Which comes first--structural or graphic branding?

Let each project’s specific needs, rather than a formal protocol, determine who leads.

The successful integration of structural and graphic branding has proved to be a great challenge for many consumer packaged goods companies. “Do we start with the graphics branding and then create a structure around it, or do we create a structure and then start the graphics exploration afterward?” This question is commonly asked at the beginning of the creative process.

The best answer I have found to the question is “neither.” A successful package must be a seamless combination of structural form and function and graphic branding working together in support of a common message to the consumer.
So why is a balance so difficult to achieve?

Possible reasons for much of the difficulty are varied. Structural designers tend to have industrial design backgrounds and they must be technically familiar with many complex manufacturing processes in order to be effective in structural branding. For this reason, in addition to the marketing team, they often interface with a company’s research and development team and operations.

On the other hand, graphic designers are often trained specifically in graphic design. They have little experience in structural manufacturing processes. They typically work directly with the brand manager and/or creative services group in communicating the brand attributes in the two dimensions of print.

If that were not enough of a difference, timelines for structural changes are typically much longer than for graphic changes, making it difficult to work on both concurrently. Projects often start with the “longest lead time” item to be resolved first, leading to a structural kick-off before the graphics team is even assembled.

To be successful, I have found that a collaborative process involving both graphic and structural designers (along with marketing, research and development, and operations) is vital to successful overall package communication. The following examples illustrate the point.

SkinMedica line

 SkinMedica had a very effective line of skin care products that was sold primarily in dermatologists’ offices. Unfortunately, the line was produced in stock packaging with graphics that did not truly reflect the quality (and price!) of the products inside. While the doctor-recommended line of TNS-based medical products continued to sell individually, consumers did not seem to see a reason to buy the remaining 21 products in the line. Instead, they chose mass-market equivalents.

SkinMedica needed a line of products that stood out as unique in dermatologists’ offices and reflected the medical and scientific heritage of the line in order to differentiate the products from mass-market competitors.

In this case, the packaging program had to begin with structural branding. SkinMedica was previously purchasing more than 40 stock packaging components. The company needed a plan for organizing the line into as few components as possible to make practical a switch to custom packaging. 4sight inc. reduced the line to eight package forms with 18 components. This task required extensive analysis of consumer usage behavior, ergonomic needs for the packaging, and product delivery requirements. Only then were initial structural design platforms created for line differentiation, cost effectiveness, and manufacturing feasibility.

With the structural platform in place, it was time to create unique imagery. Since the need to manage capital costs was still critical, judicious use of custom components was necessary to ensure that a form language could be created without requiring extensive tooling. This really had to be done before the graphic branding could be started, but the graphic team was part of the structural explorations. This assured that the graphic designers’ vision for the graphics could be incorporated into the overall product communication.

The visual form language that best communicated the brand was based on a mix of graduated cylinders representing SkinMedica’s science-based heritage and simple but elegant cosmetic forms. Next, the graphics team developed sophisticated and elegant graphics to complement the structural branding. These graphics created the line’s premium look. Plastic resin finishes and colors were revised until the graphic branding and structures were in complete harmony. Collaboration between graphic design, structural design, marketing and R&D/operations led to a great success in the marketplace for SkinMedica.

Blink and it’s done!

 When 4sight inc. and the Honeywell Consumer Products Group collaborated to create a new line of products, it soon became clear that entirely new package forms would be required. The line of Blink products is targeted at moms trying to survive the crazy realities of active kids in their cars leaving things a mess. Since the underlying message is “These are the products you need to manage the mess in your car, where you want them and when you want them,” it was necessary for the products to be available just about anywhere in the car that mom wanted them. This capability required shapes, hanging devices, etc., that were very different than traditionally packaged interior car care products.
Structural designers started by creating product concepts that could meet mom’s needs.

Then structural solutions were developed that would work in many locations throughout the car. The graphic design team worked closely with the structural team throughout, helping to define exactly what a line of unique products should look like to the consumer and what type of personality they should have. HMS Design suggested to the structural designers that mom wasn’t as worried about “coordinating” the product colors to her car, but would prefer a friendly, fun line of products that stood apart from each other based on their unique functionalities. This insight resulted in a playful line of multicolored products, with graphic elements working together with common form languages to present a complementary line of products. This collaboration of structural and graphic branding has already made the line successful at retail.

Editor’s note: For more on this intriguing package, see story on page 81.

Fido Dido meets 7-Up

When Pepsico asked 4sight to develop unique designs to integrate its licensed Fido Dido character with its 7-Up line of beverages worldwide, the project started with the graphics. Graphic designers had created Fido Dido as a fun-loving character with a unique life style. Structural designers worked closely with the graphics to capture the feeling of the character and determine how to convey Fido Dido’s essence in bottles that would work on the production line. Two paths were selected: First was the literal interaction of the Fido Dido character with the bottle and second was an “empty canvas” approach that provided a “Fido-like” bottle that could be labeled in any way necessary to keep the character fresh while providing variety for the consumer.

The Fido interaction bottle combined the graphic imagery of Fido Dido hugging the bottle with structural changes to the bottle to support the character.

Understanding the technical parameters around creating pressurized glass bottles was critical to achieving the blend of “Fido fun” and the ability to manufacture the bottles. The graphic and structural teams worked closely together to integrate the ACL printing, glass embossing, and sculpting essential to achieving the final look. The Fido Canvas bottle is intended to provide more options for the graphics team to integrate Fido Dido into the bottle. The bottle form is intended to be an easy grasp bottle in the way that “Fido would have designed it”—fun and cartoon-like in its overall form.

A partial shrink label allows the product to be seen in support of the “Think Clear” positioning while allowing Fido Dido to have fun around the 7-Up logo. This approach also allowed the creation of eight initial label designs that provide variety for the consumer on shelf.

These examples return us to the question of whether structure or graphics comes first. While a collaborative approach is always best, leadership is determined more by project needs than any formal protocol. If structural functionality or a strong unique profile on the shelf is required, the structural branding should lead. But the graphic branding insights are critical to keeping the structure on track. If strong graphic elements are the foundation for the new packaging, the structural team should follow the lead of the graphics designers in order to assure clear brand communication on the shelf.

Stuart Leslie is president of design firm 4sight Inc.
He can be reached at 212/253-0525 or stu@4sightinc.com.

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