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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?

Will you think like a manufacturer or a brand?

Marketing and brand managers often run into brick walls when they try to design packaging for new units. They need more flexibility in packaging as the brand grows; they want a design that’s future-proof. 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

In the beginning, when you’re a small brand with a handful of products, it’s easy to develop a consistent packaging system that encompasses your identity, your product’s attributes, and category signals. And it’s easy to match that packaging to your other brand visuals like the website and social media profile. But as you add flavors, special ingredients, or line extend into new categories, for example, packaging design gets more complicated. You need to add copy, claims or certifications.

Then, as you further expand, complexity rises. All of a sudden, 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, every competitor in the salsa category leads with red, and your hallmark color is blue.

Like your company’s R&D, your packaging design needs room to allow 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) Type: Rigid

Examples: RX Bar, Kashi

( RX Bar Image Source:

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 BFY brand puts on when it launches, when there isn’t money for beautiful food photography and custom typefaces. It’s plug-and-play.

The disadvantage, however, 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 varieties that are similar to one another, 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 difference is coloring to find the variety she’s looking for.

2) Type: Flexible

Examples: 365 Everyday Value, Udi’s Gluten Free

( Udis Image Source:

Every private-label brand on the market uses a flexible packaging system, which relies on a fairly standardized architecture by category but allows for modifications to meet category conventions in a group of products. Flexible packaging systems are ideal for brands that cross disparate category lines.

The more categories the brand plays in, the simpler the system should be. The logo, the product name, variety, ingredient icons (like the gluten-free “bug”), and that’s it. It has to be simple so it can easily scale.

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 doesn’t have serious design chops to adopt the brand look consistently from tortilla chips to body wash; it’s harder to maintain the design quality and integrity across all the brand’s offerings.

3) Type: Bespoke

Examples: Newman’s Own, Bob’s Red Mill, Califia Farms

( Califia Image Source:

A bespoke packaging system incorporates a master brand, with a set of design standards for each subsequent category. This works best when the brand is well established and widely recognized, so consumers can easily make the shift across categories. It involves a suite of master brand elements that can be rearranged and still be recognizable.

Over the life cycle of a highly successful BFY brand, it will start with a rigid system, then move to a flexible system as it crosses into multiple categories, finally ending up with a bespoke system when it has achieved category dominance. For example, Califia Farms built its reputation on almond milk, and it retains its core brand identity as it shifts into juices and coffee beverages.

Which System is Right for You?

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

Does your team think like a manufacturer rather instead of a brand? In other words, “We will only make stuff that can come out of our factory using the exact equipment and procedures we use today. Line extension to us is really flavor extension: simple ingredient swaps in our core products.” If so, a rigid system is your best choice.

Does your team operate like Willy Wonka? Is everything you make satisfying and delicious? “I would love to stay and talk but I am inventing 15 things again tomorrow and cannot be troubled by tactics, systems, or reality.” A flexible system will allow you to pivot from one category to the next quickly.

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 system we’ll never have to guess at.” In that case, bespoke is the way to go.

Need help making the best choice for your brand? Let us know.

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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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