'Generic Modern' misfires

Food packaging from a university perspective

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Packaging design is all about communicating visually with consumers. Yet consumers rarely communicate back. So it was exciting to see them get positively chatty a month or so ago when the Tropicana redesign took center stage in the national conversation. Almost as fascinating is that most of the chatter came via social networking channels.

Regardless of how or where the Tropicana conversation unfolded, it demonstrated the power of packaging and the extent of the consumer’s investment in what a brand should look like. As for the redesign itself, it’s a classic example of a bad packaging design strategy. It’s as if the brand design professionals were so heavily influenced by the widespread trend of simplification that has lately swept the package design community—some are calling it “Generic Modern”—that they forgot all about the complicated variables behind a successful package design. Successful simplification in packaging design is about streamlining or reducing complexity while effectively communicating the brand’s core message to its consumer audience. Tropicana’s designers were right on the money where the streamlining part is concerned. But they completely forgot about the brand’s core message. The previous Tropicana design—with its arched logo, straw-sipping orange, and clean carton appearance—was an entertaining, sociable, user-friendly design that appealed across all demographics. The redesign not only failed to adopt these existing core brand equities, but it also reflects an overly generic design sensibility. From the nondescript brand identity to the uninspired typography and exceedingly dull product imagery, shelf impact was nonexistent.

When the national conversation about the Tropicana redesign first took off, some theorized that the strategy behind the redesign was not simply to refresh the appearance of the package but rather to effectively create marketing buzz. According to this theory, the designers’ stance was something like this: “We know this stripped-down look won’t appeal to consumers as much as the old look. But think of the buzz we’ll create, and these days buzz is better than the shelf impact generated by a package design that people like.”

If that ever was the philosophy behind this redesign, it was misguided. I’m not saying marketing buzz doesn’t have value. But in this case, design-savvy consumers recognized the inherent value of good packaging design and made it clear that they expected their orange juice package to reflect their sensibilities.

The Generic Modern movement is largely about nostalgia. It appeals to the consumer’s yearning for yesteryear, when the value of the dollar was far greater than today and life was simpler. This can be a powerful influencer in package design. But, as the Tropicana incident shows, we need to be extra cautious where a redesign is involved.

Let this episode serve as a reminder: The bar has been raised for packaging design to meet the sophisticated aesthetic of a consumer audience that is definitely not stupid when it comes to design.