Dear CMO:

I have a confession to make. I hope you understand why I have to get this off my chest, because your role in your company makes you the only one I can talk to about my irrational, implacable hatred of bad packaging. Maybe it was my upbringing. I learned good habits early, and in a category with 6% gross margins, we all learned to live on a little less marketing budget than the guys down the hall. Packaging is what we had, because you don’t run Super Bowl ads off a 6% GP product category. So I hate it when brands throw packaging away.

My condition gets even worse when I’m told, usually with a self-assured smile, that “we tested the packaging in a few focus groups.” Testing packaging in a focus group is an oxymoron. “Those eight people in Fresno just LOVED it! Did you SEE that one guy’s reaction?”

For the record, Officer, what is the sampling error on a sample size of eight? Oh.

Packaging is what stands between the hundreds of man-hours of development, preparation and launch, and your lack of sell-through. It can be a neon signpost or camouflage. And, at worst, it can be as pleasant as a wad of spinach between your product’s teeth. My advice? Packaging is the moral equivalent of finishing well. Make it a functional strength of your company and yourself, personally. This is branding in real life. So here are a few thoughts that may help you avoid the worst of it all.

I love agency people, I just never know how much to tip them.

It’s an old joke, but there’s a kernel of truth in there. In reality (yes, it was just a joke…), agencies are for-profit companies. You need to grasp this fact before what happens next makes sense.

They will wow you with work they’ve done before, spend as little time on your assignment as possible, get paid as much as they can negotiate, and then move on to the next assignment with you or someone else. This does not make them bad. They are business people. But it may run counter to what you need. Packaging agencies will do what looks good to them, using whatever information you give them. They are usually dead-set against testing (rework, more revision, no new billing. And, it can hurt the tender feelings of your creatives, who are very, very easy to offend). And they will present you with multiple variations of ideas, all of which are one degree away from each other. Unless you steer them in the right direction.

“Which hill do you think is best, General Custer?”

The no-testing methodology usually concludes with a group of internal experts picking the design their agency hands them because they all agree that they ‘know which one is best.’ The herd then thunders forward with the often-wrong-but-never-in-doubt certainty of the best of our profession. Occasionally towards a cliff.

Testing means you’ve done something that can be projected to your total relevant population. It doesn’t mean you spent a day in Fresno and therefore earned the right to check the box. Testing is what tells you that your public has picked a design that moves the needle. And, I guarantee you, you will not know which design is best until you do the testing. Therefore, please take note because an important lesson is about to be imparted: you must quantitatively test your designs, you must test different designs, you must ensure that your relevant users are the ones giving you their opinions, and you must do all this in a way that mirrors how these consumers will be exposed to your product in the real world.

A direction to follow: The Compass

So how do you approach this problem? This is an important step and one that we spent a lot of time on at Sony back in the day. Over several hours one day in the Sony Design Center in Park Ridge, New Jersey, three of us developed the methodology that ran our packaging process for roughly the next ten years.

Think of a compass. North and South are diametric opposites, as are East and West. You, as the marketer, need to define what those polar opposites are. These opposites need to be clear, well-defined, but simple, because they are the marching orders for the creatives. What two axes need to be defined? North may be ‘copy intensive’ and South ‘iconic’. East may be ‘classically branded per corporate guidelines’ and West may be ‘completely pushing the design envelope as far as the designer can.’ It doesn’t have to be technical, narrow, or complex. It does have to provide discrimination between the directions.

Now, a designer gets to try a few designs, knowing what you’re looking for. He may develop an iconic (few words, one glance tells it all) design that closely adheres to the current branding guidelines. This would be an entry in the Southeast quadrant. Don’t go picking five more designs in the Southeast to test. You’ve got this one covered.

Some designers may focus on one area alone and others will cut across different areas. Designers are funny that way. They will quickly self-select areas in which they are comfortable working. Classic guys do beautiful, elegant designs. Others will show you a plain white box with a ghosted image of an oak leaf, and no text, quietly place it in the center of your desk, and silently leave the room. Creatives.

Why does this approach work? It forces you, and your creative team, to explore the options. If you’re working with an agency, hold them to this assignment. Make sure they get what you’re telling them. If they cop out and give you one Southwest design, send them back with a very stern scolding.

Black is the new black, but, oddly, isn’t flattering in low light.

While this may seem strange to all of us who can’t mix patterns without help, it is an unfortunate fact in package testing and is something you should deal with before you finish up your concepting. Black tests beautifully well when viewed from close up, by itself, in good light. So does my personal testing favorite, indigo blue. Here’s the problem: done wrong, it will create a black (or indigo blue) hole in the planogram in a store under bad lighting. You will walk right past it. Don’t rely too heavily on black and make sure you test in a real live planogram environment.


The cold scrutiny of your uncaring public comes next. Test a minimum of four new designs from your compass against each other. Also test them against your current package. And against your key competition. You should be beating both your current and competition’s current packaging by a lot, if you’ve done your homework. If not, re- work and re-test. Test against your current brand image. Test against the attributes you wish your brand had. Test against the ones you don’t want to have, too. Figure out what your new packaging is saying to your customers. Does it say, “expensive”, “high quality”, “easy to use”, “is for people like me”, “will be hard to use”, “comes from a company I trust”, or what?

Test your designs against a relevant sample size of the right people. In most technology products, geography doesn’t make much difference, but split your locations anyway. It just makes us feel better. Age and gender, however, often do matter. You will find subtle differences in ethnic oversampling, as well. For example, I’ve consistently seen Hispanic consumers go for bigger branding statements and the color gold, believe it or not. Make sure you test on a gondola if you’re a consumer packaged good or in a similar visual environment to what your customer will face in the market.

And when you’ve got this stuff nailed down, button up your final package and aggressively sell the entire process to your channel partners. Tell them how much went into the design development and specifically what their customers told you about how much they gravitated to this new design.
Ask them how many of your competitors have given them this kind of presentation. Give them a chance to provide feedback, but only in areas that relate to their operational needs. This is important. The guy across the desk truly believes he is an expert, and he is not. He is a buyer who knows less about your product than you know about nuclear physics. You just did an exhaustive analysis down to the most specific details, so impress him with your category expertise. The channel can give you some great ideas in those areas they know. I once had a buyer at Target suggest we put a small, colored stripe on the spine of the product so that his stock people could tell one SKU from another on a peg. A great addition and we were the only brand who had it, as a result.

Packaging is too important to any appropriately armed and educated CMO to casually discard. Consumer take rate, channel loyalty and the creation and nurturing of iconic recognition in the marketplace are your rewards, but they require an investment in time, resources and willpower to make happen. The good news is that once you’ve got it in hand, the architecture allows for minor tweaks going forwards. Core packaging needs to be redone every 18 months in the US and has to be spun as often as every six months in Japan. Get your architecture right from the start and make life easier for yourself.

One marketing pundit calculated that one incremental percent of brand equity equals one incremental percent of company valuation. Keep this in mind as you think about whether you have the time to squeeze in some packaging research. Do the heavy lifting. “See the job at hand well done.”

You will know that you’ve taken this lesson to heart when you brag about the packaging before you actually demo the product to your friends and fellow pundits.


Copyright © 2006 Stephen Denny