Opinion: Branding is dead. Packaging is the new black.

It’s 2:23pm, we’re in a typical client meeting explaining why branding is so important and how it’s not just about having a really nice looking logo and it’s about all the brand experience touch points …yadayadayada, I’m sure you’ve heard before. But then suddenly - the client interjects and proceeds to articulate his own perspective on the holistic concept of branding in less than a couple minutes – which means he’s basically up to speed on the latest thinking in the world of brand theories - and it’s probably because he’s read 3 or 4 books on branding, and it all sounds familiar because you’ve read those same books and let’s be honest, they all start to sound the same after a while. 

Branding is well steeped in the marketing, design and advertising industries and you hear about it everywhere and let’s be honest, it’s a bit of old news. It’s been the buzzword ever since advertising went a bit cold after the 80′s and 90′s. People needed another way to compete beyond the razzle and dazzle entertainment of advertisements. So branding was born, as a ‘new and better’ way to connect with the people that you want to buy your product. 

 
 

 

So, if branding was such a great idea… then why is it dying?

Ok, it’s not really dying – just becoming less of the marketing or creative advantage it once was and seems to be no longer inspiring and interesting to any savvy client that has been paying attention for the last 10 or 15 years in business … not to mention that consumers are inundated with so many brands, they are completely overwhelmed them and are making poor choices because we don’t know which brand is which.

But let’s get back to our clients…

Clients come to us for creative expertise, and pay their hard earned money to gain a competitive edge that will help them beat or eliminate their competition. If we keep selling the same idea that good ol’ branding will be that ‘silver bullet’ that saves the day – when we know full well that the competition has their own designer or ‘branding guru’ selling them the same koolaid on the other side. The result is that having a good brand is really the minimum you have to compete these days, branding used to be a big competitive advantage, that is becoming less the case when we look at markets today. 

We live in one of the toughest ages of competition and we have incredibly fragmented audiences that know exactly what we are up to every step of the way and see through all the B.S. Gone are the days of the mindless consumer sitting in front of their television believing everything they see as the truth – we are long past those days of pure loyalty to big ‘brands’. Although it would make my life much easier if we go back in time to the Mad Men era - more time to think and more scotch to drink would make for a better week.

I know that might be tough to believe that ‘packaging is the next best thing’ in design, but it also might just be true. Skeptical? if so, here’s our perspective over at AKA:

Why packaging is the new black. 

As Chris Williams, a designer at AKA Design Studio comments in this article on AKA’s evolution to focus on packaging “… the Chanel bag is the one that ends up being held on to, folded up and put away in your closet, to be re-used when the time is right. The iPhone box is the one that you can’t bring yourself to throw away…” . He makes the point that packaging is delivering a new physical and more tangible experience of the brand through the ‘packaging design’ and ability to actually hold the brand in your hands vs. seeing it online or on TV. Packaging is well surpassing the utility or core function it provides, it’s starting to make stronger emotional connections with customers to the point where we often can’t bear to throw it away.

 

If you are trying to impress any female in your life, this iconic jewelry box packaging says it all, even before you have opened it. Tiffany And Co. has created the ultimate gift status symbol with their series of blue boxes. The packaging represents a gift that is just a 'bit more special' than all the rest and if you have every received one, you likely still have the box sitting in your closet or dresser drawer, reminding you of that special moment when you received a gift from a loved one.

Made of basic kraft paper with a single color print, a iconic series of bags designed by the iconic designer, Massimo Vignelli, has transformed the basic utility of a shopping bag from holding your goods to a fashion status symbol. It has become so popular, they eventually took the iconic design and evolved it to a true fashion accessory bag available in leather and waterproof versions.

Visit most creative studios and you will find at least 1 or 2 iMac boxes sitting in a storage room or under a designers desk. While some designers possibly keep them in case of very rare return to the Apple store, most love their iMac computers so much - it's worth keeping the box around in case of a home or office move. Simply designed and sturdy enough to last 5-10 years, designers will continue to keep these beautiful boxes arounds 'just in case' they need to move their favourite computer.

Almost as nice as the product itself, the packaging design empathizes Steve Job's ethos of 'the inside has to be as nice as the outside'. From the little tab that lifts up the manual, to the custom tool for inserting your SIM card - the packaging is neat, tidy and well considered, making it hard to throw away. Most people I know have 1, 2 or 3 of these boxes stashed away somewhere in their closet or desk drawer. 

 

Sure, we don’t display these packages or empty boxes in our house, but I’m sure you know someone that has tucked away that cherished Tiffany Blue Box, hold onto an iconic shopping bag from their favourite fashion boutique or even just a unique beer or wine bottle that is simply too nice to throw away. At the heart of why we are keeping these empty boxes, bottles and bags around, is that it connects us with the experience of buying products that say something about who we are. Many behavioural science studies are starting to prove the connection of “what we buy = who we are” and the packaging of what we buy is a big part of creating that emotional experience. 

The Coca-Cola bottle is probably one of the most iconic packaging shapes in history, so much so that arguably the shape of the bottle 'is' the brand. The shape has slightly evolved over the years appearing mostly in glass, but also produced in both plastic and metal, but keeping with the iconic shape.

Recently, a large resurgence with the revival of the craft movement has made these jars ubiquitous and the uses for these jars have come back in commercial packaging as well as uses around the home as drinking glasses, light fixtures and many more innovative uses. While not used in a traditional commercial sense, it's still an example that a packaging container that has value beyond it's intended use.

Probably one of the best modern day examples of packaging's history - once upon a time when there was no paper or plastic, packaging was largely made of metal and glass, the packaging was intended to contain the product but once the product was consumed, it was meant to serve different functions in the home. From pins to buttons to coins, these iconic tins have been used around the world to hold small knick knacks keeping the Altoids brand alive in our homes for generations.

As consumers, once we obtain something we adapt and move onto focussing on our next purchase, basically - we adapt to whatever we have … the real fun of a purchase is the anticipation of getting something and that ‘dopamine-driven’ experience of when it’s finally ours. That moment is what we are talking about here. Still skeptical? Search YouTube for ‘unboxing video’ (where people record a video of themselves opening a package) and you get around 17 million hits. Scary right?  

If we are looking for a media that can can communicate information effectively at the right time at that purchase moment of truth and has that unique ability to connect emotionally with our customers, packaging is looking like a really good media option these days. While most people are quickly closing mobile ads or fast forwarding through TV commercials, packaging is still be searched out and picked up in every grocery and retail store around the world, among other places. So, if people are interactive or seeing your package, pretty good reason to invest some effort in making sure it’s awesome.

So, if you ever hear someone explain that “branding is something you feel, but you just can’t put your finger on”… well, we’d respond and let them know that packaging you CAN put your finger on, even a couple fingers on … maybe even both hands. That’s why we think it’s the next best way to get your brand in the hands of your customer and make an stronger, emotional connection


Lover of unique experiences and products that genuinely enhance how people live their lives. A passion for art + design and understanding why and how people buy things, so as designers we can create brands that make meaningful impressions and products that people can actually connect with.

Josh is the Creative Director of Also Known As: Studio + Design, a focused package and brand design studio that is all about killer products. We help the makers and creators of fine goods take their brands from the drawing board to the shelf… and beyond.