In The Visionary Package, branding and packaging consultants Herbert Meyers and Richard Gerstman argue that package design is the same as the branding of products and product lines (Palgrave, New York, 2005). This picks up from an idea first proposed by the late package designer Walter Landor in the middle of the last century.
According to Landor's daughter, Susan Landor Keegin, "Walter's overriding view was that everything you project into the world goes toward creating your brand. Each little piece is of equal importance, equal weight, and has to be appropriate to the audience it is reaching or the message it is trying to promote." Keegin adds, "The idea of branding the whole line started early. It was logical to him."
"Packaging is branding," says Gerstman, Chairman Emeritus of Interbrand US, by telephone. "The brand identity in itself is much more than just a logo. The brand identity is a lot of things, which eventually lead to what I call that brand promise and the reason people buy a brand -- value, acceptance and loyalty. The package reflects that. It identifies that product and the brand, and promotes the confidence in the brand."
But Darrel Rhea, Principal and CEO of the branding and packaging consultancy Cheskin, would seem to disagree. "Packaging and branding are different things," he writes by email. "Packaging is only one expression of the brand. In many product categories, it is a very important element and may even be the primary way people interact with the brand…. One should start with a compelling brand definition, one that really connects with people on a deep level. Packaging should then be used to reinforce that definition. Those who use a package design to define the positioning of a brand usually get into trouble as they apply the brand in other media."
Oddly enough, these two points of view actually dovetail more than they diverge. Their differences, as well as their reconciliation, can be traced to the fact that for many years packaging designers treated the package as having a persona -- a face projected by the package that facilitated consumer interaction but which was distinct from the true brand personality.
The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung first advanced the notion that a personality could conceal itself behind a persona -- or mask -- in the early part of the twentieth century. Jung argued that the persona is a false personality that individuals adopt to facilitate social interactions. Although the mask takes the rough edges off interpersonal relationships, it also poses a risk that the wearer will mistake it for his or her true personality.
Through an on-going process Jung referred to as individuation, Jung encouraged his patients to work through their personae so that they could project their true personalities to the outside world. As Jung wrote in 1920, "If man were an individual he would have an unvarying character. By identifying with the moment, he deceives others and himself about his real character. He wears a mask that he knows corresponds with his conscious intentions, and which meets the opinions and requirements of his environment. The mask is the persona. The mask is not the same as individuality" (Psychological Types, Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1920).
There are numerous tie-ins between Jung's theories and packaging design. In The Total Package, for example, packaging historian Thomas Hine suggested that putting faces on packages at the beginning of the 1900s (e.g., Aunt Jemima) was part of a transition from judging people based on true personality to judging them based on persona (Little, Brown and Co., Boston, 1995). The true personality had come to be visible only to people living within stable communities, and the persona allowed strangers displaced by the social disruptions of the late nineteenth century to interact with relative anonymity.
Modern packaging had the effect of allowing consumers to minimize their human interactions in the marketplace, just as the human persona had the effect of reducing social intimacy. Consumers could get information from package labels that they had previously relied upon shopkeepers for. Shopping became less time-consuming and less of an emotional drain when shoppers no longer felt compelled to share personal information with the grocer each time they visited his store. Packages were especially attractive to people newly arrived in cities because labeled packages could often be trusted more than could unknown shopkeepers.
Over time, the ability to trust packages gave way to consumer confidence in them, and trust became less of a selling point. Manufacturers instead began targeting the emotions of consumers in an attempt to promote new sales. Breakfast foods, for example, were now marketed to make parents feel good when serving them to their children. But the bedrock of these emotional marketing appeals remained the confidence the consumers retained in the packages.
By the middle of the century, packages all too often seemed to be shouting across the aisles at each other in attempts to draw the consumer's attention away from the competition. Cereal boxes, for example, had become more like billboards than containers. The package was very much a mask that could be, and frequently was, changed at will. Little thought was given by package designers to building integrated branding and packaging strategies because their focus was on increasing day-to-day sales.
As a need for building long-term branding strategies was recognized, packaging designers like Walter Landor argued that the brand personality expressed by the package should be the same personality that reached the consumer through other media. In order to achieve this goal, the ephemeral packaging persona had to give way to an expression of brand personality. A consistent projection of the brand's personality in the package, and wherever else the brand was encountered, was far more reassuring to the consumer than a persona that was constantly changing.
There are now more ways than ever for brands to make contact with consumers. Modern marketing strategies, for example, may rely heavily on public relations, direct mail, email, the Internet and networking. Denise Klarquist, vice president of marketing at Cheskin, feels that this development means that the branded package can no longer express itself in an idiosyncratic way. "There are just too many channels that a brand [...] exposes [itself] through," she says. "You lack control, and your audience starts to take over. You become the experience. I think that's what's changing. Brands really are much more than just a particular expression."
Not all corporate packaging strategies reflect the same level of integration, however. Gerstman points to Amazon.com as an example. "You can recognize the Amazon brand on the Internet because they have their own color scheme. The layout that they use is very recognizable. You could say that's the Amazon package. Of course, the other package is the package you receive when you order a book."
That other package happens to be a nondescript cardboard box with only the logo in black to distinguish it from other brown boxes. According to Gerstman, FedEx does a better job of packaging integration. "When you go to your office," he says, "the first thing you see on your desk is the FedEx package. It's so recognizable. FedEx really has done a marvelous job. In theory Amazon could do that."
Ancestral to Amazon's cardboard shipping boxes, the earliest packages are believed to have been bundles that people used to transport goods from one place to another. While many modern packages continue to be used for that purpose (you couldn't after all transport bottled water very easily without the bottle), packaging is now much more about communicating with consumers than it is about transporting goods.
In terms of communication, however, modern packages are inherently bundles of contradictions. They engage us consciously and unconsciously. They are physical structures but at the same time they are very much about illusion. They appeal to our emotions as well as to our reason. But such contradictions must be reconciled at the point of purchase.
The well-designed package does just this. When we need to make shopping decisions quickly, we yield to our emotions. If our initial favorable emotional response to a package is then reinforced by a familiar, confidence-inspiring brand logo, we will have all the more reason to make the purchase. For this sort of synergy to occur, however, the package design and brand personality must converge. Anything less and the package is persona non grata.
Randall Frost, a freelance writer based in Pleasanton, California, is the author of The Globalization of Trade. His work has appeared in Worth, The New England Financial Journal, CBSHealthWatch and a variety of educational publications.