It’s design, but not as we know it: The rise of personalisation in branding and packaging

The world is changing. That much is obvious. What’s more interesting is the pace at which our expectations are changing with it.

The digital revolution has made spoiled, selfish insta-junkies out of all of us. We expect information and services to be universally accessible, immediate and personalised. We expect to be able to buy goods from a fashion store whilst we are relaxing in the bathtub; we expect online retailers to recommend products or brands we might like, based on our search or purchase patterns; we expect an app to locate stores we’d like to visit as we walk through malls or down a high street. And we expect Google to change its logo every single day.

We’re being conditioned to expect highly personalised experiences everywhere and we’re taking those high expectations to the physical world too. We want Nike trainers with the colour combinations we’ve picked out and our initials emblazoned on the tongue; we want monogrammed designer handbags and personalised ATM cards; we want individualised books that celebrate our ‘unique’ lives and we want tailor-made kitchens, sofas and even cars.

It’s easy enough to change a website or an app to sustain someone’s interest, but how do you change a physical brand expression, like a pack or a logo? It’s clear that to survive and flourish in this world of inflated expectations, brand design needs to change, and change urgently.

Charles Darwin once said that it “is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.” So is design changing?

Packaging as message, not medium

People who work in branding sometimes refer to themselves as the ‘logo police’, a title that reflects the purpose we have historically assigned to brand design – to be unchanging and immutable. The role of a brand designer has been to say ‘no’ to clients who want to fiddle and to say ‘not consistent enough’ to printers. Design was the only constant in a media mix of changeable messaging. But that seems like a rather narrow definition now. It also seems rather boring.

After all, if Google changing its logo constantly doesn’t fill us with dread, why shouldn’t Coca-Cola change its logo too? Share a Coke would have sent shockwaves of horror through the packaging design world twenty years ago, but since it debuted in Australia in 2012 it’s been mimicked the world over. It would be a conservative marketer indeed who would characterise Coca-Cola's game-changing initiative as recklessness.

Share a Coke was an authentic expression of the brand’s promise and character, so it advanced the brand story. Furthermore, it might have replaced the iconic logo with thousands of names, but it still looked like Coca-Cola. Ultimately, we want novelty and relevance from the brands we buy. We want Coca-Cola, but we want it to be exciting. We want it all ‘same same, but different’.

Personalised or predictable?

To sum up, consumer expectations are incentivising brands to be more changeable and more creative. In tandem, technology is keeping pace too. The invention of digital print (the technology that enabled the Share a Coke campaign) has removed the restrictions imposed on the medium by conventional print technology (digital print allows you to change things quickly and easily whereas conventional print doesn’t). That means that packaging can be flexible, nimble and fast-paced – attributes that lend themselves well to creating something personalised and interesting.

But personalised doesn’t just mean putting people’s names on your packaging (though a quick glance at what’s happened since Share a Coke might suggest otherwise). Perhaps because the technology is in its infancy, we are still in a period of infantilism as far as creativity is concerned, and copying Coca-Cola is the strategy du jour. There are some notable exceptions of course.

Heinz’s Get Well Soup campaign allowed people to personalise a tin of soup and have it sent to a sick relative or friend – a lovely build on the brand’s nurturing personality and on a product truth (or myth).

Jones knowles ritchie’s work for Irn-Bru saw two Scottish icons come together to remarkable effect when the brand replaced the usual labels for 52 of Scotland’s most popular tartans.

The future’s bright

In the last decade, the way we view and use design and packaging has fundamentally changed. We’ve seen its role become blurred as the boundaries between pack and communications have merged. We’ve seen it become responsive and agile. In some instances, it’s become genuinely personalised.

I think we’re on the cusp of a changing paradigm, and that we’ll see design stepping into the limelight to take a more active role in brand communications. As marketers seek new ways to achieve more targeted messaging, design is well poised to deliver individualised and relevant content.

Katie Ewer is a strategy director jones knowles ritchie (jkr)

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