Breaking The Rules!


by James Whittaker, Design Bridge

The brief comes in: ‘We want to be different! We want to change the rules! We want to be disruptive!’ A cool brief and a chance to really do something different! This type of brief is normally warmly received by designers and the ability to step outside the often restrictive category format is a welcome opportunity to flex creative muscle and inspire in categories sorely lacking new thinking. However, if approached poorly this brief can easily result in high flying design concepts that miss the brief, don’t deliver on brand and in some cases end the client relationship!

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Now briefs like this are fine and being or doing ‘different’ is not actually that difficult. Changing

attributes to refresh a product or pack is relatively easy, however doing ‘different’ and remaining true to the brand and business vision is a harder thing to do. For designers, there are many decisions that need to be made here in order to fulfil all aspects of this brief.

The decisions might be in the areas of type, colour, image, detail, material, proportion or scale and apply to all dimensions of the pack. But when this request lands hard on the desk of 3D branding designers, the brief of ‘we want to be different’ contains a potentially difficult question that lies partly in the creative arena and partly in implementation, namely how far should you innovate in relation to the category format?

Now this might have been a simple question many years ago when soup came in cans, butter in paper and milk in bottles and when consumers had different needs. But today this is more complicated and taking soup as an example, you can now get it in a can, a pouch, a tetra or a bottle like Heinz’s tomato soup among others. Today, format proliferation is rife!

Revisiting the question then that faces the designer, the cool brief is just dying for a step change, so what are the consequences of moving the brand to a new format?

Looking at the consumer experience first, general confusion both in store and in the hand would be the one of the largest concerns. Not being immediately recognisable as ‘wine’ in those vital seconds at fixture and risking not even being seen at all is a big motivator for staying in-format. Additionally if the new format is at all confusing to use then this can also be a big turn off for consumers used to familiar pack interaction.

Yes consumers are more flexible than ever before regarding certain product formats and wine is a good example of breaking the category rule, but equally there are other products like beer that it would be hard to accept in a suitable bag-in-box for example.

For the client a change in format would have effects too in many areas but largely in brand, supply chain and cost of goods.

Brand wise there are frequently strong connections between a brand and the 3D form/format that daren’t be broken. Nescafe is a classic example with its enduring glass jar remaining the icon for the brand and moving to a new format in this case would arguably be disastrous and remove a lot of equity. However the format also needs to ‘fit’ the brand. Is it too innovative or modern for the brand for example? This is relevant for higher tier brands where the more premium the brand, the more conservative or traditional (but exquisitely crafted) the format. The $4500 Louis XIII Bacarat cognac is a great example of this – it is still a bottle in a box, but what an experience!

For supply chain, the parameters are somewhat different, depending in part on their outsourcing strategy. For a client whose moulding, filling, sealing, labelling or palletisation are done in-house, any move to a new format would incur significant cost and disruption and need strong marketing justification in terms of brand or sales growth. (The 2 keywords here are ‘CapEx’ and ‘Risk’ and both are good reasons not to progress beyond the initial brainstorming)

If however the client subcontracts part or all of this process it then becomes more a question of relationships. Some clients have used the same external parties for years and built up intensive and very transparent relationships. A sudden move to a new supplier where the working methods, cost structuring and business culture are all unknown would be a return to square one and the relationship would need to be set up afresh. Also for the client, the existing format is typically well understood and production-optimised, thus the risk is reduced even if the existing format is pushed to certain extremes. A ‘normal’ bottle that has been highly decorated with embossed features like Beefeater’s ‘24’ could still largely behave like a normal bottle on its passage through the supply chain as opposed to a new and unfamiliar format.

The ‘Cost of goods’ (COG) is another attribute that would be a major gate to progression. Put simply, if the new format COG is higher than current then it would be a hard sell to justify this new cost. Clients tend to want to reduce cost/increase value rather than the other way around.

Finally the retailer is also affected by format change in terms of shelf layout and stocking. Retailers want to fill shelves and sell the products and being a category breaking format that disrupts the shelf layout and which consumers don’t immediately ‘get’ is a risky strategy for the retailer. Yes they like difference but only when it sells!

All of the above comes to bear in the ‘we want to be different’ brief and this veritable minefield of different requirements and complex relationships is challenging to navigate at the best of times. However consumer need and want has moved on far from the ‘butter in paper’ days of yore and brands need to refresh just to keep consumer attention in the overcrowded markets of today.

Exploring the format is one way of doing this and might appear complex, but the good news is that designers and brands are well set up to deliver on these sometimes necessary format jumps. Also, most categories are opening up with format changes that appeal and are relevant to the brands and consumers, so the horror stories where brands have misjudged the market are rare. Looking at soup, wine, chewing gum and even sugar, format exploration is happening increasingly and giving the category and consumers a sometimes welcome breath of life.

Brands are now adept at maintaining look and communication across varying formats but also when you look at designers in particular, their daily bread and butter is in balancing multiple intangibles at the same time and still coming out with genius, so they are perfectly geared up to handle the complexities inherent in this area.

Format proliferation is here to stay and judging by current events is likely to grow in the future but rest assured, this future is quite safe, in the hands of the expert rule breakers!

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