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A brief message

A brand-owner should never give short shrift to the package design brief.

Sterling Anthony, CPP
Sterling Anthony, CPP
A package design brief is a written document, articulating the brand-owner's requirements, which the designer translates graphically and structurally. Ideally, the requirements should be strategic, calculated for competitive advantage. Consequently, the brief should be detailed enough to educate and guide the designer, but not so restrictive that it straitjackets creativity.
Think of the brief as a tool that answers the who, what, when, where, why, and how of the design project, interrogatories that spell out such particulars as corporate profile, markets, competition, objectives, timetables, budgets, and metrics. There is no universal format for a design brief, not with most design firms having their own templates, in addition to those brand-owners who have their own. An adequate format, however, does not guarantee quality input or skilled implementation, and brand-owners—large and small—often come up short in those regards. When that happens, the prospects for successful outcomes are slight, if not doomed from the start.
The following insights regarding the package design brief should be part of a brand-owner's philosophy and approach:

Never undertake a project without a brief. The pressures imposed by speed-to-market are unrelenting and can tempt the brand-owner to forego the brief. The temptation should be resisted because a brief actually is a time-saving tool. Without a brief, a project can be rudderless, lurching from one rejected design to another, wasting time (and resources).

That doesn't argue for a needlessly time-intensive process, either. The various types of package design projects (e.g. new launch, revision, line-extension, promotion) bring varying degrees of complexity; that being so, the depth and breadth of the associated briefs can differ. Nonetheless, given the interdisciplinary nature of packaging, no design project is so simple that it should be conducted without a brief.

It's not a partnership of equals. The designer is a stakeholder, to be sure, but the brand-owner is more vested in the results, for reasons easily understood. Even so, at times, in areas in which brand-owners should assert leadership, some demonstrate a tendency to concede. The concession sometimes reflects the mysticism associated with the creative arts and even some otherwise self-assured brand-owners might feel ill-equipped and grant too much leeway. Then, too, some brand-owners concede out of delegation-to-dodge-diligence, more commonly known as passing the buck, and most commonly known as laziness.

The vast majority of designers realize that they provide a service and that the brand-owner's satisfaction is what's of paramount importance. Those designers further realize that the brand-owner's satisfaction is easier to achieve the more the brand-owner knows its own requirements. The brand-owner regarded as the least desired is the one whose requirements are so ill-defined that the designer either must seek better definition or proceed under the hope that the brand-owner won't say of the result, "I might not know what I want, but this isn't it." It definitely benefits both parties for the brand-owner to accept the leadership role in the partnership and to have that role reflected in a well thought out design brief.

Don't do the wrong thing the right way. A brief might be filled out completely, seemingly a roadmap yet be anything but, if it lacks the crucial trait of honesty. Puffery sometimes worms its way into the company profile section, for example, but that's excusable. Of greater concern is when the stated purpose of the design project is not true.  Brand managers are the most frequent offenders.

A repeated scenario is one wherein a newly-assigned brand manager looks to put his imprint on the brand, but because tenures are short (managers get promotions or laterals), there's not a lot of time in which to do it. The package seems like a safe choice, nothing drastic, mind you; some tweaking of the graphics will do just fine. But, that same brand-manager—well-meaning though he may be—is aware of the risk in disclosing the true motive; therefore, he conceals it behind a statement-of-purpose, such as, "To give Brand X a more contemporary look that will resonate with present users and attract new ones."
Setting aside that the statement is bland and general, any brand manager would be happy to achieve it. Unfortunately, achievement is hit-or-miss, since the need for revision was not established objectively. The end result could just as easily be some losses among present users without the benefit of offsetting gains among new users.
Judge from the perspective of the consumer. A brand-owner can make repeated references to consumer wants and needs throughout the design brief yet not judge designs from a consumer's perspective. Such behavior may be unintentional, but still it happens. Over time, a brand-owner can be lulled into a belief that it thoroughly knows the consumer. During that time, research tapers, assumptions morph into "facts," and blind-spots develop, which can be ruinous to a design project.
Brand-owner is a misnomer, actually, in that the true owner is the consumer. A perceived usurping of that title can trigger rebellion, package design being no exception. If that sounds overdramatic, recall the instances (and there have been more than a few) in which even iconic brands have undergone package changes that later were reversed in the wake of consumer uproar. Apparently, the brand-owners felt that they had retained the franchise elements of their former designs. The consumer, quite differently, felt that something she valued had been taken from her. In such occasions of opposite thinking, a retrospective look at the design brief most likely would reveal questionable input and/or implementation.

A brand-owner's inflated confidence that it knows the consumer can sabotage the package design for a new product, as well. Surely, it accounts in some measure for the anemic survival rates of new launches. Whereas the brand-owner views the offering as distinctive and imbued with benefits, the consumer doesn't concur. When a package design brief is saddled with that type of product, the most that a well-designed package will do is entice trial purchases, but the product will die a prolonged death.

The lesson here is that the package design brief should state the basis for whatever consumer perspectives are claimed and state the research methodologies by which consumer acceptance will be measured. Options for the latter, by the way, have widened with the advent of social media.
Get input from the packaging professional. Every brand-owner beyond mom-and-pop size should have an employee whose main duties deal with packaging. But, as contradictory as it might sound, too often, package design briefs don't contain sufficient inputs from packaging professionals. The misguided justification is that the brief is a marketing instrument and the packaging professional deals with technical matters. The simple truth is that a package design brief should address a variety of technical issues, such as those related to materials, production, printing, and that mainstay, sustainability. Remember this maxim: if it deals with packaging, get the packaging professional involved.

A brief wrap-up:
Brand-owners are fortunate to be served by the package design industry, with its legion of visionaries who routinely create works of art and things of beauty. However, that's not what makes a given design effective for a given brand. That distinction is reserved for the design born from the right strategy. Communicating the strategy and being the framework for its achievement are the jobs of the package design brief.

Sterling Anthony is a consultant, specializing in the strategic use of marketing, logistics, and packaging.  His contact information is: 100 Renaissance Center-176, Detroit, MI 48243; 313-531-1875 office; 313-531-1972 fax;
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