Published in Nov-Dec 2022
Let’s grab a trolley and take a walk down the aisles of a favourite supermarket and make a note of what’s new and notable. I head straight for the confectionary and snacks aisles; surely that is where one might find the most mouth-watering variety.
Down the cereal aisle we go, and I keep waiting for something to pop out from amidst the Kellogg’s, Post and Alpen boxes. But no – Fauji cereals still haven’t come up with anything pause worthy despite having a far larger variety of options compared to yesteryear. Down below on one of the lower shelves one can see some local brands vying to stand out from the imported competition. Fitilicious is valiantly trying to go the minimalist route, NutriLov has got some interesting stuff going on, and with a little more effort at tidying up a very cluttered design, they can be something to make people stop and take a second look… “New and Improved version 2” should be something to look forward to.
Speaking of “new and improved”, the old wine in new bottles approach has become so stale on the advertising scene that it is hardly worth looking out for packaging upgrades for the same brands. Having caught a glimpse of the recent Supreme TVC, I foolishly spent a few minutes taking a detour down the tea aisle, looking for the new SKU. While subtlety in design upgrades is something commendable, the original design was hardly pause-worthy and neither was the upgrade. Sooper, however, did make one pause and take not one but a few double takes at the upgrade. Compared to the earlier version, the new reincarnation is definitely a ‘sooperior’ version, from the revamped logotype to the subtly sophisticated design scheme.
In fact, the snacks and confectionery shelves revealed quite a few pause-worthy moments. The recent Gluco Teddy was a surprisingly fresh characterbased brand to appear on the shelves after a long time. However, the hard-to-decipher Smile Donut Cake, despite the name, was not smile-worthy. The Bisconni end of the aisle offered up a few revelations as well – the Chai Wala Biskut was a much more pleasant experience on the shelf (and in the hand) than its campaign on the mini-screen – and the truck-art inspired design works well at that scale. The new coffee-centred biscuit, DayDream, was tempting enough to go in the trolley.
Around the corner and onto the next aisle, one encountered another refreshed brand, but it turned out to be an anti-climax of sorts. While the campaign that launched the new face of National’s recipe mixes was as vibrant and attractive as one would expect from the brand, the packaging, as seen on the shelf, turned out to be far less delicious. Although the design is bolder than the previous version, the colour coded impact of the new branding doesn’t pop from the shelves. The names of the variants are not as visible as they could have been, with the Urdu and English scripts getting tangled up with each other in some instances. With so much effort given to embellishments and design motifs, this simple oversight is unjustifiable. On closer inspection, the embellishments and icons (creating an obvious crescent shape) don’t add to the design and are eerily reminiscent of the Unilever logo and its brand icons (which have a deep connection to that brand’s vision and philosophy). Here the graphics merely add clutter and detract from the temptation of the food offering. Do the graphics REALLY need to have a deeper layer of meaning and will the person picking the pack off the shelf care? Not really. Design can also be about subtle messaging a brand can build upon over time. On SKUs, where surface area is prime real estate, every inch (negative space or not), should be maximised for impact. The real disappointment comes when one turns the pack over and the information clutter on the back and the sides assaults the eyes.
This “clutter” according to a venerable brand expert from the UK is a designer’s worst nightmare – yet legal and trade requirements may necessitate a lot of ‘clutter’. However, that is no excuse for shoddy typography and layout. A lot of our packaging suffers from this malaise; all the effort goes into beautifying the front, leaving the rest for some incompetent underling to finish.
On the fringes of the FMCG/ mass market shelves, in the refrigerated corner, one comes across some intriguing and eye opening examples of design, packaging and branding for niche and start-up brands in the food industry. Oye Hoye chips was a good example of packaging that was great to look at no matter which side you saw, both in terms of visual and written content. Dayfresh’s flavoured milk SKUs took an entertaining approach in their design and this was refreshing to see. A few years ago, Owsum, the flavoured milk brand, landed on the shelves with packaging that represented a great attempt at storytelling, but it fell victim to the printing technology available to the UHT packaging suppliers in Pakistan at that time.
Actually, our printing industry and its challenges are a huge stumbling block for any attempts at innovative packaging. The harsh reality is that packaging costs in Pakistan are prohibitively expensive, which means that innovative solutions, in terms of material, format and moulds are highly unlikely and packaging design solutions end up being mere exercises in applied graphics. For paper or board-based formats, a huge limitation is the manufacturers’ processing and packing lines and whether they can be reconfigured efficiently to allow for ANY changes. By changes I do not necessarily mean in size or shape, even double-layered flaps (carrying promotional information for a limited-time campaign for example) on a simple box, can throw the entire packaging/filling line into disarray, because the increased thickness in the card may cause glitches. Can these hiccoughs be overcome? Possibly yes, but invariably cost efficiencies take precedence and the same tried and tested simple box formats end up winning the battle.
SKUs across the board seem to be becoming smaller and smaller, and one can endlessly debate the economic realities that are putting cost pressures on everything and everyone, including packaging. However, what should be up for discussion is the scarcity of good design on the shelves.
There has been a marked trend among FMCGs in recent years to bypass local design talent in favour of foreign design agencies. Yet, most of the examples listed above are produced by foreign design agencies. Are there NO design professionals capable of producing similar kinds of packaging design solutions?
What edge do international design agencies bring to the table? Design research is probably the area where they have the biggest advantage if only because it is hopelessly out of step in Pakistan; research agencies may be very proficient at the stereotypical qualitative/ quantitative research, but design research is a woefully misunderstood area (having experienced first-hand how skewed and stilted research ends up being, simply because the people in charge have no idea what the design research should be aimed at). The report ends up being majorly unhelpful from a design-development point of view, with hardly any meaningful insights that can influence the design process.
A brand narrative backed by strategy, insights and research that demonstrates how people perceive, interact and relate to design in their daily lives is essential in developing packaging that has an impact on the brand and on the people who use that brand. International design agencies, with their signature methodologies and design approaches, are probably able to do a far better job at selling packaging ideas than any local design/creative agency because although they may have the skill and talent, they are unable to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their international counterparts in terms of design processes and systems. Sadly, our educational institutions are ill-equipped to fill this gap at present.
So if a client ends up handing a design brief to an international design agency at 100 times the cost and with 10 times the execution timeline compared to the local set-up, then we have only ourselves to blame for not upping our game, our skill set and our thought-leadership and prove definitively that no one can understand, execute and deliver on our design needs better than ourselves.
Adnan Syed is Design Consultant & Creative/Life Coach, Green Man’s Ark. firstname.lastname@example.org