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.

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Founder, President, & Chief Strategist
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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