Strategies & Insights

The Shape of Things

Posted: September 17, 2009 by
Stuart Leslie

Structural Branding and product profitability go hand in hand. This form of product branding has the greatest potential impact on the profitability of a product over any branding tool available. If approached correctly, a package can better communicate the product benefits and provide a clear competitive advantage.

When package costs can be reduced, and manufacturing efficiencies improved at the same time, product profit margins can grow dramatically. Higher margins + growing sales volumes = greater profits!

There are three distinctive approaches available when undertaking a Structural Branding program—each with an impact on product profitability.

Improve visual brand communication

While most consumers are not really aware of it, their opinion of a product's performance is greatly impacted by how it looks and feels. Package form has a language all its own—and it is fairly universal. Attributes such as "natural ingredients," "gentle on your clothes," "energy kick," and even "will help you meet girls!" are all communicated with product form. Years of consumer testing and product performance evaluations have demonstrated that a product will "taste better," "glue stronger," "last longer," or just all around "work better" in a consumers mind based on physical cues provided by the packaging.

For the SkinMedica line of cosmeceuticals, the packaging was recently designed to communicate the scientific foundation behind the products, while also fitting the brand's premium price point. A form language hinting at graduated cylinders in a platinum metallic resin was the key to providing this message.

A few years ago, new packaging for the global Gatorade brand helped reinforce the imagery of a sports functional beverage. Design cues from sports equipment were integrated into the functional hot-fill panels to differentiate the product from just another beverage into an essential piece of sports equipment. Global sales volumes increased dramatically in each market with the launch of the new packages.

The Tag line of deodorant products targeted young men with an unspoken promise of "helping you meet girls." A gloss black simple form with masculine grip details supported this positioning very effectively. Certainly it is "not your father's deodorant."

The key to effective visual brand communication is in understanding what is important to your consumer and then creating a clear message to communicate to them. In qualitative testing of early solutions, avoid questions such as "Which of these do you like the best?" in favor of questions that measure the key brand attributes such as "Which of these do you think are fresher products?; "Which are more natural?"; or "Which are better for you?"

Improve product function

Some products can provide a product delivery solution that becomes integral to the brand itself. This enables a functional feature to be tied to the brand directly, making it more difficult for competitors to imitate. It also allows the package to better grab consumers' attention on shelf due to its unique appearance.

In the Blink line of products recently launched by Honeywell, the package forms tell consumers that "ordinary products" have been reconfigured to allow them to function effectively in their car. Suddenly everything from trash bags to wipes are a necessity for the consumer since the visual cues and actual usage now meet the requirements of this new environment. They can be placed—and will stay—in locations that keep them readily available in the car.

Understanding consumers' unmet needs is the key to success. In this case, moms driving kids around all day know what a mess can be created in their car. They certainly could keep traditional kitchen bags, totes, wipes, or window cleaner stashed somewhere in their car; but when they try this, they just add to the clutter with awkward packages rolling around their car. Developing the Blink products required driving around with moms as they completed their day to day tasks to appreciate what "keeping their car clean" meant to them.

Keeping the interior of their cars clean turned out not to be "Saturday afternoon detailing" but more "quick things I can do to keep the car under control." Brainstorming with consumers using existing products in their homes-or wherever they use the products-has proven to be the most effective way to understand these unmet needs. While a consumer is "in the moment" of a task, they can better respond to what is not working for them and what they might need to better complete their task.

Improve the margins

While most other branding tools provide an almost endless pallet of possibilities (package graphics, advertising, etc.), there is not as critical a relationship between the "creative" and the "cost." Package graphics can be updated relatively inexpensively with strong confidence that the new graphics won't cost more than the old ones.

Package structures are more complex than this. They have to be handled in high-speed filling operations where the difference between a tall skinny bottle and short round bottle can possibly be measured in millions of dollars. Between capital costs and line efficiencies, this can dramatically affect the profitability of a product line. Designing a package that provides the maximum consumer experience while costing "just enough" to achieve this is where the science turns to art. A strong technical foundation is required to work hand in hand with an innovative creative team.

For Unilever's Suave brand, the goal was to reduce cost and improve margins while maintaining brand equities. By working closely with the marketing, R&D, and operations teams, we were able to develop a line of packages that significantly reduced component costs, increased manufacturing efficiencies, and ended up driving sales volume as well. The key was a thoroughly developed foundation with cost savings strategies, well defined consumer target and clear project objectives. The program resulted in a dollar volume growth for the line in addition to the significant cost savings.

To be successful here requires a collaborative full team effort. The R&D and operations teams need to have a clear understanding of what impacts their line efficiencies and component costs. If line changes are required, how can their impact be minimized? Studying the product filling line and brainstorming on the spot is mandatory here. The operations team often has great ideas of their own for cost reducing, but we have found that when paired with a strong creative team their knowledge and insights can be invaluable.

Utilizing these three approaches, Structural Branding can be utilized to enhance any product's profitability dramatically. An effective process, collaborative team, well-focused consumer research, and clear project objectives will help ensure any product team can be successful with exciting branding opportunities such as those mentioned here.

Stuart Leslie is president of 4sight inc., a New York City firm specializing in Structural Brandingª, creating competitive advantage through innovative structural packaging design. He can be reached at