Different By Design

The Consumer Tech retail channel is as massive as it is competitive. Products and brands that take over the market one year can disappear the next. Every year at the Consumer Electronics Show, which takes place January 6-9, 150,000 people converge on Las Vegas to get a glimpse of some 20,000 new products vying for shelf-space at a store near you. 


Electronics retail has existed for over a hundred years. The biggest advances in technology over the past 30 years started out as two distinct categories: media and mobile. In the 1980s music and TV went mobile with the Sony Walkman and Watchman. Phones were those brick-shaped things we used for actually calling people. These technologies have converged into one single device that fits into your pocket. This convergence, however has not decreased consumer electronics market but led to an explosion of creation and consumption in which the sum of mobile and media is far greater than it was as discrete parts. 

Today the consumer tech market generates over $230 billion dollars a year in sales in the US market alone. The big 4 of electronics retail, Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Apple, and Target have a total of 15,000 store-fronts combined, and account for a third of all annual sales. Another third accounts for direct to consumer sales from HP, Dell and Amazon and the final third is everyone else.

Each of these environments has a different set of rules and thus different challenges for the designer. For example, at Best Buy, product packaging has to work very hard to stand out. Sales associates, called “blue shirts,” have very little knowledge from one product to another and you’ll be merchandised along-side other brands selling similar products. 

Apple deploys a somewhat unofficial referral-based system. Meaning, if you ask three separate sales associates what iPhone case they would suggest, you’ll get three different answers. Referrals indicate that the sales associates actually know the product intimately enough to have genuine opinions.  

At Wal-Mart and Target customers are left on their own. The lack of sales associate help is a function of cost savings. Therefore products must compete for the attention and understanding of a less sophisticated customer getting less guidance. 

In three of the four big retailers (Best Buy, Walmart & Target) the stores are laid out in long aisles where different products hang from hooks packed together tightly.  Despite the differences between these retail environments, there are three common principles guiding effective consumer tech packaging. 

A brand's position in the marketplace and on the shelf can greatly effects how it is perceived by the customer. Knowing where your competition is will help you navigate to find a unique space. 

Communicate one thing in a simple and compelling way. What is the one reason someone should care about this product? Why does it exist?  If you try to communicate one thing, the customer will process one thing, but if you try to communicate three things, the customer will process nothing. 

Communicating your authenticity consistently will build brand loyalty. There are no short-cuts to trust. To determine the right outer-packaging, you must look inside of your own company, and then use design as a tool to project your values.

By Jamie Capozzi, President of Theory Associates San Francisco - @theoryassoc

Capozzi is the president of the worlds first branding agency 100% devoted to technology brands. Leading his team of writers, designers, and brand strategists to help their clients sell more stuff in the consumer tech market. So, If you want someone to talk your ear off about technology, design or brand strategy, just drop him a line at (415) 904-0995.

Jessica Deseo