been much discussion about the value of structural packaging. While this can be a powerful tool in differentiating brands on retail shelves, structural packaging in and of itself is meaningless.

Let's remember this: Packaging, when well-designed, refers back to the brand and its values. Thus, packaging, structural or otherwise, should never be developed without a full understanding of the brand or without research into that brand's core attributes. A well-conceived brand strategy, mutually understood and embraced by corporate marketers and their design consultants, must be in place before any packaging is developed. Otherwise, packaging becomes a fruitless exercise and a waste of precious resources, unable to achieve its full potential as a major selling tool and brand equity builder.

British management guru Allan Leighton once remarked: "There are two important things in business—strategy and execution. 30% is strategy and 70% is execution." To Leighton's point, a brand strategy has to be put in place before company marketing efforts and communications, or tactics, can be successful. There are no shortcuts here. Corporate and brand strategies come first, and then tactics can be effectively developed.

Packaging as brand execution

Since shopping is America's favorite pastime (according to a 2006 CBS News Sunday Morning report), it is conceivable that for many consumers, packaging interaction accounts for most of their exposure to product brand communications. Therefore, packaging must be a synergistic part of the overall brand expression continuum to be truly effective in communicating its core values.

Before any design consultancy develops packaging for a new brand, or repackages one to revitalize it, research has to be done to uncover the brand's core attributes. Research is conducted in a number of phases, but a very important pre-research element concerns itself with arriving at a complete understanding of corporate strategy, brand strategy, and the brand's underlying values. Then, the next logical phase involves an audit on consumer attitudes. Finding out whether there is alignment between corporate brand values and consumer brand perceptions can lead to some interesting findings.

If there is a brand disconnect, it will become obvious to the corporate marketers and packaging consultants—and that brings us all back to strategy. Clarifications of corporate and brand strategies are important if issues like these arise and realignments are called for. What is the company's true mission and position? Who are its core customers? What are the corporate brand's relevant, differentiated values? Why aren't these being properly communicated and expressed? Once these issues are resolved, a package development project can begin.

We all believe that product packaging should contribute to a quality consumer experience with the brand. That means we must be willing to examine what our current packaging is conveying to the customer with an objective, critical eye. Research can divulge where we are failing so that remedial steps can be taken to revitalize packaging and the brand identity itself, if necessary.

Leveraging the core with feeling

Once an overall brand strategy has been affirmed, or reaffirmed, new product packaging development or packaging revitalization can begin, rooted in strong brand attributes. A strategic brand can be fully leveraged in package design, employing all of these elements:

• Signature brand color
• Brandmark/logotype
• Typography
• Photography/illustration
• Brand communication hierarchy
• Brand icons
• Structure

While these packaging elements are visible to the naked eye, the most crucial aspect of utilizing them expertly is much more subliminal, since they appeal to the consumer on an emotional level. Authenticity elicits a response from consumers. So do honest, direct communications and an unswerving brand promise. Moreover, leveraging the power of deep human emotions that resonate brings brand packaging out of the realm of bringing features/benefits to market, rather seeking to fulfill consumers' deepest desires—a deep sense of enjoyment, a perceived lifestyle fit, a fulfillment of aspired status, or an affirmation of shared values, for example.

A strong brand can really benefit from proprietary structural packaging. Well-strategized, well-developed structural packaging can enjoy a distinct edge over competitors and become immediate brand identifiersáand thus, a real point of differentiation. Structural packaging can refer back to the brand in both subtle and no-so-subtle ways. Expert package designers are able to not only develop unique, differentiated packaging systems; they are able to leverage the emotional motivators of the brand and strongly identify the packaging with the brand in the consumer's mind.

Structural packaging engages the senses. A strong visual presence on the shelf prompts the customer to pick up the product since it offers tactile sensations. Once the package is in hand, the consumer is one step from purchase.

Packaging that makes the brand and all of its authentic assets tangible to the consumer can and should connect brands with them like nothing else can. When consumers become emotionally involved with brands, their interaction evolves into a brand dialogue and the formation of ever-deepening relationships based on trust, enjoyment and the ability to meet their emotional needs. This results in profound levels of brand loyalty over time. In the end, of course, nothing delivers a brand strategy like the package.

Ted Mininni is president of Design Force Inc., a metro New York area consultancy that specializes in brand identity, package design, and consumer promotion campaigns for the food and beverage and toy and entertainment industries. Ted can be reached at 856-810-2277, or online at