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All Beauty, No Brains: When Graphic Designers Fail to Understand Packaging Hierarchy

We here at Retail Voodoo are big fans of ProBar. Do you know it? We’ve been buying them for sometime now. You can find them in your local Health Food store, Whole Foods, or REI. They are very wholesome, filling and just plain yummy. That said, I’m confused…like shopper confused. A couple of months ago, I went to buy my favorite, the Superberry & Greens, but what happened next is a tale of packaging tragedy, a story of beauty over brains. I saw new packaging, quite lovely new packaging, but all of a sudden, greeted by a wall of orange, everything looked the same. I had to squint and spend time discerning if I was buying the correct bar.

The whole label hierarchy broke down, and while I meant to leave the car double parked and grab my fav, I ended up getting a big fat ticket instead (*LIE*). Don’t let beautiful packaging override brains. Make sure you manage the information hierarchy correctly, and for goodness sake, change colors, or include high contrast visual cues to make it easy for those of us too addled to read on the fly to buy our favorites.

Diana Fryc

For Diana, a fierce determination to pursue what’s right is rooted in her DNA. The daughter of parents who endured unimaginable hardship before emigrating from Eastern Europe to the U.S., she is built for a higher purpose. Starting with an experience working with Jane Goodall to source sustainably made paper, she went on to a career helping Corporate America normalize the use of environmentally responsible products and materials before coming to Retail Voodoo.

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Leverage Self-Selection Using Brand Ritual

The best-loved brands are enablers; they help their devotees to live better, more meaningful lives. These brands make life richer because they don’t focus on selling products and services or features and benefits; they satisfy the deepest emotional yearnings that people have.

Cult brands help us to belong; they provide self-fulfillment, emotional satisfaction, values that appeal to our higher natures and more. Transcendent brands are really spiritual, going beyond even appealing to the emotional nature of human beings. That’s why they inspire an almost religious fervor. Using this analogy, we understand the power of the world’s most successful brands to inspire. Just as with any religion – specific language, symbolism and ritual create what I refer to as “exclusive inclusion”; the sense that its fans are all part of an exclusive group; meaningful, important and treasured members of their tribe.

Cabela’s, IKEA, Lululemon, Starbucks, and Tiffany’s expert deployment of these 21st Century brand principles, demonstrate their power in action. They employ vivid brand language that is both visual and verbal. Tiffany’s is best represented by its robin egg blue box with white satin ribbon; Starbucks by its ethereal, seductive siren and more recent, hipster-than-thou design language, Cabela’s tagline as “world’s foremost outfitter” of hunting, fishing and outdoor gear are all symbolic to their fans. Not only because they recognize the brand language specific to them, but because to their followers, they truly stand for something that no other brands can supplant.

Ritual ? Routine.

Ritual is behavior embedded with meaning, purpose and belonging. Ritual is not the same as habit or routine. Routines become habits. Rituals, when they are vitally enacted by the community, become a way of life. Rituals are the glue bonding together memory, identity, community, and daily living.

There are three elements that differentiate a ritual from a simple routine.

  1. It must be done outwardly, socially, in public so that the community can sanction and reinforce the action.
  2. There must be symbols that can be seen or touched, similar to a diploma or wedding dress.
  3. A ritual must be regular and predictable. It happens at certain times of the year, or when someone reaches a certain age.

Brand rituals occur when a person ingrains a product or service (and their associated behavior) into her daily actions. This forms a kind of intimate relationship. One that goes beyond habitual consumerism and moves into mindful and purposeful use of the brand and its offering as a vitally important part of daily existence. When done well, ritualized brand behavior aligns the experiential and emotional.

“When done well, ritualized brand behavior aligns the experiential and emotional.”

This kind of ritual becomes a tradition that is passed from one user to the other – transforming otherwise similar offerings into differentiated brand behavior.

Ritualized brand behavior permeates popular culture.

Here are some quick examples of ritualized brand behavior in daily life:

Corona. Squeezing lime into your corona has become synonymous with the brand– nobody serves Corona without lime.

Guinness: Built, not poured. You must wait several minutes for it to settle before you can drink it.

iPhone’s sliding to accept a call, close an app, launch a game.

Kit Kat: Breaking the chocolate cookie apart.

The Olympics: The opening ceremony, carrying the torch and the lighting of the flame.

Toblerone: Whacking the Chocolate Orange to separate the slices.

Popsicle: Breaking the double stick into two, single popsicles.

Tootsie Pop: How many licks does it take to get to the center?

By translating actions into brand-specific meaning, rituals can help build lifelong bonds between brands and consumers. Rituals are rights of passage, rites of enhancement, integration and renewal. Symbolism and ritual have been around for as long as humankind has populated the Earth. The very act of performing the ritual gives the consumer ownership.

Think of IKEA. The shopping experience where everything is reimagined for you in small format, brightly colored plastics and reasonably disposable modernist light-wood. A walk through IKEA is similar to a ride at Disneyland. They entertain, inspire and make you desire (through self-identification) while they carefully guide you through a thorough step-by-step brand experience –from the warehouse floor to your floor at home where you build the dresser in 46 steps (or stations of the cross).

Brand ritual is sticky.

Recent research by The Association for Psychological Science divulged that most adults continue to twist their Oreo cookies apart and either lick the filling before eating the cookies or dunk them in milk just as they did as kids. Ongoing advertising depicts parents and grandparents sharing this ritual with youngsters reinforcing the joy of eating Oreos and so the ritual is passed down from generation to generation. Oreo remains the #1 cookie brand at the age of 100. This often-cited example, which demonstrates that the power of rituals goes even further – they can increase our perception of value, too. In other words, if people perform rituals as part of their participation or consumption of your brand, then they are more likely to see it as having no alternative.

Harley Davidson management recognized that the brand had developed as a community-based phenomenon. The “brotherhood” of riders, united by a shared ethos, offered Harley the basis for a strategic repositioning as the one motorcycle manufacturer that understood bikers on their own terms. The Harley Owners Group is a riding club for Harley Davidson owners. HOG membership brings global brand fans together with special events and benefits “bound by the passion to ride”. What’s cool here is that the brand which symbolizes rugged individualism brings the “brotherhood of riders” together but allows each member to define and experience the brand in their own way, even as they observe time-honored HD rituals on the road. For motorcycle enthusiasts, there isn’t any other brand like HD; they’re part of a very special group and lifestyle choice. Yet HOG site reaches out to would-be HD fans, too, with pages that invite them to try a bike, customize and trick one out and blog about their experiences and passion for the brand with other members of the cult. There’s a dedicated magazine and an online shop to buy HD gear. So become one of us but do it your own way.

Further research by the Harvard Business Review demonstrates that the power of rituals goes even further – they can increase our perception of value, too. In other words, if employees perform rituals as part of their jobs, they are likely to find their jobs more rewarding. And if consumers use a ritual to experience your product, they are likely to enjoy it more, be willing to pay more for it and are much more likely to brag about it to others.

What are your brand’s rituals? What could you enhance about your offering by viewing the tactical aspects as cultural building blocks? To find the answers, look at ways to integrate a set of beliefs and a sense of belonging to drive unconscious reinforcement with the ultimate goal of passionate brand worship.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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Use Design as Theater to Create User-Centered Packaging Experience

It is no longer enough to be merely purchased and consumed, products have to relate to customers in a way that creates brand loyalty and longevity as an expression of the consumers’ life.

If “all the world’s a stage,” then brand managers need to think like playwrights, CEOs need to become producers and brands need to become actors. In their 1999 book, The Experience Economy: Work is Theater and Every Business a Stage, B. Joseph Pine and James H. Gilmore implored us to recognize that products and services must become “theater” for consumers in order to make a meaningful, emotional connection and to avoid commoditization.

“Businesses are no longer selling goods and services-they are staging experiences.”

Consumer product marketers may think retailers or service providers have an easier job in creating “theater” within a fixed venue. Certainly, retailers may have more opportunities to convey the brand message through multiple touchpoints. Yet, this also requires greater coordination in accurately delivering the brand message across all channels. Everything from the signs on the door, to the front line associate, to the product itself, to the shopping bag, to the displays, must consistently embody the brand message. With consumer goods, the primary touchpoint is the product itself. So, it’s the package and the product that must deliver the “performance.” The product must project itself into the lives of the consumer in a meaningful way. So, how can a product and package become theater?

The Method method

The foundation of theater is the human-to-human experience and connection. Package design must convey the human experience and “perform it” authentically. Package and product designers should, therefore, think like Method actors embodying the brand identity and personality within the design.

When the great acting theorist Konstantin Stanislavski developed the notion of a “believable truth” for actors (and his Method), he was asserting that theater was only going to be meaningful if it went beyond external representation and into emotional connection. The objective was to create truthful and deeply felt performances that were equally believable and meaningful to the audience. The same holds true for branding.

The believable truth is that which the customer sees, experiences, and remembers. The brand, therefore, needs to connect with the customers’ own feelings, memories, and experiences in order to be recognized as genuine and meaningful. In order to accomplish this, a designer must utilize and internalize these memories, feelings, and experiences to create the brand “performance.” This performance, or presentation, is how the customer will ultimately experience the product or service.

The journey for the Method actor starts with researching and assembling all external facts about the character before he can then use his own feelings, memories, and experiences to create a complete and believable individual. In branding, a designer must assemble all external and internal facts about both the product and the customer in order to find the common bond that will create the experience and make the emotional connection. Then, using intuitiveness and expertise, create it. For an actor, the character traits are internalized to project the true nature of the character. If these traits are not incorporated into the performance, the actor can only present a one dimensional character-offering nothing to which the audience may connect.

For the brand designer, the character traits, or “pillars,” are those unique core values that must be internalized and embedded into every aspect of the design process in order to project the genuine personality of the brand. If these are not present in the design elements, then a one-dimensional presentation is the result-one that has no emotional, cultural, or intrinsic value to the consumer. It is merely a product, not an experience. Embedding the core values into the overall design enables the product to project those genuine, unique values to the consumer. The result is a meaningful connection and brand loyalty.

As an example, outdoor retailer REI realized that their store brand products were perceived as having less value than the various name brand products they carried. After an in-depth character analysis (therapeutic brand evaluation) the specific traits that the company embodied were defined; among these traits were rugged, gritty, and authentic associations. Once identified, the product and packaging were transformed to match these qualities. The entire interior visual branding system and environmental graphics combined all elements into a cohesive message speaking to their customers’ outdoor enthusiast culture. It’s about how the customers see themselves-and they see themselves in the REI brand.

Personality profiling

While demographics, sales, and customer data can provide an overview of customers and how the brand is integrated into their lives, those will only provide an external perspective of the brand’s character. Understanding the underlying psychological realism that constitutes the emotional connection between the brand and consumer is crucial to understanding how best to communicate or portray the brand message. One of the best ways to understand this is through the use of personality profiling.

Personas have been used in a number of ways since Carl Jung defined the term in the early- to mid-1900s. In the realm of branding, the use of personas has evolved into a way to develop unique brand identities and create emotional connections. At its core, the persona is what is presented to the outside world around us in order to relate with others. This is exactly what the actor does on stage or on film. It becomes that which is identifiable with other people.

To maintain the psychological realism required the make the emotional connection, the persona must have both negative and positive characteristics. In developing personas, it’s key to look at both sides in order to develop a unique, holistic and genuine personality. For instance, being self-centered may be considered a negative trait, but it may be exactly that with which a core customer might unconsciously identify.

Creating personas involves both qualitative and quantitative research in order to have a complete and reliable model on which to base the personality categories. The qualitative information can best be gained through direct observation, in a cultural anthropological research model, in order to gather the traits, characteristics, goals, behaviors, needs, wants, desires, etc. of core customers. The customers can then be divided into several persona types-each with their own unique characteristics. These defined types can then be tested through quantitative research analysis tools, such as customer sales data, to confirm that the category assumptions are correct. It’s important to have both. As we all know, human beings don’t always say what they mean or want, nor do what they say!

Creating the entire experience

Categorizing persona types can be used for any consumer product, retail operation, or financial service. By creating a holistic and realistic “character,” the brand designer can then create an experience that best presents those traits to the consumer.

An actor connects with the audience based on a truthful expression of the character through personality traits brought out through his own feelings, memories, and experiences. Where an actor has the use of his body, face, and voice to bring this to life, the brand designer has color, texture, shape, size, font, message, etc., to accomplish the same thing. The brand designer must become the brand. By internalizing the core characteristics of the brand with the persona of the consumer, the product will become that character. And the customer will see themselves as they want to be in that product. Hence, the ultimate consumer-brand connection is created.

A differentiated, believable brand experience is developed from a realistic psychological foundation utilizing the unique personality traits of both the customers and the brand. The meaningful experience that will ultimately connect the brand to the customer is created through designing the unique-yet genuine-brand character and creating the experience around it. Just as the actor portrays a character that creates a meaningful theatrical experience, the brand becomes a meaningful experience by projecting the believable truth.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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Creating a Third Place

In the business of retail brand design, one phrase is so over-used, it’s been rendered almost meaningless. And that phrase should be the most meaningful one in the business. In fact, it employs the word meaningful.

“Creating meaningful customer experiences.” Like anything else, this concept is being bandied about because it’s what retailers really want to hear from design consultancies, since it goes to the heart of what they want to accomplish. “Creating meaningful customer experiences” is the one determinant in branding that retailers, large and small, know makes the difference between commoditization and unique positioning in the marketplace. But this begs the question: “How can we effectively go about accomplishing this objective?”

The pat answer, of course, is research. The consultancy begins by launching into research before the retail brand can be developed or revitalized, and proper positioning can occur. Research is intensive and exhaustive, encompassing many factors; the retailers’ desired demographic groups, current customer base, store locations and the competition among them. Yet, from our perspective, the real work begins after that. By digging deeper and deeper into the retail core, a clear picture begins to emerge of who a particular retailer is and what they offer. The retail operation’s core assets generally offer some kind of differentiating factor that enables the consultancy to give it a unique brand identity and positioning. From that, an entire visual brand communications system can be developed and put into place with a comprehensive brand standards guide.

While all of this is a textbook, pragmatic, and very professional approach to retail brand design, will it get the retailer to that magical point of real connection with the customer? Probably not. All of the best branding efforts: identity and positioning, internal/external brand initiatives, optimal store design, high tech components, glitzy internal/external signage, catalog programs and P-O-P are missing the point if they fail to touch the customer. If the retail brand is unable to touch the customer intellectually, emotionally—even spiritually—the branding work has been nothing more than a fruitless exercise; done for naught. Yet, this is the key component that is missing from so many retail operations. So how did we arrive at this holistic view of retail branding from the “customer experiences” cue?

Retail Evolutions

During our two decades in the retail brand design business, it’s been interesting to witness the evolution of retailing. While there have been substantial gains in the product sourcing, purchasing, technology and distribution areas of the business—which are all meant to translate to better service, more customer friendly environments (and greater profits)—there have been significant losses as well. The strongly individual retail brands of the past have given way to a new generation of much more generic retailers. Human contact between retailer and customer has become more and more minimal. An excursion into any major shopping mall proves these points.

When the customer walks into store after store, what differentiates one from another? The store layouts all look the same, the merchandise mix looks the same, the high tech environment is just as coldly modern from one store to the next, from the fixtures to the blaring Plasma TV screens and music. But where is the human contact? Where are there any human elements at all? What is the customer’s experience? Is it meaningful? Memorable? Are any ties being forged with the customer?

Experiential marketing theorizes that the customer’s experiences with corporate (read: retail) brands go well beyond tangible product offerings to the intangibles around those product offerings that form customer perception, attitudes and emotions based on their interactive experiences with the brand. These intangibles transcend product mixes—all of which can be purchased from a number of competitors. Retail marketers who still think they can sell to the customer based on the perceived unique features and benefits of their brands, had better think again. It is the intangibles—the way the customer’s intellectual and emotional needs are met, in their perception, that truly build their preferences and loyalty for specific retail brands.

Again: how do we go about accomplishing this?

Starbucks: A Case Study

When Starbucks came to our consultancy a few years ago, management knew that their stores were in imminent danger of becoming generic. Customers needed to have a fully branded experience in order to be engaged by Starbucks’ coffee shops—a world of premium, distinctive coffees embodied in one place. Otherwise, customers might as well buy their coffee at the corner convenience store. It was Starbucks’ management’s objective to make Starbucks a memorable and connecting brand experience for coffee lovers—so they would make Starbucks their chosen, ultimate destination for great coffee. In fact, Starbucks management specifically desired to become the global leader in coffee. Their stated objective from the beginning was to “open a store per day forever”!

For Starbucks, future growth, brand and corporate valuation and “getting its brand positioning right” were key; long before the idea of specialty coffee brands and coffee shops caught on and proliferated. Starbucks felt that if they got it “right”, every new specialty coffee brand that emerged would be either viewed as a Starbucks “knock-off” or a poor second to a superstar brand.

Research showed that Starbucks lacked the right retail brand platform and environment to create a premium “coffee culture”. In order to become relevant to coffee aficionados, the Starbucks brand would have to embody the culture, magic, romance and cult surrounding the exotic offerings in its shops. Those shops, too, would have to be inviting, warm environments where customers—human beings—would want to come and linger for a while, enjoying their coffee with a newspaper, just sitting and relaxing away from daily rushed routines, or experiencing the camaraderie of visiting with their friends.

By creating that “Third Place”—not home and not work—but a unique environment where people are welcome to come in and linger, a deep connection was—and still is—being made, between Starbucks and its customers all over the globe. The concept of “third place” was conceived by CEO Howard Schultz and his marketing team and implemented by Lemley Design.

Starbucks has a unique culture, and it was brought out in a special way. Starbucks’ culture is centered on the “Siren”—an alluring, fluid and human figure that gave rise to a unique iconography in its stores, signifying the natural elements involved in the roasting, brewing and aroma of great coffee. Earth grows the coffee beans, fire roasts them, water brews them, and the air carries their aroma. These icons are deeply rooted in human consciousness and artistically depict modern representations of music, mythology and ceremony; the sea, navigation, the sun, the moon and the stars. Customers connect to these images in a profound way. They speak of the human story. When retailing is put into such strong cultural context, human connections are made. When retailing creates a warm, human environment, one that the customer can relate to, that magical “meaningful customer experience” is finally a reality. Neither home nor work, but a refuge and haven from life’s routine schedules and places, the goal of making Starbucks “The Third Place” has been achieved. Countless customers—who have become both fans and devotees—attest to this daily. The Starbucks brand instantaneously delivered culture, hipness and sophistication with a $3.00 cup of coffee.

By extending Starbucks’ new brand platform to include positioning language, a voice was given to its visual brand communications. A packaging system for the coffees sold in the stores was developed, connecting each to its cultural roots. Each coffee bag is unique and its packaging and distinctive coffee stamps tell the story of each brew. When customers purchase Starbucks coffee and take it home, they bring the Starbucks culture right into their homes. Starbucks becomes part of their lifestyles.

Crucially important to the positioning and branding of a retail operation, is the establishment of employee training and internal branding initiatives. After all, every employee is a brand evangelist, or should be. The onus is on management to make certain employees who interface with the customer and are the “brand” to that customer, embody that brand in alignment with its values… and deliver on its promise. Retail specialty stores like Starbucks are service intensive. Direct interaction with the customer is the last and most critical brand touch point that determines the quality of customer experience with the brand. This last brand element brings all of our cultural cues, warm environments and shared humanity into sharp focus.

Bottom line: there is a positive thirst among consumers for a unique branded experience (read: a deeply human experience) in the retail marketplace. Those retailers who give the customer satisfaction at all levels, who serve the intellectual, emotional and even spiritual needs of the customer, will develop cult followings. It’s obvious that retailing is about far more than selling products the customer needs and wants. It is far more than offering better service. It really is about going back to our roots—the human, cultural ties that bring us all together.

Understandably, not every retailer is a Starbucks. Every retail operation is unique, and each has to be approached and branded according to their unique brand identity. This is the common thread that binds all retailers to their customers.


My perspective, as the Principal of a seasoned retail brand design business, is that all of our creative capabilities and core services are subservient to the business needs of the retailer. We are in the design business, and I always say that: “The business comes first and the design comes second.” Our firm’s first directive is to really listen to the retailers’ needs and to address their problems with the most viable brand identity and brand communications solutions. Being conversant with retailers’ financials and delivering results—a solid ROI—is crucially important. In fact, this is the first order of business. Sharing a big picture view with the retailer, as well as seamless brand strategies that will carry them solidly into the future, is always the plan.

In the case of Starbucks, when Wright Massey and Scott Bedbury shared our brand vision for the specialty retailer with a Wall Street analyst at Starbucks’ corporate HQ in Seattle, the stock rose by $3.00 per share that very day. Over the next decade of using the toolbox we helped to create Starbucks added $5 billion US in brand value. Is investing in the proper brand positioning, and comprehensive in-store experience, or design strategy a determinant of corporate value? You be the judge.

Our mission, and passion, is to position or revitalize retail brands that drive culture and build loyalty and equity. Cultural cues are personal, relevant and truly connect the customer to the retail brand in the most meaningful way, creating a leader in its sector. And that is where the retailer’s ROI is realized.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

Connect with David