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Specialty versus Mass Market Package Design

Want to design a successful package? Well, there are some important factors you’ll always need to consider: What makes a package “mass market” versus “specialty retail”? How much and what copy should be on the front as opposed to the back of a package? How do you determine package sizing for a retail planogram? What are some common mistakes to avoid when designing a package? ...If you can figure these things out, you’re golden. The tricky thing is, that some of these questions are a moving target.

What makes a package "Mass Market" versus "Specialty Retail"?

What does make a package “mass market” versus specialty retail”? The simplest way to answer that is to understand the difference between a “mass market” retailer’s approach to selling an item versus a “specialty” retailer’s way of selling the same item. The “mass market” is massive. Packages sit side by side, row above row, in an overstimulating ocean of staple products, lost leaders, trending products and markdowns. The non-promoted products are left to sell themselves or face retail death. The mass market needs a package that tells a quick, clear and concise message. If your package does not tell the story in a snap of the finger, consumers will often pass right over it. Your package needs to stand out.

So if “mass market” is an ocean of products, then I’m guessing we’d all like to think of specialty as our neighborhood pond... simply by scale there is a massive difference between a 900 square foot strip mall store and free standing 25,000 square foot big box retailer. Just because there are less fish in that “specialty” pond it doesn’t mean that you can let your design guard down. No matter what the size of the body of water, there will always be bigger fish who will want to try and eat you.

What does make the “specialty” retailer such an interesting design environment is how they support their products. The specialty market tends to educate consumers, by engaging customers in conversation to help steer them to the right product fit for them. They will also demo and display products. Some specialty retailers support products in news letters and blogs. They will champion a product and drive new trends. So what does this have to do with design? Seemingly shouldn’t one box design fit all? That answer could be yes... but if you consider how the sale is made in specialty you’ll see the difference. Specially tends to connect with the consumer with a one-on-one pitch approach to sales. They tend towards packaging that is somewhat less garish and “instant message” oriented to the more sleek, subtle and sexy. The package artwork, to them, is a conversation starter rather then an entire sales campaign. But, while you still need to make the product’s use evident, you should leave some room for the retailer to tell the story in their own words.

A common question I get is how much copy should be on the front of a package as opposed to the back? To that I have a stock answer, I liken packaging to the way people gravitate to one another. The front of the package is the way a person looks. From afar, it can tell a quick story of just how smart and sophisticated they are or give an impression of being silly and goofy or even aloof. like with a person, the attractiveness of the package, will draw you in to engage the product. This should be done in a clean, concise way that projects the essence of the product. On the front, images are more important than words. Copy should be clean and easy to read from afar and not at all distracting. Any visual clues that can say “look at me”, should be engaged. The front tells the story in an instant moment of attraction. So dress your package for success.

The back of the package is the brains and personality of the person/product. Try and imagine the back as if you’re starting a first conversation with a person you’ve found intriguing. This is the moment when you’ll find out just how sophisticated, or goofy, that person/product can be. If you can balance the looks with the brains, you’ll have a very successful package.

If you don’t know what a planogram is, I will explain. A planogram is the method by which retailers determine where products will be placed on a shelf or a display for the purpose to optimize and increase customer purchases. There is a method to the madness of placing an item on a shelf or an endcap, you need to be aware how your package will fit into their overall. For this reason most packaging categories are basically modular. The retailer wants to know that if your product is under-performing, they can swap it out without having to re-layout the entire shelf. “Well” you ask, “how the hell do I figure out the sizing?” The answer is that if you can’t get the guidelines from the retailer directly, then go walk some retail stores with a ruler. Measure your competitors items. If you’re lucky, the retailer will be replacing those items with yours.

Far to often, when I’m speaking on packaging at trade shows, I have startup companies with great products come to me completely confused on why they have such poor sales. Many times they have some very thought-out, esthetically pleasing monochromatic packaging. My first questions is “from what design discipline does your designer come from?” The answer is almost always some sort of print or web design discipline. The potential problem with that is that unlike print and web design, consumers picking up your package at retail locations are not a captured audience. By making your packaging monochromatic you are basically making your product camouflage itself on shelf. You need to make sure the right elements pop off the package. Using 10 shades of the same blue won’t easily achieve this effect.

All too often I meet designers who think that just making a typeface large and bold constitutes a logo ...and while I will confess that on occasion it can work, nothing drives me crazier then a designer who doesn’t know how to properly space letters beside each other. There needs to be a spacial relationship that will balance it out. This is a Design Edge staple. We imagine a small ball that needs to travel within the negative space between the letters and in a channel that is a perfect size for that ball. It is the designers job to make sure that ball can travel perfectly between the letters without getting stuck or having too much space on either side.

I see this a lot when designers over-aim for the specialty market. They make gorgeous layouts that don’t tell you diddly-squat about the product. For the designer, it can be a proud centerpiece for their portfolio. But to the manufacturer, it can be a disaster in dead inventory. It all goes back to the points I stated earlier, that these packages are basically really attractive people with no brains. If you’re having a hard time conveying a message on the package, have limited real-estate or maybe production requirements, then I suggest you roll with the Steve Buscemi approach to packaging. You know the odd looking guy who looks like the gangster-version of Don Knots. You may know him from HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”, “The Sopranos” or Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs”. Anyway, he is so ugly in a unique way that he is attractive. Don’t get so hung up making your package sexy, make it “Buscemi”, the odd-looking package that stands out in a store full of sexy packages.

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