The color of branding

A design veteran formerly with Kraft and P&G cites package examples that succeeded in meeting brand positioning objectives-plus some that did not.

Colors differentiate each variety in Kraft?s line of flavored cream cheese (left). Prior to the redesign, consumers found it ha
Colors differentiate each variety in Kraft?s line of flavored cream cheese (left). Prior to the redesign, consumers found it ha

Color is the first thing a consumer notices about a package. Used strategically, color, along with package shape, symbology and typography, can have an immense impact, from eliciting an initial emotional response to building long-term brand equity. The most well-known worldwide brands are instantly recognizable by color, even if the consumer is unable to read the language printed on the package. Kodak's yellow package is a classic example. The choice of color should be dictated by well-defined brand positioning objectives. When color is used inappropriately or doesn't support a brand's positioning, it can damage brand equity. Kraft Foods, Northfield, IL, faced just such a problem in the 1980s. At that time, the Kraft logo was the brand manager's play toy. Any color was up for grabs and no consistent standards were in place. By the middle of the decade, Kraft no longer enjoyed instant brand recognition. Indeed, in conducting proprietary research to evaluate the problem, the company learned that consumers had trouble finding sought-after Kraft products due to frequent package design changes. An example of this misuse of color centers on the company's flagship macaroni and cheese product, whose highly recognizable blue package has helped it to cement a place as one of America's best-selling food products. In a major packaging misstep in the mid-1980s, the brand's frozen counterpart was introduced in an elegant brown box with skillfully crafted typography (see photo, p. 158). However, it resulted in lackluster sales. When the packaging color was altered to closely emulate the shelf-stable blue box, sales of the frozen product rose. In 1985, recognizing the problem of inconsistent use of colors across its product portfolio, Kraft made the decision to establish a uniform standard identity for its logotype, including a color system which remains intact nearly 15 years later. Here, color works hard. The red, white and blue logo may not be a fashion statement, but it permits Kraft brands to be quickly identified across multiple categories, in every retail point of distribution in the U.S. Redesigning with color Color changes can also be deployed in a redesign to fine-tune a brand's look or reconfigure the way the package design meets the brand's objectives. A good example of using color to create a stronger package centers on Cremerié. It's a Philadelphia brand cream cheese line extension, introduced in the late '80s, consisting of four flavored cream cheeses. Although the original design used a bit of the recognizable silver color of the Philadelphia brand as a border, the package design was found to have limited association with the Philadelphia brand. Also, the Cremerié name was not easily read, and the four flavors were not easily differentiated. A redesign addressed each of these issues by focusing on the use of a separate and distinct color for each flavor, surrounding the four color variables with a heavier treatment of the familiar silver of the Philadelphia brand. Plus the Philadelphia brand name and logo were placed in more prominent view. The Cremerié name itself was recast in a more legible logotype. Color tactics Though trends in color in packaging design are hard to spot until after the fact, an obvious example is the use of green to connote healthy products. Prior to Con Agra's use of green for its Healthy Choice line, green had not been widely used for food packaging. Today, manufacturers' and store brands both have adopted green for this purpose. For colors used on packaging designed for products targeted at children, bold colors are common, such as those found on cereals. In the frozen food section, two good examples of bold-colored, kid-oriented products are Swanson's Fun Feast and Con Agra's Kid Cuisine. Each approaches the use of color with strong, bold tones at the blue end of the spectrum. Kid Cuisine is noticeably blue. The light plate and high-key color of macaroni and cheese, corn, french fries and fish are in direct contrast to the strong blue background. Swanson's Fun Feast consistently uses purple to attract attention. Both product lines easily cut through the visual clutter in the often obscured frozen food case. National brand marketers are all too familiar with the increasing sophistication of private labels. Private labels are now receiving significant budgets and attention as retailers begin to shift from cloning category leaders to establishing a powerful, independent base of their own. Here, color is a key tactic. Kroger brand packages are a good example. Though they all carry the familiar blue of the Kroger logo, the judicious use of color reflects the category in which each package competes. In cereals, for example, Kroger package colors are bright and hard-hitting. For coffee and cookie packages, muted earth tones complemented by burgundy or deep blue accent colors are more effective. Warm-colored vignettes or photos of the product convey a clear message that these are upscale products, not value-priced goods being hawked in harsh, shrill color tones. And Kroger's artificial sweetener package uses a full-body shrink-sleeve label decorated in bright white and dark blue colors with a photograph of a cup of coffee and bowl of cereal. The white and blue colors, along with the imagery, convey a clean and refreshing look that consumers may subconsciously associate with the start of a new day. And a fire-engine red shrink band on a barbecue sauce package provides robust flavor imagery for a flavor-enhancing product. Many other retailers have followed the leadership of Kroger as well as private labels like President's Choice by establishing strong packaging and not relying on price alone to provide a competitive advantage. The black-and-white look associated with generic or store brands, if not dead, is less and less the trade dress of the retailer. Decisions in the trenches Far too often, package design decision, including color palette studies, are made in a conference room or an environment other than one approximating real shelf life conditions. At best, this can be a terribly misleading practice. While I concede that this is mainly a packaging issue, color plays an important role here. As a junior packaging manager at Procter & Gamble, I frequently attended package concept reviews with full-color comps at 6 a.m. in a suburban Kroger store with the vice president of marketing and director of the art and package design group. While the procedure was slightly inconvenient, our ultimate color decisions were the result of facts, not opinions or egos. Possibly, very tastefully designed and elegantly executed frozen food packages in dark green and brown might never reach the production stage if the color decisions were made in the actual selling environment. I believe it's the responsibility of the package designer to keep the marketing manager out of trouble by not allowing ultimate design decisions to be finalized at the top without fully recognizing the reality on the shelf. Used properly, pre-emptive color ownership helps a brand become closely associated with a specific color to defend itself against me-too products. Coke's red logo and packaging is a good example. Indeed, the design strategy for any package must anticipate defensive changes made by competitive brands. Ultimately, the packaging designer's responsibility is to create packaging that will support the brand's overall positioning objectives, especially at the point of sale. Anything less is merely an art exercise. Paul R. Sensbach, Ph.D., currently vice president of sales and marketing for Fisher Design, has also managed package design at Procter & Gamble and was Director of Packaging and Creative Services for Kraft USA. He can be reached at 513/221-2242. Editor's note: Fisher Design did not work on any of the specific packages mentioned or depicted in this story.

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