Design Packaging: Emerging Visual Codes (Part 3 of 3)

February 9, 2018 — Krisana Jaritsat

In Part 3 of our 3-Parter blog series examining packaging design, Vannett Li and Krisana Jaritsat look at emerging design cues brands are exploring as they try to stand out on both a literal and digital shelf.


Packaging’s role on shelf is to attract, engage, and sell. When brick and mortar was the de facto shopping destination for consumers, standing out on  sometimes, a literal shelf in a supermarket or grocery store was one of the primary goals of how brands approached traditional packaging.  Category cliches and functional claims were prioritized over the brand resulting in a sea of uniformity and neon violators shouting “NEW”, “ORGANIC”, “IMPROVED”. Physical constraints of the shelf discouraged innovative structures. An overwhelming amount of brands assaulting the consumer from every angle prevented marketers from launching bold and daring designs in fear that the consumer won’t be able to reliably find their brand. Shopping in store was purely transactional.

However, as shopping migrated online and e-commerce exploding, new considerations had to be made by brands. Design decisions had to reflect and address such issues such as whether your goods were sold on websites like Amazon versus DTC on your own website or how your brands would spread via social media websites like Instagram or Pinterest. However, as result, it’s never been easier and cheaper for a new brand to speak to and build a customer base solely online. Suddenly, packaging design became free from the challenges of a crowded retail environment and the strict constraints of the shelf; instead it could solely focus on engaging the consumer. Brands began utilizing programmable algorithms and digital printing to create limitless design to delight consumers. Two great examples over the past few years was Absolut Vodka, one of the first brands to introduce a limited edition range of four million uniquely decorated bottles in 2012, and Coca-Cola which mass-personalize their bottles by replacing the logo with 250 of the most popular American names via their 2014 ‘Share a Coke’ campaign.

Many other brands have taken advantage of the digital medium to create packaging that not only serves a function but further connect with their brands in interesting and experiential ways. We’ve identified three emerging visual codes – Personalized Flair, Unshackled Creativity, and No BS– that will be particularly interesting to keep an eye on.

Personalized Flair

When something is made especially for you, it is instantly more special than any mass design – no matter how many million variations may be out there. It’s exactly how you want it, no alternations or adjustments needed. More importantly you’ve invested the time to create it and the brand has invested time in getting to know you. That’s a pretty powerful bond.

Kellogg’s Bear Naked introduced their Custom Made Granola offering in 2016 with the help of IBM Watson. Consumers can choose from 50+ ingredients to create their custom blend or allow “Chef Watson” to suggest a blend based on their personal flavor preferences. After you finalized your custom blend, Bear Naked lets you to name your blend and select one of five bear illustrations to represent your creation.

Without the challenges and constraints of an in-store environment, Bear Naked’s Custom Made Granola packaging has the permission to take on a much more confident design. The Bear Naked bear is bear is front and center without being overcrowded by claims. The plastic pouch with a window has been traded up for a premium tin as communicating taste appeal is not a necessity. Paired with bold box and a handwritten note, Bear Naked’s Custom Made Granola is a superior brand experience.

New York based startup Function of Beauty is giving its consumers the ability to customize their shampoo and conditioner. Consumers start with a quiz to build your hair profile and tell the brand about your hair goals. Once your profile is complete, you can customize your formulas via scent, fragrance strength and color. A couple of days later, your shampoo and conditioner arrive in a beautifully designed box with directions for washing and conditioning, a full list of ingredients, and two pumps. The inside of the box reminds you to “celebrate individuality.”

Unshackled Creativity

The combination of digital disruption and the increasingly design-conscious consumer have both allowed and pushed brands to tinker with any traditional notions and constraints of packaging. A website like The Dieline provide forums for design lovers to analyze and comment on every single detail of a package from the front choices of the ingredients list, the merits logo sizes to the specific Pantone hue chosen for a carton label.

Dirty Lemon, a New York based beverage company specializing in detoxifying beverages infused with collagen, ginseng and charcoal, houses its liquids in bottles seemingly inspired by the artist Piet Mondrian .  The bright colors and geometric designs of the package are tailored-made for the “Instagram generation”- which may be apart of the business strategy itself. In an interview with the fitness and lifestyle blog, The Path, founder Zak Normadin (who comes from an advertising background nonetheless) admits the beginning of his product research started on Instagram, analyzing how his targeted Millennial demographic’s behavior on the platform.

Interestingly, with close to 60K followers currently on the platform, the brand posts very few images of the hero bottle itself and instead, choose to highlight wellness and aspirational living. However, a quick search of the brand’s hashtag reveals numerous images of the bottle, carefully art directed against a bare background or lovingly held in hand, by it consumers.  Who would’ve thought charcoal-infused water could look so beautiful?

Dollar Shave Club, the razor and personal grooming products, began as a VC backed company with a humble value proposition. The brand, started in 2011 by founders who met at a party, delivered razors to consumers via a monthly subscription. The products had cheeky names like “The Humble Twin” or “The Executive” (razors) and “Boogie’s” (hair products); five years later, in 2016, they were acquired by Unilever for reportedly $1 billion in cash.

Dollar Shave Club’s unconventional journey, beginning with a unique DTC offer was perhaps indicative of its overall unique marketing. The brand’s irreverent sense of humor is clear in its initial efforts with video marketing – one of its first videos is titled “Our Blades are F***ing Great” – to its social media-ready Welcome Kits and various packaging collateral . By understanding that not only does an unconventional brand deserve unconventional branding but that its brand voice must be consistent throughout its marketing ecosystem, Dollar Shave Club uses its packaging as a method of reiterating its brand time and time again- and often in hilarious ways.

Thinx is a brand challenging not just traditional notions of product category but of how a product category can be marketed. Self described as period-proof underwear, Thinx is attempting to compete against the entire feminine product category. The majority of marketing for menstruation products is focused on empowerment, activity or the “logistics” of how the product works itself. Thinx approaches menstruation straightforwardly in both its marketing and packaging, sometimes in a cheeky manner (i.e grapefruit and eggs as subject matter, illustrated cartoons as directions) in elegantly muted and sophisticated color tones and photography. While the packages itself may not be as Instagrammable as other brands (which may be more so a result of societal attitudes towards mensturation), they do challenge how a product, often treated as a taboo product, is creatively presented, marketed and communicated about.


Alongside bespoke-ness and creativity, we can address the opposite end of the spectrum: straight-forward, to-the-point, no BS branding. Nowadays, we are repeatedly told of the lack of loyalty customers seemingly have towards brands. The culprit?  Possibly a number of factors- newer generations valuing experiences thus paying less attention to stiff  (and the name on the stuff), more competitive pricing as a result of the number of SKU’s available, consumer desire to align with a brand’s bigger value and purpose to the world, who really knows?

What we do know though is the marketplace’s reaction. Not just through products made and sold but how its marketed and packaged. A recent entry into essentially the private label business is Brandless. Launched in Spring/Summer 2017, the e-commerce DTC startup offered an interesting proposition: household and food items all priced at $3. Sans logo or “name” (Is Brandless the name or the notion? Both?), the company sells its products in minimally designed packaging with the product name “Maple Syrup” and “Gel Hand Soap” featured front and centered. Not to say the designs aren’t aesthetically pleasing, they are generic yet pleasant. In bypassing all traditional norms of what constitutes the beginnings of a brand- Logo? Name? Easily identifiable aesthetic? – instead, Brandless focuses its spotlight on its unique and peerless brand proposition. Perhaps the new emerging visual code of packaging is none at all?

The new opportunities that digital provides for brands to connect is unprecedented and uncharted. The traditional functionality that packaging previously provided is now replaced with various ways to entertain, inform, and thoughtfully market not just the product or service being sold but additionally, the brand’s values, intentions and point of view. If done correctly, the experience and design of a package can also have a second life as an emblem for the consumer. If you’re lucky, you too may find your bottle or bag on a buyer’s Instagram’s page….and hopefully they’re remember to hashtag your brand correctly.

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