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What Package Architecture System is Right for Your Brand?

When you add a product to your lineup — a new flavor, perhaps — how easy is it to crank out the package for the new SKU? If you’re considering extending into another category — say, from tortilla chips to fresh salsa — will your existing packaging easily adapt to the new form and the conventions of the other category?

Marketing and brand managers often run into brick walls when they try to develop packaging for new units. They need more flexibility in packaging as the brand grows; they want a future-proof design. They feel stuck within the constraints of their existing design scheme. They want … well, they don’t know what they want.

How to Know When Your Packaging Isn’t Flexible Enough

Smaller brands with a handful of products have an easier time developing a consistent packaging system that includes the necessary components: brand identity, product attributes, and category signals. And it’s easy to match that packaging to companion brand visuals like the website and social media messaging. 

But for large brands, packaging design gets more complicated with all the additional flavors, line extensions, and variations (like organic or gluten free). As the portfolio grows, the visual system starts to break down and lose cohesion. Suddenly, your packaging isn’t navigable from less than two feet at retail; consumers can’t tell the difference between vanilla, vanilla bean, and vanilla chocolate chip varieties. You have so many offerings that even color-coding to identify them becomes ineffective.

And when you cross into new categories, what works on the chip bag is illegible on the lid and face of the tub of salsa. Plus, your existing color scheme doesn’t translate to a different aisle — it’s either too similar or too oddball compared to other products on the shelf. –

Like your company’s R&D, your packaging design needs room for innovation.

Three Packaging Architecture Systems for Food & Product Brands

Developed as a system, your suite of packaging can accommodate new products and new categories to varying degrees. Let’s look at three key types of packaging systems in BFY food, beverage, and products:

1) Rigid Architecture

Examples: Sahale Snacks, Russell Stover

A rigid packaging system incorporates a set library of visual elements — logo, nutritional callouts, flavor/variety naming, product photography, colors — arranged in a fixed way. From product to product, nothing changes except what’s necessary for the consumer to navigate the category. 

This system is the most commonly used because it’s simple to execute: A design agency can hand off the visual assets and layouts, and the brand’s internal team can easily develop the designs and add SKUs. 

Rigid packaging systems are often the first set of “clothes” that a brand puts on when it launches. It’s plug-and-play. For that reason, it’s also the preferred option for mid-market brands that have an in-house design team with limited capacity or expertise to extend the design lanugage to other products. 

The disadvantage is that a rigid system doesn’t flex for significant innovation, like a cross-category line extension or a sub-family of new products within the brand. It works best when you’re playing within a single category or a few closely related ones (such as Kashi cereal, bars, and grain-based frozen meals). It can also be difficult for consumers to navigate when you add similar varieties, i.e., oats and chocolate vs. oats and vanilla. The shopper will have to pick the product up off the shelf to read the copy or detect the minute color difference to find the variety they’re looking for.

2) Flexible Architecture

Examples: Del Real Foods, Henreietta Said

Flexible packaging systems are ideal for brands that cross category lines. Just because every private-label brand on the market uses a flexible packaging system doesn’t mean leveraging this approach will result in generic-looking packaging at shelf. 

The beauty of a flexible system relies on a fairly standardized architecture (based on brand identity and design language) but allows for customization. This is where key aspects including photography, product benefit language, or call-outs as needed to meet category conventions for a group of products get merged with core equities and brand assets.

The more categories the brand plays in, the simpler the system should be. This sounds easy, but designing systems that are simple and flexible without being generic, boring, or unnavigable can be hard. Yes, the design language and photography styling have to be simple, and systematized, so it can easily scale — but somewhere in the process, creativity and imagination must come into play in order to stand out from the shelf set.

The benefit of a flexible system is also its downside: It’s harder to execute because the rules are looser. It’s more difficult for an internal team that has its own ambitions and wants to flex their creative muscles to adopt the brand look consistently as they pivot from tortilla chips to body wash. It’s harder to maintain the design quality and integrity across all the brand’s offerings.

3) Bespoke Packaging Solutions

Examples: Califia Farms

(Califia Image Source: Farm Design)

Bespoke packaging systems incorporate a master logo with loose design standards for each subsequent category, flavors, or adjacent offering. This works best when the brand is well established, widely recognized, and blessed with a large marketing budget so consumers can easily shop across categories, become excited by all the variances, and participate in the discovery process. It involves a suite of master brand elements that can be rearranged, reimagined, or reorganized — and still be recognizable. Our 2023 research suggests that this approach is falling out of fashion with fast-moving consumer goods, with the exception of limited-edition offerings.

Which System is Right for You?

The right packaging system is primarily a function of your product line but also depends on your organizational approach to innovation. If you don’t have a handle on your team’s culture, an external design partner will struggle to help you.

Does your team see itself as stewards of the brand? “We need a plan that will allow for innovation beyond what we can predict right now. We want to future-proof our brand, but it needs to map to our values and why we exist. We need a design playbook we’ll never have to guess at.” In that case, a rigid packaging system is the way to go.

Does your team operate like Willy Wonka? Is everything you make satisfying and delicious? Is your innovation department producing so many new ideas that it cannot be troubled by tactics or limitations? Does your brand have line extensions on virtually every product? A flexible system will allow you to quickly launch products in category after category without sacrificing brand integrity or consumer recognition.

Do you need help making the best choice for your brand? Or worse, are you living with a bespoke system that you cannot wrangle? Let us know.

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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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