The packaging industry is constantly evolving, with design trends adapting to meet the changing needs of consumers and brands alike.

In a competitive landscape, brands need to find ways to differentiate themselves and increase brand appeal on store shelves.

Simon Ellis, managing director of strategic creative agency Into The Light, discusses these trends and how packaging design is playing a crucial role in brand success.

The demise of Little Chef: a cautionary tale

Ellis opens by highlighting the cautionary tale of Little Chef, a restaurant chain that once thrived but failed to adapt to changing consumer preferences. 

It lost sight of the market’s shift towards convenience food, leading to its decline. This story emphasises the importance for brands, particularly in the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) sector, to stay relevant and evolve their branding and product proposition, as Ellis explains: “They lost their relevance. They’d lost sight of how the market was changing…”

“Customers were no longer as keen to stop for a sit-down meal, they wanted good, wholesome, quality food in an instant. So, they were replaced by brands like Costa, Starbucks, Greggs that provided quality food, with great service that you could eat on the go.”

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Ellis outlines two key design trends that are helping brands stay relevant:

Less is more: In today’s fast-paced world, consumers have limited attention spans.

According to Ellis, research by an FMCG player revealed that shoppers typically only read seven words on packaging in a 60-minute shopping trip. This highlights the need for simplicity and clear communication.

Ellis reinforces this point: “You’ll be familiar with the phrase ‘less is more’, well this couldn’t be more apt for packaging design. […] How many times do you see a piece of packaging with multiple flashes and icons seemingly communicating all the brand’s USP [unique selling point]? Do people take notice? No. They simply don’t have time.”

Go big or go home: Ellis highlights that amplifying a brand’s existing distinctive assets can significantly enhance recognition.

Ellis cites YouGov research that found consistent brand presentation across platforms can increase revenue by up to 23%. Examples include Nurofen’s bullseye target and Nescafe’s recent focus on its “apostrophe” as a visual signifier.

Ellis explains: “Why? Well, research by YouGov found that presenting a brand consistently across different platforms can increase revenues by up to 23%. Think Nurofen and the ‘bullseye target’ visual asset. By amplifying this asset on their packaging and using it across all advertising media, helps them to stand out not only in advertising, but where it really matters – in store at that final moment of truth.”

Investing in the design process

Beyond design trends, Ellis emphasises the importance of a well-defined design process. He references Abraham Lincoln’s quote: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” 

“Brands need to invest time upfront in understanding their audience, the brand truths and the context of the market in order to create something that is truly unique and ownable in your space/category. At Into the Light, we call this ‘Discovering your A-B-C’,” adds Ellis.

Grabbing attention and sparking interest

With a multitude of choices bombarding consumers, how can packaging design grab attention and lead to sales? Ellis offers two key techniques:

Limited-edition/seasonal packaging: “Brands are successfully using occasion or partnerships to create limited-/special edition or seasonal variants for their brand, to create something new, something newsworthy…”

For example, Cadbury’s recent relaunch of classic Dairy Milk packaging designs sparked consumer interest and boosted sales.

Ellis cites this as a successful example: “Cadbury’s recent Limited Edition packs are a great example of doing just this. They brought back some of the classic Dairy Milk packaging designs dating as far back as 1905 when they launched. This got people talking, it got people dwelling longer and it ultimately got people buying more chocolate.”

3D structures: Ellis highlights that unconventional packaging shapes can stand out on shelves and pique curiosity. 

Rowse Honey’s beehive-shaped bottle is a prime example, as it’s not only eye-catching but also difficult to copy.

Ellis highlights the effectiveness of this approach: “Unconventional packaging designs stand out on shelves and invite consumers to explore the product further, increasing the likelihood of purchase. Take Rowse Honey for example. They have a really distinctive bottle shaped like a beehive, that is ownable and unique to them. Not only does this help them ‘grab attention’ it also makes them harder to copy.”

The rise of smart packaging

The integration of technology into packaging, or smart packaging, is a growing trend.

Ellis discusses how this can enhance the consumer experience in the context of “radical transparency,” a trend towards increased consumer demand for brand authenticity. 

“In an information age consumers have unprecedented access to every facet of a brand and the generations growing up today, whether that be millennials, Gen Z, Gen X, are all taking more time to find out about the authenticity and backstory of the brands they are buying. This means that brands need to be radically transparent in everything they do,” says Ellis.

QR codes are a common example, allowing brands to connect with consumers through websites or targeted content.

Ellis also highlights a potential application for tackling product theft in supermarkets. 

He cites an example of alcohol bottles encased in wire mesh to deter theft but acknowledges how this negatively impacts the shopping experience. 

Smart packaging solutions could potentially address this issue in a more customer-friendly way.

Key considerations for brands

Ellis concludes by offering advice for brands working with design agencies to ensure the final product aligns with their brand identity and marketing goals:

Share brand plans: Brands should be transparent with their agencies, sharing brand and business objectives to create a clear understanding of goals and aspirations.

Holistic brand identity: Packaging design should be part of a cohesive brand identity system with distinctive assets that resonate across all touchpoints. Brands should avoid siloed approaches and consider the bigger picture.

By embracing these trends and fostering strong collaboration, brands can leverage packaging design as a powerful tool to stand out, connect with consumers, and achieve lasting success in a competitive marketplace.