Standing Out in the Mass Market Requires a ‘Personal Touch’

As David Rogers, owner and Creative Director of packaging and brand design agency Pure explains, there’s something of a packaging revolution occurring.

I remember a 1970s TV commercial for Fiat that advertised the cars as ‘built by robots’. At that time, a car built by robots was the height of modernism that said consistency and reliability. But, the concept of ‘mass market’ has never been less appealing than it is today.

Well-informed consumers have an increasingly important agenda that goes beyond value or luxury, and includes natural, organic and ethical. They want to know where the bread was baked, whether the chickens were happy on the farm and how the face cream was tested.

Consumers are looking for reassurance on many levels. One way we see companies capitalising on this is a boom in the popularity of packaging that opens up a dialogue with consumers through a traditional or personal design feel. Something that evokes the past, brings with it a sense of nostalgia and comfort, giving a level of trust in the product that was previously hard to find. This approach works in the food sector, where trust is regularly challenged, as well as in a wide variety of other markets.

In terms of look and feel, the most noticeable and, arguably, effective change towards this trend can be seen in the typography. Clinical crispness is out, replaced by rounder engaging type that says that this product has been created lovingly, so every piece of the packaging feels like a one-off rather than one of thousands knocked-out on a production line.

Innocent Smoothies recently introduced a rounded, friendly font on the word ‘smoothie’, almost emulating real drops of fruit juice. Meanwhile Kiehl’s Cosmetics employs a looping joined-up font, paired with a typewriter effect, evoking the image of an old-fashioned doctor’s prescription.

Photo: Kiehl's cosmetics range
Photo: Kiehl’s cosmetics range

Imagery is also seeing an important change. The sleek, photoshopped images of before are being replaced by an increasing number of illustrations— purposefully rustic and imperfect. I like to think of this as ‘modern artisan’—it allows us to believe we’re buying something with specialist provenance, that somebody has invested real time in. As though the producer has sat down and sketched out the box design for each individual product.

We’re seeing an increasingly larger appetite for this at Pure, and have recently used the hand-crafted feel for Earth Junior children’s bath products and the Wilko Little Birds gift range, as well as many others. For this reason, we now involve our partner Boo & Belle at the concept stage of many projects, with the brief to deliver original illustrations for packaging that recreates that traditional or personal emotive feeling. Those that can really capitalise on this are the small challenger brands. Their packaging is inexpensive to rebrand, and is much better suited to experimentation. They are in the perfect position to engage with it and, as a result, become successful through it. Steve’s Leaves salad is a perfect example.

Photo: a prototype of the Earth Junior Organic's packaging
Photo: a prototype of the Earth Junior Organic’s packaging
Photo: Steve's Leaves, a salad brand
Photo: Steve’s Leaves, a salad brand

Big brands, meanwhile, would have to spend much more money to overhaul a design concept that appears around the world, and the process is often too slow to take advantage of niche trends. However, they are still paying homage to it.

One of the ways of taking a ‘mass market’ edge off food products and making them feel more personal is to show you care about the ingredients used – by communicating their provenance. Walkers, for example, responded to the activities of challenger brands by telling consumers their tomato ketchup flavoured crisps are made with Vale of Evesham tomatoes and their cheese & onion with Somerset cheddar. And take a look at most supermarkets’ recent salad packaging and you’ll find it looks increasingly like Steve’s Leaves.

Although this has become mainstream in the past year or two, this is not as a new concept as it seems. I remember brands such as Dorset Cereals that set the ball rolling with their revolutionary design concept around five years ago, bringing a small brand to a much wider market. What’s happening now is a filtering process.

How long the trend will last is open to debate, and we all know that such changes can be cyclical. But I believe the rulebook has been re-written and there’s no going back. I wholeheartedly welcome this trend, which heralds a hugely creative time in packaging design, bringing new opportunities. For a product to stand out amongst the 20,000 different products on the supermarket shelf, as a designer we have to make it feel ‘personal’.

About the Author

David Rogers is the owner and creative partner of Nottingham-based packaging and brand design consultancy Pure, which works with some major national brands such as Unilever, Trevor Sorbie and Blockbuster and many international/local brands, specifically, in Russia.