Top 6 Signs It’s Time to Update Your Packaging

By: Fred Richards, Kaleidoscope

Packaging, sadly, is one of the last things considered when it comes to the marketing mix. Advertising, PR events, stunts, social media and other “glamorous” initiatives seem to get preferential attention over the primary delivery of many brands—the package.

So when do you really know it’s time to reevaluate and update packaging graphics? What are the rules? We get a lot of questions regarding when and how to tackle packaging updates. Here are the top six signs it’s time to update (and pitfalls to avoid) based on 20+ years of experience.

1. It’s been 6 years since the last update

Six years is adequate time for any package design to be considered for an update. Within that time, the category itself and the internal team responsible for the brand have evolved. Past decisions made for political reasons may no longer be relevant, and the brand may be aching for the assets needed to carry it through the next stage of its life. This is a critical distinction from the outdated and overused terminology of “evolution” or “revolution” of the brand’s articulation at shelf. An update should not be made for the sake of change or a fleeting trend. Marketers and designers should collaborate to carefully and respectfully craft the package design with the aim of tying it closely to a strategic positioning that is relevant to the consumer.

2. Your competitors have changed

As mentioned, six years in a fast-moving, consumer-goods category is a long time for some brands to stand still, especially if you want your brand to be positioned as a category leader. At the beginning of any design initiative, it is important to evaluate what has changed and who has changed. If you are not doing it now, I would highly recommend tracking competitors in real time, so that you aren’t scrambling to find data that might not be in market when you are ready to determine if a change is even needed. Tracking is critical to understanding the trends and agility of any competitor. That is not to say that I am a proponent of benchmarking versus the competition, but it’s important to understand the strengths and weaknesses of your competition and when to strike.

3. You’ve discovered what consumers aren’t telling you

The obsession with consumer research sometimes adds to the fog of war of when to change and why. The numbers are a killer, and so is the current methodology. Consumers are getting smarter. They know the game and recognize a sales pitch even under the best disguise. But as much as they want better products and brands that cut through the bull, they’re not very good at articulating what is in their heads or describing how they shop—most of them don’t even recognize how they do so anyway! Some are in fear jeopardizing the research payment, so they tell you what you want to hear and not what you need to know. Others will be polite and parrot back category language with which they are familiar. However, consumers leave crumbs of evidence if you know where and how to look. Get out of the research labs and away from the late night takeout. Go to their homes, have a conversation, use the brand with them, open some drawers in their houses and go shopping. Listen, observe and ask questions that are not so predictable. Open up, be honest and enjoy the journey with the consumer. If they feel respected and knowledgeable, they will tell you everything, including the truth!

“There is a difference between an ‘aesthetic trend’ and real category movement. Many agencies miss the difference and are quick to pour scorn on a new design look and feel, especially if it comes from a competing agency.”

4. The times are changing

There is a difference between an “aesthetic trend” and real category movement. Many agencies miss the difference and are quick to pour scorn on a new design look and feel, especially if it comes from a competing agency. Enough already! First, identify the category design language—every category has one. The difference between motor oil and milk is as fundamental as it needs to be. Understanding the brand’s assets within this context is critical before you embark on any design exercise. Then evaluate over time (6 years is wonderful!) what has changed, evolved and trended. Then look to the styles, languages, shapes, and effects that can be applied to amplify the brand’s message. Don’t trend for trend’s sake, but ensure the brand remains relevant.

5. You can clearly see issues from the retailer’s point of view

Now more than ever, we hear that retailers are demanding change. It could be argued this is an ugly development. However, retailers are under increasing pressure to delight consumers within aisles, especially in the center of the store. With increasing category growth and brands competing for the same retail space, categories and entire aisles have become so fragmented. Consider detergent, dog food, chips and shampoo—the aisles are overwhelming and could benefit from clear banner brands. The change, if addressed correctly, could be as simple as basic design housekeeping, not a drastic overhaul. Try to understand what the retailer is seeing that the design brief is not addressing.

6. Your brand message has gotten lost

Every brand should continually look in the mirror and question why certain assets or packaging details exist. Understand the stories behind the elements. Are they still valid? Does the consumer recognize them, value them and better yet, relate them to what you intended in the first place? The brand message on a package is often diluted little by little with small changes over time, but it’s hard to see without taking a step back. True brand and design consultancies will find creative ways forward that are based on brand fundamentals and consider the underlying strategy.

Packaging is an important—if not the most important—part of the marketing mix for many consumer goods products. Treat it that way. Hold each other accountable. Be on the lookout for signs that it’s time to update. And when the time is right, do it respectfully.


Fred Richards
Chief Creative Officer, Kaleidoscope

Fred ensures that Kaleidoscope leverages its diverse creative talent from all offices in Chicago, New York and Europe to generate fresh, strategic packaging design solutions for clients. Fred has worked in the international design industry for more than 20 years, specifically in the “Fast Moving Consumer Goods” category. Having worked for some of the world’s leading branding and design companies in Britain, USA, Switzerland, Fred brings a multifaceted perspective and rich design philosophy to Kaleidoscope’s design.