The Visual Signal

How does the shape, color and texture or “look” of a package relate to the product, its brand, and the market and consumer being targeted? Before exploring the answer to this question, look at the more general topics of the role of packaging in the beauty market and packaging’s importance in society.

One of the definitions of cosmetics is “superficial measures to make something appear better, more attractive, or more impressive.” That’s the industry—superficial and really not that important, right? The proverbial “lipstick on a pig”—an expression many American’s first heard in a speech during a recent presidential campaign. Now that’s a really important industry, politics! But consider, if it were true that the beauty industry is not very important, why would political candidates have their own makeup artists? And why do we often, as a whole, tend to prefer the better-looking candidate? Have you ever heard someone say “I love Candidate X’s platform, but I won’t vote for him because he’s not electable”? Why is that? Maybe cosmetics is more important than many think or admit. How people look and smell might not seem very important until you end up stuck in an elevator with a presidential candidate after a long day on the campaign trail.

Let’s face it though, the beauty industry and its products won’t change the result of a caucus, but the beauty industry and its products play their role. In fact, in the everyday lives of people, beauty products are very important—they play a role in how we feel about ourselves and, in turn, how others interact with us.

To illustrate, I’ll use a typical candidate’s ploy—I’d like to tell you a little story ...

Linda was a scientist who, on the morning that she was on the verge of unlocking the secrets of nuclear fusion, discovers she’s out of foundation. Without, she goes to work feeling naked and self-conscious, her colleagues comment on how tired she looks, the whole thing affects her concentration and she spills her coffee over notes that contained the calculations that would have led to the breakthrough of the century! If only she had bought the larger size foundation.

My point is, beauty products are a very essential cog in the wheel of everyday life. We are in the industry of making people look better and, subsequently, feel better—and packaging makes the stuff that makes people look better, well, look better.

Color, shape and texture give a package its look, and the look must be distinct in order to be recognized as the brand. The look, too, is very important to the way the brand is perceived—the look has to be in tune with the insights of the market and consumers targeted. It is the job of the brand manager and designers to understand the visual signals the package needs to send out to the consumer—that which communicates the non-verbal or emotional aspects of the brand so that it attracts the target—as well as what trends impact product preferences and colors, shapes and textures to reflect that trend while remaining true to the brand.

In this way, packaging is very directly related to fashion, which also has to send out the same types of signals. In fact, fashion is one of the engines that drive trends in packaging, and just as in fashion, it is important to be positioned in the best possible place within the life of packaging/product trends. Recognizing what trends will last and when to follow is an imperfect science at best—predicting how many delegates a presidential candidate will end up with is probably an easier task. Sometimes a trend in packaging can show you which way not to go.

To wit, a package development professional from a large global consumer good company presented at an event a few years ago, noting there was a trend for cosmecuetical and skin care products to use white packaging, probably because it made the products appear to have a medical benefit. She presented an idea to brand management to switch to bright colors by showing them a photo of retail shelves on which all the product packaging was white and proposed that if a line was in bright colors, it would stand out and draw the eye of the consumer. The strategy paid off and sales increased significantly; it wasn’t long before the other brands followed adding color to their packaging. This decision could have also been made for some other reason—color theory or decision-makers simply convinced that the product looks really cool in metallic purple. In the end, if the product sells, it is a successful package. The “why” is not always so easy to determine, but evaluating color, shape and texture in the context of target markets and consumers, trends, product category and the brand itself will lead to a higher probability with creating successful packaging.

Len Loffler is the marketing director for New High Glass, Inc.

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