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Design that Sells

Aug-09-2013
Last year on this blog I wrote about a redesign disaster that was Tropicana. A multi-million dollar project that delivered a flavorless, minimalist and uninspiring orange juice carton design to replace the original, well known and successful “Big Orange” design of old. It was a huge flop and Pepsi had to go back to the original design after huge negative public reaction.

Last year, Kraft cheese launched new packaging mirroring the failed Tropicana redesign approach with a cleaner, more minimalist design, removing much of the original personality of the old pack. Marketing research “uncovered an opportunity to change consumer perceptions through the positive, nostalgic memories and “real” experiences consumers associate with the Kraft brand.” But the new packaging has been pulled from the shelves and replaced with something closer to the original design because of poor sales performance.

I liked the new Kraft design because it felt cleaner and presented the product as purer and less ‘processed’ looking. That is just how I felt about the Tropicana redesign. But in my gut I knew both would fail because they lost the essential familiarity that consumers often crave. But it got me thinking again about the difference between designing for aesthetic pleasure versus designing for improved sales. After a little surfing around for more info about the Kraft redesign failure, I stumbled upon an interesting article by a fellow designer on the very subject, and how he had done a little research of his own. He purchased one of the new versions of the Kraft design and also a pack of their nearest competitor, Sargento, who’s packaging remained in a more familiar ‘cheesy’ looking (cheesy in both senses of the word) package and carried out an informal product comparison at a 4th of July block party:

“I shared both packages with each of 20 women. Remarkably 18 out of the 20 preferred the seemingly provincial, unremarkable Sargento pack.” Said Designer Michael Colton.

What? the fussier more ‘provincial’ design of the Sargento pack was preferred over the more elegant and honest looking new Kraft design? When Michael questioned the women, it turned out that they just didn’t think the new Kraft packaging looked like food. I am not at all surprised.

Clients and designers should never confuse personal design preference for design appropriateness. I remember a teacher at college telling me that while my experimental logo design for a fictional law firm was striking and well designed, it was a failure because it looked like a beer logo (must have been all the Guinness I was drinking!).

Designers will do well to remember that ‘appropriateness’ is the key to successful marketing design. Apply this principle to packaging design and you can understand that if people relate certain colors, fonts and graphic treatments to particular products and brands, one had better do the research properly before embarking on attempts to ‘change consumer perceptions’ by radically changing their appearance and by default their relationship with the consumer.

Several years ago, my partner Tony and I worked extensively with Yoplait Yogurt in Europe. We helped them develop several highly successful new products and learned a lot about why the most beautiful design is not necessarily the one that people will prefer when it’s on the shelves or in the fridge. Our client Vincent (the new product development Director at Yoplait) insisted on testing up to 20 different designs at the start of a project. He would sample the designs with the target audience, reduce down the number of designs to go to the next round of development, request certain elements that sampled well to be combined with others, and then tested again. The process would continue until we ended up with three final designs, and one live in-store testing. In almost every case, Tony and I were surprised to find that our favorite designs ended up in the rubbish bin. The consumer always picked the designs that felt appropriate to them, that reminded them of the flavor of the product and made them feel like they knew exactly what they were getting.