Dyslexic Columnist

I couldn’t have written the title to this post without the help of spellcheck, but amazingly I’ve been invited to become a regular contributing writer for Packaging Gazette following this piece I wrote for their Packaging Yearbook!


Your brand experience can start with the packaging. But it shouldn’t end there. Simon Forster, Creative Director of Leeds-based Robot Food, discusses ways to make your brand live and breathe beyond the pack.

Nike, Apple, Coca-Cola. These behemoths have built their reputation over many years. How did they get to be so huge over such a long time without losing their edge? Three of the biggest reasons have to be: first-class products, innovative thinking and doing, and a consistent and appealing personality.

What about their packaging? It’s certainly an important part of the overall experience but it doesn’t drive their success. Nike, Apple and Coke products sell, not on the strength of their packaging, but on the strength of the brand.

Consumers are picky and demanding, and when they love a product, they want to connect with it beyond the packaging. What they’re buying into, or what they believe they’re buying into, is an emotional experience. It’s personal. People tend to choose brands that reflect their perceptions of themselves. So they want to be engaged and impressed in the right way for them. And that takes more than just great packaging.

Brand is everything

Coca-Cola doesn’t sell fizzy drinks; it sells happiness. Nike doesn’t sell sports gear; it sells motivation. You feel this in everything they do. That’s the power of their branding. The brand is the skeleton that holds everything together and keeps it all moving in the right direction. It’s a belief system, personality, a reputation, a key differentiator. It’s also a guarantee for a specific product, service or expertise to a particular set of standards. In short, it’s every company’s most valuable asset.

One example of the power of brand was Selfridges’ ‘No Noise’ project at the start of 2013. In their Quiet Shop, they sold a whole range of iconic products that had been ‘debranded’, such as Marmite jars and Heinz baked bean tins with blanked out labels. Not only did you still recognise the product, which is a testament to great pack design, but the absence of the logo actually enhanced the power of the brand itself. Only a truly powerful brand could carry this off. Their aim was to ‘celebrate the power of quiet’ but the sheer brand presence of names such as Heinz makes them speak to us even when their labels have been silenced.

Packaging as branding

Packaging is a very useful tool. Coca-Cola, for example, used it to talk to millions of individual consumers by printing names on every bottle. Packaging can also a very useful introduction to your brand. Lots of successful brands use great packaging as a springboard and build things up from there.

But how do you use packaging to turn that initial idea into a reputable brand? You start with  an idea or a proposition that’s authentic (but not necessarily unique) to you and express that on your packaging and then consistently across every touchpoint.

Look at Peppersmith gum. While not in the same league as Wrigley, Peppersmith sell their gum in beautiful packs that do more than just contain the gum. Each pack comes with a tiny book of papers for you to wrap your gum in when you’ve finished. Each of the little papers are even printed with an amusing message. Thoughtful little touches like this on your packaging can say more about your brand than any expensive marketing campaign.

Shepherds Purse is another small company, and an award-winning artisan cheesemaker. We at Robot Food created their new brand and packaging to communicate their time-honoured craft, quality ingredients and artisan values, which are a talking point at the countless food events they attend every year. The striking packs talk visually and verbally about the brand story and ingredients to get the conversation started. 

Access all areas: tone of voice and social media

Of course, the experience can’t start and end with the packaging, no matter how brilliant it is.

To stand the test of time in today’s multi-channel, speed-of-light world, any successful brand needs to be consistent, relevant, differentiated and credible. It has to translate, suit and look good in all the different arenas. So as well as the design elements, you also need the on-brand website, customer service experience and a social media presence.

Social media has transformed branding. Word of mouth can make or break a brand, location is irrelevant, and tiny brands can compete with global brands because consumers are always within reach. It’s a two-way conversation though, and companies that listen to what consumers say on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere means they can join in and tell their own stories in their own way, in real-time.

Having the right tone of voice, consistent across every touchpoint, is invaluable. How you tell your story is important. It’s handy if you’ve got compelling origins or a fascinating heritage to talk about but these aren’t essential. You just need to get your point of view out there in a way that reflects your personality and values.

The multi-award-winning BEAR Nibbles used packaging to launch their category-busting brand. Their brand values are evident on the packaging right down to the ‘Grr’ they use to sign off emails. Their strong personality goes through everything.

Beanies coffee launched in 2012. They sell delicious coffee in all kinds of flavours, and the first people knew of this small but ambitious challenger brand was its packaging. Robot Food designed the packaging to tell the brand story, and reflect Beanies quirky yet innovative approach to coffee. It got them from obscurity into Sainsbury’s. Word spread and Beanies now have a fiercely loyal customer base who publicly evangelise about the brand and its innovative products. This is actually influencing the direction of the company, and their growing fan base is calling for range extensions. By using the packaging as their springboard, Beanies is growing from strength to strength.

Another brand that wears its heart on its sleeve, i.e. its packaging, is Teapigs. A challenger brand in the then-staid world of tea, they used their packaging to present their values and engaging tone of voice, and they’ve now got a strong presence on every platform. ‘No airs. No graces. Just fine tea.’ is how they present themselves on Twitter.

Yet another is Stoats. Stoats porridge began by selling their delicious wares from a converted hot dog trailer at music festivals. The stall was called the ‘Stoats Porridge Bar’ and due to continuous customer demands for a product that didn’t exist, they went on to develop the world’s first porridge bar. We at Robot Food brought this great brand and story to life both visually and verbally on packs, and they’re now in most supermarkets. But they’ve stayed true to their grass-roots by continuing to sell their oats at outdoor stands, and people are helping them spread their ‘porridge to the people’ message on social media. Customers are very much part of the Stoats brand landscape.

2014 and beyond

Each of us occupy the personal, social and corporate worlds more or less simultaneously and as these arenas continue to merge, new channels and ways of expressing your brand will evolve. Effective and consistent brand expressions will become more critical.

As mentioned earlier, packaging is a tool. You can use it to introduce a brand, kick off a campaign or make any kind of statement. It’s interesting that firmly established brands such as Nike, Coke and Apple often make a statement on their packaging by saying very little. Many of their packs are very quiet and understated; all the better to let the product do the talking. But you can be sure that times evolve, so will their brand and therefore their packaging.

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