Strategies & Insights

Simple Can Be Complicated

Posted: August 22, 2011 by
Ron Romanik

We’re all familiar with brands that can be represented by the most basic of forms. They represent an elusive goal of package design where all the quality expectations and consumer aspirations of a brand are contained in one wordless icon.

Imagine a paperboard box with a bow on it. Now imagine the box is pale blue with a white bow, or tan plaid with a red bow, or reflective gold with a brown bow. The brands immediately come to mind: Tiffany’s, Burberry, Godiva. The questions that pop to mind: How did they get to that iconic place? Is it possible today to develop a brand from scratch with that ideal end goal in mind? Can a “mass-tige” brand transition into an iconic form?

Certainly, the brands mentioned above have decades of history and heritage that helped mold the brand into its present-day form. Nevertheless, there are some eternal lessons of iconic luxury brands that can be applied at any time, if implemented with purpose and care.

Getting down to basics
Robert Bergman, founder of Bergman Associates design firm, believes that if you want to make any brand successful, complication is always self-destructive. “It’s a precise recipe combining consistency, cleanliness, and simplicity that reinforces any brand’s strength,” Bergman says. “And in the prestige market, it’s in large part the branding that you’re actually selling.”

Marc Rosen, principal of the Marc Rosen Associates design firm, holds up Chanel as the timeless standard. “The black with the gold band is iconic,” Rosen says. “The outer packaging is very important, even critical. A woman in the know, she doesn’t have to be told what the brand is.”

It’s impossible to say how much consumer preferences guided the evolution of the most iconic packages, but there must be some latitude to experiment, explore, and evolve. Rosen explains that iconic brands carry with them many consumer expectations, but small package surprises can keep loyal consumers engaged. A plain white box interior where a pattern is expected can create a fresh, clean brand experience.

Jana Reichle, principal at the Berard Associates design firm, says common mistakes in attempting to create or maintain an iconic brand are overcomplicating the packaging and paying too little attention to the quality of the packaging materials and structure. “It’s always the little details that make great design,” says Reichle, “and there’s a fine line between elegant and over-packaged.” In focus groups, she says, consumers may tell you that they want six different things in their product and package, but they really want only one thing—a unique brand experience.

Didier Saco of Didier Saco Design in Paris also sees “less and less” as a trend as brand owners try to reduce the number of colors, varnishes, and, if possible, packaging components. Consumers expect an immediate payoff for the investment of time, money, and commitment to the brand. “The boutique package perspective is to try to create packages that tell stories, to build stories like fairy tales,” Saco says.

Banking on a color
By telling a story through packaging with fewer words, the shape and color then carry more psychological weight with the viewer. “We’re always trying to make things a little more minimal,” Reichle emphasizes, “and having a signature color really makes a big difference.” Luxury brands in particular are capable of owning a color, such as the quick success of the Frederic Fekkai brand, which started with common shapes but committed from the outset to a single signature shade of “Provencal” blue.

The story of the Laura Mercier brand illustrates how colors (shimmery brown and beige, in this case) can help the launch of a successful product transition into an iconic form. Berard Associates recently simplified the logo and packaging for Mercier, but it certainly helped that the brand had a singular strength in consumers’ minds, both in the brand colors and in the company philosophy. Its foundation was in foundations, as it were. “Laura Mercier’s mission of ‘flawless finish’ really stands for something,” Reichle says.

For Godiva, the color gold stands for the entire brand, as even the stores are often gilded, compact boutique spaces. The Godiva gold box is the anchor for the entire brand, conveying richness and romance, and the brand name often has a secondary role on the package. Reichle explains, though, that Godiva is exceptional because it has a remarkably large number of valuable brand assets, such as a solo “G,” a chocolate-brown bow, or “depuis 1926” that are interchangeable on products and packages. Of course, Godiva has also created extensive guidelines on how those assets are used for both internal designers and external agencies. “You can use a combination of those assets, and the brand is equally strong,” Reichle explains.

Less is always less
Just as Target is able to drop the word “Target” from its logo and still be instantly recognized, many brands would love to believe they’ve cultivated a standalone image in branding or packaging. Levi’s, for example, has begun to drop its name from its red logo shape, which mimics the stitching on the back pockets of its jeans. However, Bergman stresses that the visual languages of each segment—mass, mass-tige, and prestige—are very different.

For example, a mid-tier personal care brand cannot suddenly decide it wants to put forward a minimalist mystique without consumers noticing the inappropriate stretch. Nevertheless, Bergman believes that, across the board, consumer taste is evolving rapidly toward modern, beautiful packaging that says: “This is a quality product.”

Quality today also often means being more responsible, and the green movement has definitely moved into luxury. Many luxury brands have begun their more sustainable journey by supporting causes and doing good by association. But Reichle sees opportunities for designers and suppliers to partner together to push innovation for better recycled materials, more eco finishes, packaging reduction, and new solutions for refills. “Increasingly, the significance of packaging will include what it does not do,” she says.

Bergman explains that the luxury consumer is usually also the more informed consumer. This segment is demanding more recycled materials, and brand owners that use more sustainable materials can add value to the selling proposition. Rosen agrees, but only to a point. “The luxury consumer still wants a beautiful package,” he says, “and she is willing to look the other way for the most part.”

Curtis Packaging, Sandy Hook, CT, is a carbon neutral site that offers many options for recycled content paperboard for the luxury and boutique markets. Don Droppo, Jr., CEO of Curtis, has noticed that brand owners are increasingly asking about a wide range of packaging attributes in addition to price and quality—including sustainability.

“Some of our proprietary innovations achieve traditional effects with enhanced recyclability,” says Droppo. He notes that one Kenneth Cole Black project transitioned the brand’s signature minimalist-but-reflective black carton from film lamination to a Curtis’ PianoBlack process. The company used deep, rich black ink from Japan and brilliant, high-gloss coating to actually enhance the clean presentation, save money, and make the package more sustainable than the previous Kenneth Cole package.

Bionée founder Ewa Asmar chose the lotus symbol to represent her brand for several reasons, one of which was planning for an international retail presence. The lotus’ meaning of rebirth fit perfectly with her products, which are personal care formulas for pregnancy, maternity, and babies.
Bionée keeps the Ecocert organic-certified, child-safe brand mission consistent with sustainable packaging solutions, such as recyclable bottles and FSC-certified folding cartons that require no glue. With the help of Lebanese designer Nayla Yehia, the lotus came to life as illustrations on the bottles and as a simple and elegant lotus-topped folding carton. “The lotus flower is a very strong symbol all around the world,” says Asmar. “Everybody sees the link between the product, its benefits, and the branding.”