The Tyranny of Best Practices

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There was a study done in 1995 that showed that around 70% of all consumer purchasing decisions are made “at shelf” Another showed that around 80% of all consumer packaged goods (CPG) launches failed within 2 years. 

What these statistics imply is that the way CPG companies typically go about conceiving, developing, and marketing products is broken.  Remember that these are often colossal corporations with virtually unlimited resources. They have access to the best people and the best talent available, yet their average success rate is only 20%.

How could so many smart people get it so wrong?

I like to think of it as the “tyranny of best practices”. In their desire for tangible, risk free and predictable processes, they have systematically removed the tolerance for different. As the old adage says “nothing ventured nothing gained”.  What’s often left is a culture of banal, un-inspiring, risk adverse, six-sigma “incremental-ism”.

What does this mean if you are a packaging designer?

If you find yourself playing from the “best practice rule book”, expect an 80% chance of failure.  Think about that.  If you do everything “right”, utilize everything you’ve been taught and learnt in your career, follow all the rules, you’ll launch a product that is likely doomed for failure.

If the statistics are true and consumers are really making their purchasing decisions at shelf, then you, the designer, are on point.  You control the most effective sales and marketing tool your organization has: the package.

To beat the odds you need to do something new and different, both in process and product. You need to be influential, find new ways of operating, new ways of researching that lead to novel insights, most of all you need to not follow “best practices” This might sound risky, but an 80% failure rate sounds pretty bad to me already.

My experience has taught me that effective packaging has three dimensions that need to be equally considered: Beauty, Functionality and Responsibility.  Traditional “best practice” emphasizes the functional aspect over all others, which is why most packaging is ugly both aesthetically and environmentally.

As a designer, it’s often hard to weigh beauty or sustainability against functionality, but that is exactly your job, and if you do it well you can innovate on all dimensions.

Functionality is a price of entry and should be a given.

Beauty attracts the eye and shows respect for the consumer.  Creating beautiful objects shows that you understand that although the package has to be impactful on shelf, it actually lives in a person’s home, and trust me, no one wants their home to look like a supermarket aisle. If a piece of packaging is “counter-worthy” it’s more likely to be left out within arm’s reach and more likely to be top of mind and talked about. 

Responsible packaging is just how you roll.  There is no reason, or excuse in my mind why sustainable packaging shouldn’t be the rule, not the exception.

Design is the only discipline in an organization with the visibility into consumer insight, marketing, product strategy and engineering to effectively make the calls when it comes to packaging. If you’re a packaging designer you almost certainly already know this, it’s just that you’re probably not getting paid for it! 

Joshua Handy is the Senior Director of Industrial Design at method products in San Francisco

Josh has worked his way around the globe, doing stints at places like Karim Rashid’s studio in NY and HWI in Australia. He’s worked in London. He’s been to the Great Wall. He’s even eaten a raw chicken in a back-alley in Tokyo.  

He has a degree in mechanical engineering and a masters in industrial design and an MBA in design management, but don’t let all that fool you, he’s no overeducated-design-geek-weirdo...he’s a Kiwi.

Founded in 2000, method is headquartered in San Francisco. Today, method is the leading innovator of premium healthy home and personal care products. method can be found in more than 25,000 retail locations throughout the US, Canada, UK, France and Australia. For more information, visit www.methodhome.com

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