Timeless and Classic or Outdated? Iconic brands have to walk a fine line when it comes to maintaining a fresh and contemporary perception in their audience’s mind.
Many of the products we are dropping into our shopping carts during the weekly grocery run have companioned us since our earliest childhood. Often they go so far back that even our parents, sometime grandparents, have learned to trust these brands and employ them as household staples. Coca Cola, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, A1 Steak Sauce, Domino Sugar, Campbell’s Soup, Reese’s, Sabrett Hot Dogs, Cheerios, Snickers, Heinz Ketchup, Cheez-it, there are many more of course. What many of them have in common is that their packaging design, their visual brand experience, has hardly changed since it was first originated, often several decades ago. And there seems to be convincing reason for that: these brands represent lasting values, they convey to us the timeless qualities and benefits our parents and grandparents already valued about them. Many of them perform exceptionally well and continue to be leaders in their market. A major move away from those established formats and packaging designs that we have become so familiar with could permanently damage the trusted relationship. But at the same time individual brands, sometimes whole categories, that were once beloved by a specific consumer segment, become irrelevant as consumer behaviors evolve and demands change.
At what point do iconic classic brands run into the danger of appearing outdated and becoming irrelevant?
It’s a fine line, one that has to be constantly monitored and, more importantly, actively managed by the brand owners. Why? Because approaching the consumer with a brand image and message they perceive as being ‘yesterday’ will imminently lead to a loss of interest, trust, and love.
Now, don’t get me wrong here, this is not about whether a current packaging design lives up to the latest design trends or aesthetic standards or may win a design award celebrated within the design community. This is about bottom-line business realities. Great design is always driven by the desire to create solutions that are appropriate to a defined brand target audience, NOT by how aesthetically pleasing they are! Surprisingly this becomes an even more pressing challenge the more mass appeal a product is looking for. Of course, most mass market products should look affordable and accessible rather than overly elaborate and exclusive. Because reaching the broadest spectrum of customers is their goal, many mass consumer brands however are mainly concerned about ensuring they don’t alienate anyone with their design and brand appeal. The result: they look generic, unrefined, unexciting, ultimately unappealing. Instead, they should take a clear stance for something to ensure their core audiences love them passionately. Kevin George, VP of Deodorant & Haircare at Unilever, summed this point up perfectly: “Either you stand for Something or you stand for Nothing. A brand for Everyone is a brand for No-one.”
Iconic, classic brands are very much relying on the trust they have built over decades with generations of consumers. Changing or evolving their brand image may be seen as a dangerous move towards putting that trust at stake. Keeping things as they always have been, appears to be the safer and more comfortable direction. But in this day and age brands are also facing drastically changing consumer behaviors. Millennials are not listening to their mom’s advice anymore when it comes to deciding which products to purchase for home and kitchen table. Through social media, reality TV, and other untraditional channels, they learn about latest trends and are much more open to connect with up and coming, local, sometimes small-batch brands that have a more unique brand vision and stand for something these audiences like to be associated with. Very recently Diageo, a vast consumer goods company with world-famous drink brands, has felt the pain across their broad portfolio that now is being attacked by small-batch, often local liquors from all sides. Consumer loyalty is down and so are their sales.
A critical juncture will be knowing when the time is right to move from the emotions of austerity to new confidence, when to move from looking back to looking forward with curiosity and developing the evolved and new.
When Dirk Kammerzell (Principal of QuantumLeap Creative) re-designed the iconic packaging of M&M’s (already a one billion dollar brand at the time) the biggest challenge was to maintain the classic familiar and beloved elements of the brand image while evolving the overall look to be bolder, fresher, and more contemporary. The iconic look of the M&M’s logo stands for the legacy of the brand that has started to heavily expand into new product flavors, formats, and brand extensions. “What emerged from the briefing discussion right away was the importance of the history of the brand, its long-standing pervasiveness. The challenge has been how to maintain that essence, how to translate the brand story into a contemporary and engaging packaging design, looking to the future.” says Kammerzell.
The new packaging information architecture and design established a striking look for the brand, achieving a refreshed design by combining the successful and popular elements it already had in a new and more exciting way. Nothing excessive, nothing out of-the-blue new. A big change that seems small in scope is sometimes the best approach for revitalizing a brand image, and M&M’s mastered that move. The fact that consumers for the most part didn’t acknowledge the significant change actually speaks for the strategic objective of the initiative: launching a revitalized packaging design that every consumer immediately would feel comfortable and familiar with. At the same time the new brand look and feel built the foundation for exciting new product initiatives that led to double-digit revenue growth shortly after it’s introduction.
So what should classic iconic brands do to best prepare themselves for a bright future? Here a few tips on how to smartly move ahead:
- Never stop evolving your brand, regardless of whether it is iconic and classic and currently successful or not. It’s the only way to guarantee that relationships with consumers aren’t unintentionally disrupted by a change. Your brand evolution becomes a natural process.
- Be aware that significantly changing long established designs may compromise your ability to legally protect the intellectual brand properties that have earned consumer trust over decades
- Understanding the consumer is key! Decision-making and shopping behaviors have drastically changed over recent years. Understanding how that is affecting your brand is critical.
- Clearly define what your brand stands for, what it believes in! Consumers are looking for brands they identify and share values with.
- Evolve your core product packaging to stay fresh and contemporary. Introducing seasonal retro, vintage, or throwback versions can be a powerful tool to ensure no-one forgets about the long-standing history of your brand (Example: General Mills has been offering cereals dressed in retro packaging exclusively at Target)
- Take extra care when evolving actual product formulas of beloved iconic brands – we all remember the failure of ‘New Coke’
- Keep your brand fresh and relevant by introducing special edition packaging design (i.e., related to current events, seasons, trends, etc. M&M’s are doing everything right in this respect)
- Introduce innovative, new packaging formats (supporting for example new usage occasions) that become workhorses for driving revenue growth while classic versions of the product continue to be a key driver for the brand’s perception (Example: while most restaurants continue to use the glass bottles, Heinz removed them from grocery stores decades ago in favor of squeezable plastic packaging. Heinz did sell a limited-edition glass bottle in grocery stores in 2011)
- Select your branding and design partners based on how well they understand that great design is about being appropriate, not pretty!
Lessons for Today’s Popular Brands
Brands cannot afford to rest on past laurels and must strive to keep up with changing market dynamics and evolving consumer demands. In today’s world, where consumers can access an excessive amount of information anywhere at any time, brands won’t stay on top of the consumer’s mind unless they are delivering a topnotch product and relevant brand experience. It is critical to keep a strict eye on the competitive brandscape, particularly on start-ups that gain instant popularity following positive reviews on social media. With the percentage of brand loyal consumers falling (according to an Ernst & Young study) the one thing brands can NOT co is take their consumers for granted.