Packaging has always had two main functions. The first is pretty prosaic: to protect the product. The second is pretty fascinating: to make it so attractive that it flies off the shelf.

Everyone knows the basics of packaging psychology, like the use of red and white to denote cheap. And in some ways these traditional packaging semiotics remain the same. “There isn’t an awful lot in terms of new tricks,” says Andrew Grimbaldeston, commercial director at Colpac. “If you read the psychology behind it we are hard-wired to respond to these things. We can’t help ourselves. They remain largely unchanged because they work.”

It’s why Tesco went for red and white when it launched its discounter venture, Jack’s, last month. The simple red and white logo is slapped on about three-quarters of everything in the store.

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“It’s playing to very traditional category codes of affordable fmcg,” says Tom Hearn, director at creative agency Nude. “It’s red on white, it’s approachable, even the name is informal. They have overtly gone down that route of traditional cues.”

Yet some of the classic cues are evolving. At the other end of the own-label scale, the typical colours for tiering have always meant the ‘best’ used dark colours like black or purple. But now these are looking “dated” says Natalie Reed, from The Strategy Distillery. “In the past, black would equal sophisticated. Now it’s about having a more considered design.”

The launch of the top tier Waitrose 1 is a good example. It still uses black, but also white in equal measure, with vivid swatches of colour, clear text and line illustrations. “There is a lot less clutter and more focused messaging,” says Reed. “It’s cleaner and moving away from the clichés.”

“One of the big coffee pod companies took the gold foil off a product, but it stopped selling”

And for premium products in 2018, if you want it sold you need to add gold, says David Peters, creative development manager at API. “Unless there is gold, people won’t trade up. We are seeing gold foil everywhere. One of the big coffee pod companies we worked with took the gold foil off a product for a cost exercise, but they had to put it back on because it stopped selling.”

API says responding to trends like these are a “key driver for creating brand engagement”. It commissioned a survey in March of 250 senior figures in the creative and marketing industry which revealed that “78% of brand owners believe packaging which aligns itself to the latest cultural, fashion and design trends has a positive impact on consumer buying behaviour”.

When it comes to the latest colour trends, Peters says: “holographics and rainbow are very effective. They’re one of the key things we use to energise packaging because of the impact it has. The human is just like a magpie, we are attracted to shiny things. When mock-ups go on shelf for user trials, we use eye tracking to see what attracts them, and their eyes are always attracted to light or shine. It animates on the shelf and promotes what the product is doing.”

That said, “Not everyone wants to stand out on shelf, singing and dancing. There are four packaging personalities: loud, sophisticated, intelligent and luxury. Each one uses different colours and metallics. So it really comes down to which category or personality the brand fits into.”

How can online ‘packaging’ still make an impact?

Imagine all the time, effort and skill that goes into designing the perfect packaging for a food and drink brand. Then imagine the horror of seeing it shrunk down into a thumbnail-sized jpg on a website. “By the time you get down to a mobile, you’re talking about 90 pixels,” says Richard Stanley, product manager at Nielsen Brandbank. The ability to seduce shoppers risks being lost altogether. So how are designers overcoming these limitations?

Brandbank delivers a ‘Clean Pack’ solution to optimise product packaging for online. That means clarity becomes all important. Unnecessary elements, like barcodes, or elements that can’t be read at that size, like nutritional information, are marginalised. And logos, for instance, can be enlarged.

“Clean up the pack and retain the four basic elements,” says Paul Reid from GS1, which has drawn up best practice guidelines for optimising product images for online shopping. “Who makes it, what type of product it is, how much is in it and what variety it is. Lots of different brands are doing it, from Coca-Cola to P&G, Nestlé and Unilever. People are realising that images are becoming more important, especially on smaller screens. It’s a hot topic right now.”

An alternative to decluttering the image is to add to it, says Stanley. “If you search for Marmite on, the 250g jar looks the same as the 125g or the 500g jar. This is where standard photography doesn’t communicate size. So what they have done is add a ‘call out’ which shows the size in the bottom right hand corner, which really helps.”

Brandbank did “something similar for AB InBev with Bud Light, where a 12-pack of cans looks very similar to a 12-pack of bottles in a tiny online pic. We pulled out a bottle to stand in front of the product, and enhanced the number on the box. This is where optimisation can really solve a problem.”

And there is “quite a bit of evidence to show it’s working. Unilever saw a real uplift in sales of Tresemmé and Ben & Jerry’s after using optimised images.”

So while it’s “not going to make everyone tonnes of money, I genuinely believe it does help clarify the packaging. And we have seen a lot of increased activity by big brands doing it.”


Arguably there is a fifth personality type: the disruptor. It’s another huge trend, says Hearn. “Everyone wants to be disruptive. But there’s no point in doing it for the sake of it. The thing we hear most from clients is ‘We want to be disruptive, we want to stand out amongst everyone else’. We know there is more competition out there, there is more choice on shelf, so standout is what most clients are looking for.”

As a result, the number of brands breaking established category codes is increasing, because taking the “established code of a category and turning it on its head is a natural way to disrupt it”. And as “more and more brands” do this, those general rules become “less and less common across a category.” That, in turn, makes the category harder to disrupt.

No rules

Hearn uses gin as an example, saying: “There are so many gins out there, every day a new one comes out and each one looks completely different. So as there are no rules to the category, there is nothing to disrupt. It’s a completely diverse collection of different bottle shapes and colours, from sleek and modern to a very traditional, almost Victorian-style harking back to the heyday of gin. This means achieving standout is incredibly difficult.”

Beer is becoming the same, he adds. “Craft beer came in, companies like BrewDog, and completely changed how beer looks. And we’re seeing it across more and more categories. Fewer and fewer brands are playing by the rules.”

For packaging designers, it’s a “good challenge to have, it makes it more interesting. You can be a lot more creative with the work you do. But the challenge goes back to trying to find the truth about the brand. A ­client will say they want to be disruptive, but that means nothing. You have to ask, ‘What is it about the brand that is disruptive compared to everyone else?’ Then, ‘How do we bring it to the fore through the packaging?’ There needs to be truth in the brand. For instance, if you are doing something different in the production process, we can bring that to life through design. We have to be able to challenge clients more and pinpoint what is different about them, because you get found out very quickly if there is no substance there.”

Because if shiny surfaces or gold foil are popular, but superficial, aspects of current fmcg packaging, successful packaging in 2018 also needs to demonstrate personality, by opening up about what it is and where it comes from.

“Brands, especially the more established and well known brands, are looking to reinforce their credentials because they are increasingly under threat from startups, which tend to invest time in the packaging because they can’t afford to spend big on advertising,” says Hearn. Also, they are often brilliant at injecting personality into their packaging.

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“Big brands are coming to us to build more storytelling and values into their packaging, whether it’s authenticity, the founder or the ingredients,” he adds. “We work on quite a few beers, and now people want to know how many calories there are in their beer, which would never have happened a few years ago. It’s really only started happening in the last six months but it’s a growing trend that will continue with mainstream brands.”

Having a brand that “communicates ­authenticity via its packaging is increasingly important when it comes to consumers making a purchasing decision”, he adds. But that personality has to be authentic and genuine.

As an example, he points to a redesign he just carried out for Peroni, which will hit supermarket shelves later this year. The redesign is partly to combat the “explosion” in craft beer, which is famous for its eye-catching and unusual packaging, its inherent authenticity, and the fact that it’s directly responsible for supermarkets delisting mainstream lagers using classic category design to make way for it.

“The Peroni brand has an incredibly rich history, it goes back to 1846. But a lot of the stories of provenance and heritage have been lost over the years. It’s a super premium lager - when it launched in the UK it was the most expensive lager on the market. So we have reinforced that premium positioning and built authenticity back into the brand.”

Simply, designers have “got to understand the brands and their heritage”, says Peters. “We have a consistent innovation programme, but whatever innovation we use has to be relevant for the brand.”

That means when it comes to designing or repackaging a product, it “doesn’t start with what the new trends are, that’s the secondary phase. You start with relevance, it’s all important.”

For example, he says two of API’s clients are Tattinger and Moët & Chandon. David says Tattinger is “all about the bubble in their formulation, which is why they have bubbles on the packaging. We’ve evolved that bubble to diamonds, because there’s nothing better than a diamond bubble, which then endorses brand equity. As for Moët, it’s focused on the celebratory aspect of champagne, so it uses a starburst design, which is more about celebration, energy and drama. They come from a different angle. It’s the same category, but the essence of what their character is comes first.”

Apart from the look, frills and authenticity of fmcg packaging, there is one other major change going on, and it comes down to the basics of packaging itself. Regardless of how perfect plastic is for fmcg packaging, the public backlash against the environmental damage it wreaks has been intense. The industry is obviously aware of the issue, with high-profile moves to eradicate plastic by Iceland gaining plaudits and positive headlines. And the same API survey revealed that 42% of respondents believed using sustainable packaging would be the big trend emerging over the next five years, ahead of just 15% who thought smart technology features would play a part.

Environmental message

“The consequence of the environmental debate is that the packaging itself is more of the message than what is printed on it,” says Grimbaldeston. “The credentials of the packaging throughout the supply chain have always been quite important, but now people are looking up the supply chain to where is it manufactured, questioning where the material comes from, and getting into much more detail than ever before.”

So while a “sandwich wedge will look exactly the same, because people are not willing to compromise on indicators of freshness or the clarity of seeing the food, now they want to know the packaging itself is ethically sourced, ethically made, environmentally sustainable or compostable.”

“There isn’t an fmcg company in the country that hasn’t used plastic packaging and isn’t looking at contingency plans”

It’s a “consumer trend that’s driving suppliers,” he says. “And a big chunk of our business is foodservice, and it’s coming out loud and clear there as well. It could be an investment bank or a primary school, but those questions are being asked. The provenance of packaging is far more important than ever before.”

He says the eco-friendly packaging debate has been “bubbling under for a while” but to demonstrate how things have changed, he says in 2017 Colpac was at a “packaging innovation show in Birmingham showing off more or less the same range we have on show now, and I got maybe two or three questions about the environmental performance and provenance of the product. This year the show was less well attended, because it was during the heavy snow, but I had over 200 conversations that were all about that. There has been a dramatic shift.”

The near-omnipresent use of plastic in fmcg means it has created a “lot of turmoil, and it’s incredibly challenging, because there isn’t an fmcg company in the country right now that hasn’t used plastic packaging in the past and isn’t looking at contingency plans for the future. I feel for fmcg companies that are trying to keep up with the level of consumer demand.”

On the flip side, he says this is a time where “people are willing to rethink how we do things, and throw out the old and do something new.” So for the industry as a whole, “it’s a really interesting, vibrant and creative time for us all to be engaged in.”Telling the story behind the brand.