Strategies & Insights

Stripped-Down Design Done Right

Posted: March 8, 2011 by
Ted Mininni

“Simplify” has been the rallying cry for a while now, and consumers continue to place more value on products that deliver real solutions in simply stated terms. What helps deliver those solutions?
Simplified packaging.
But there’s an important point about simplicity that’s often lost on package design creatives. While many see simple package execution as a fresh departure enabling them to create something that’s striking or beautiful, that really isn’t the point at all. The focus should be on delivering the brand, the product, and its values to the consumer in a clarified, succinct manner. Not for the sake of aesthetics, but because that’s what the consumer wants and expects. It’s what they’re responding to now.

Concise and succinct
A company should be able to distill its brand and each sub-brand in its portfolio down to a few short words. From there, the most important asset, or assets, of every branded product must be communicated on packaging. Often, only one or two assets need be communicated. Focus, clarity, and brevity matter. Why? When consumers shop, studies show they make choices in a very short time and ignore up to two-thirds of category products in retail environments.
These statistics point to the reason so many products fail in the marketplace. There’s way too much noise at retail and nothing stands out. Do marketers really think throwing everything but the kitchen sink into their packaging is going to induce consumers to purchase their products? Think again.
In this era of complicated messaging, clear and succinct brand communication stands out—and stands apart. Companies that establish successful brand strategies emphasizing a central concept can own their space. Its products or services are an extension of a simple idea powerfully communicated.
Think about dominant brands like Google, Apple, McDonald’s, Ikea, and Gillette. Then think of umbrella brands with portfolios of sub-brands like Kellogg’s, Heinz, L’Oreal, Disney, and Kraft. All of these do a masterful job of simply but powerfully communicating a brand message by using effective brand communication in their product packaging.

If it were easy…
You may ask: Given the power of simple clarity, why don’t more marketers strive for it? For one thing, it’s hard work to be simple. It takes considerable effort to whittle brands down to their essence.
And often, brand managers think the more communication they impart about their products, the better. If one message doesn’t resonate with consumers, another will…right?
No, that isn’t right. Let’s remember that the idea of trying to appeal to everyone makes it impossible to hit the mark with anyone. It’s critical to find the answers to these questions before undertaking any packaging refresh: Which aspect or aspects of the brand do consumers value most? What solution does the product provide or what need does it fulfill for the customer? Which aspects of the packaging do customers associate with this brand and product? Which aspects fail to make that connection?
Simple has to be done right, as Tropicana and Kraft have demonstrated. Tropicana tragically traded the visual brand assets that distinguished the brand for a generic, minimalistic, trendy package design. That experiment lasted mere weeks.
Similarly, Kraft “contemporized” its shredded cheese packaging with a generic-looking package where chunks of cheese appeared on a white background. The impact of Kraft’s familiar, bold colors on the immediately recognizable blue background was lost completely, and Kraft had to reconsider its move away from its heritage.
This leads us back, full circle, to the importance of leveraging brand value, and to demonstrating that value to the customer—both simply and effectively. Expert design teams employ signature color, icons or imagery, package structure, typography, and perhaps tactile packaging substrates along with a strongly placed brand mark to create one-of-a-kind packaging within a product category.
Every package element, along with carefully chosen brand communication, adds up to a dealmaker or deal breaker. The key to success is deleting what isn’t absolutely necessary while retaining the heritage aspects identified with the brand, even as it’s distilled to its core essence in new packaging or a package refresh. If packaging doesn’t connect with the targeted customer, it’s a failure, no matter how beautifully it’s designed.

Getting It Right
Some brands are clearly doing an excellent job of communicating one overriding message and extending it into their product packaging. Some are successfully demonstrating the value that consumers are hungry for. These brands say “Here’s the solution to your current need” in simply communicated terms with packaging to match. Here are a few:

Campbell’s basic soups
The simple signature red and white labels and a clean visual of each offering, signifying: “Back to the simple goodness of farm-raised produce.”

Häagen-Dazs Five
“Just five ingredients” and no added chemicals in premium ice cream, innovatively implied strongly—but indirectly.

Absolut Naked
A stripped-down bottle dares to show the vodka clearly and little else, with the inference: “basic, pure, clean.” The quality expression of the brand comes through even without the familiar logo.

Huggies Natural Care
There’s no need to get fancy or elaborate when expressing a pure and natural message. Simple message: “hypoallergenic and made of organic cotton with soothing vitamin E and aloe.”

Ted Mininni is president of Design Force Inc. (, a brand design consultancy to consumer product companies.