Which Came First: The Packaging or the Advertising?

Traditionally, advertising has led the creative communication for the brand marketing campaign, with packaging design being a smaller and more isolated component of the brand development. We all know the distinctive red and white “uniform” associated with the Coca-Cola brand packaging, but it was undoubtedly the “It's the real thing” advertising campaign in the 1980s that cemented Coke's place in the hearts and minds of the consumer, making the brand a global success.

The creative power shift
Today, brands across every sector are facing an increasingly competitive brand landscape and an increasingly cynical consumer. Today's consumers do not want the “hard sell” and tend to disregard mass brand communications —such as advertising —in favor of more personalized messaging mediums such as word-of-mouth recommendations and community marketing initiatives.

Like these initiatives, package design has the power to connect with the consumer to communicate a brand's message on a more physical and individual level. It's time for the full potential of package design as a brand and business asset to be fully recognized and realized.

Consumer connection

To understand this creative shift and the evolving brand-marketing picture, we need to start by studying consumers and their motivation for buying. From recent media and industry sources, we know that today's consumers do not want to be explicitly marketed to and the blatant “hard sell” of advertising is turning them off. But, they are, of course, still buying brands.

What is attracting them to brands today? Research has shown that they are looking for that something extra-not to just buy, but to buy into brands. We have found that they are more inner-directed-not motivated by mass advertising or peer pressure-but they are looking for a more intimate offering and a way to co-create the brand (to imbue a sense of personal authorship and individual expression). They are buying to express rather than impress. They want a more intimate and physical relationship with brands just as they would expect from people.

Intimacy and individuality are undoubtedly at odds with the one-size-fits-all ethos that defines advertising. In addition, some recent advertising has become so clever and aspirational that (although we can appreciate the creativity) it forges a divide and sense of disassociation rather than pulling us closer to the product being promoted. The size of the United States and the breadth of media channels pushing advertising only adds to this fragmentation of advertising. The design industry now has the opportunity to educate, inspire and excite brand owners and shift the creative mindset in line with the changing consumer landscape.

In the current climate, packaging design is effective simply because, more than any other medium, it stays true (both physically and metaphorically) to the product. It is the key interface between brand and consumer as it can connect on a physical, spiritual and sensory level to create that all- important ingredient to guarantee brand success: desire.

Design and desire
To be successful, every brand needs to retain and build desire, but with desire being a continually evolving force, this is not easily attainable. With today's discerning consumer desiring the personal, the intimate and the individual, brands need to look at ways to build these elements into their brands and to create this desire. Above all, brands need to help the buyer buy rather than the seller sell.

Design is having the vision to make something substantially better for the consumer, and packaging design is the key medium for tapping into today's desire and communicating it in a way that the consumer believes. It can convey a host of messages that appeal to the sensibilities of different consumers through written or visual language, and by considering all the elements of packaging design such as naming, graphics, structure and texture. A successful package design will balance these key components to allow the individual respect, knowledge, connection, freedom and contradiction in all their choices; creating desire by allowing them to be both part of the overall brand experience and to create an individual interpretation.

With brands and businesses ever more accountable, we need to be able to prove that design creates desire and, ergo, sales success. While industry awards and methods of measuring audience reach with an ad campaign are all viable indicators of creative business success, moving a product off shelf relies first and foremost on the power of packaging design. It is tangible.

Creative business

The following case study demonstrates how brand can leverage design as an integral, and accountable, part of the brand marketing campaign.

Green & Black's was launched by a husband and wife team in 1991. The bittersweet cocoa taste and organic credentials had instant niche appeal but the brand never progressed beyond a 1% market share. Pearlfisher started work with the brand, in its earliest days, at the end of the '90s. In 2002, Green & Black's asked Pearlfisher to reposition it from a worthy brand to a luxury and mainstream brand. The five-step creative brief said the following:

  • To allow Green & Black's to operate in the premium sector, an emerging market with intensifying competition
  • To reposition the Green & Black's brand from worthy organic to luxury premium chocolate (leading on taste with organic a supporting, rather than a primary, reason to purchase)
  • To create desire for dark chocolate in a milk-chocolate-dominated world
  • To enhance shelf standout and make Green & Black's a must-stock brand for mainstream retailers and supermarkets
  • To meet an ambitious sales target of £17m by the end of 2004

Pearlfisher created a strategically led visual identity. The dark brown color clearly communicated intense flavor first, while the gold typography of the logo acted as a cue to the brand's premium status. Although still part of the logo, organic was now seen as a supporting differentiation rather than a lead message. The shift of emphasis gave the brand a clear product-led positioning that acted as a solid foundation for all other activity.

The packaging design set the new strategy in motion and was the inspiration for the advertising and PR campaigns with the images used in those disciplines building on the style of the new packaging, rather than the other way around. The advertising theme, “Ah, that's what chocolate's supposed to taste like,” followed the packaging stance that presented the essence of the brand as intensity of taste.


Sales rose from £4.5m to £23m in 2004, and total sales of the chocolate bars (70 percent of total brand sales last year) rose 400 percent since the relaunch period. The total Green & Black brand now has a retail value of £50 million and, on a rolling MAT basis, is growing at 50 percent year on year.

Beyond bars, the new packaging look was extended across the rest of the product portfolio including ice cream, drinking chocolate, biscuits and gift confectionery. Green & Black is now viewed as a premium high-quality chocolate brand rather than just an organic chocolate. Green & Black's marketing director, Mark Palmer, has commented, “There is no doubt in my mind that the packaging design has led the change and been the single biggest factor in the growth, and the success in the UK has paved the way for a similarly impressive entry into the U.S. market.” Sales in the United States now represent 10 percent of the companies turnover. Indeed, G&B's is actually the fastest-selling chocolate in leading natural food stores such as Whole Foods Market.

In a country traditionally driven by advertising, such as the United States, the way is wide open for packaging to become more sophisticated and prominent, as it has done in the UK. Although U.S. design managers and brand owners have a vast territorial area within which to promote their brand message, regardless of advertising, the ultimate purchasing decision is often made at point of purchase. This point is where design can really hold its own to create the point of differentiation. Indeed, this has been emphasized over the last 5-10 years with a huge shift in where brand owners are choosing to spend their money. It's not that the above-the-line mass marketing and advertising is “dead,” clearly not, but that the below-the-line stalwarts, such as design, are increasingly making their presence felt in the marketing mix.

Design for life
Brand owners need to take control by incorporating some of the following:

  • Look at ways of harnessing mass sensibilities
  • Adopt a more intimate way of working
  • Consider investing more in the creative process at the start
  • Look at the individual first and the product second
  • Maximize opportunities to satisfy a real need by providing the unexpected or the unusual to stand out amongst the clutter

Brand managers can get ahead by anticipating, interpreting and creating positive change through investment in packaging design as a more integral, rather than isolated, part of their brand strategy and brand vision.

Moving forward this holistic approach needs to be embraced by the complete brand marketing team, including design and advertising, with all disciplines working together from the start of the brand creation process to create the most visually desirable brand packaging solutions for the consumer and sustained financial growth for the brand and the business long-term.

Time to put design at the top of the business agenda?