Packaging design trends 2021: Creatives critique F&B brand modernization and minimalism
20 Aug 2021 --- Front-of-pack designs can elevate F&B products to stardom or relegate them to obscurity on increasingly competitive retailer shelves. PackagingInsights speaks with designers from creative agencies Landor & Fitch, Pearlfisher and ROOK/NYC to discuss how artistic design can be used as a commercial tool to connect consumers with packaged products and establish brand loyalty.
They debate the dangers and opportunities in modernizing a brand’s identity as well as the pros and cons of popular minimalist packaging designs.
All three also illustrate how to leverage the most impactful design trends shaping the F&B packaging scene at the moment. “However, we have to think of [packaging design trends] as larger phenomena than trends,” notes Courtney Tight, senior client director at Pearlfisher.
“Calling design inspiration a ‘trend’ undercuts how important and lasting these forces are in culture and in their respective categories.”
Divergent perspectives on trends
Consumer-facing packaging has to appeal to consumers’ current aesthetic tastes to trigger purchase impulses, which evolve alongside the music, fashion and art industries. As such, packaging designs must also keep up.
On the one hand, design agency ROOK/NYC’s founder and creative partner Mark Christou, along with co-founder and managing partner Rebecca Thomas Christou, observe that food packaging is inspired by pop culture more than ever.
“The rebirth of the 90’s style, for instance, is bringing in brighter colors, approachable bubbly typefaces, playful illustration styles and gradients, as well as irreverent naming and tone of voice,” says Thomas Christou.
Contrastingly, however, Shaun Loftman, executive creative director at Landor & Fitch, observes the food packaging pendulum swinging back to clean, clear and simple communication.
“The days of over-designed and elaborate statements with graphic concepts are on the wane. With store-dwell times diminishing due to increasingly busy lifestyles and the uptake in online shopping, product packaging must cut through instantly to avoid complication or confusion,” Loftman outlines.
He adds typography has returned to more classic and simple executions, with visual representations focusing on clarifying product benefits rather than dazzling the consumer aesthetically. He also anticipates a more pronounced shift toward “pure function over exaggerated form.”
Looking for lightness
Finding a middle ground, Tight at Pearlfisher shares that color, witticism, and clarity together are recurring themes in recent packaging designs.
“I believe that these themes are being driven by a consumer desire to understand and find levity in the world,” says Tight. “These design themes are a social response to a world that feels particularly uncertain. As a result, there are so many brands that are using design to deliver lightheartedness.”
For example, Pearlfisher’s own redesign for McDonald’s packaging was driven by a similar “joyful motivation” to showcase the specialness in every order. Over the pandemic period, PackagingInsights featured product launches sporting more “lighthearted” designs, such as astronaut-themed plant-based milk, humanoid cricket snacks and Heinz’s ketchup brand recognition experiment.
Modernizing a brand identity
To keep up with these divergent but fast-changing trends, several food giants have recently made significant strides to modernize their brand images.
This year alone, McDonald’s and Burger King both introduced digital-friendly and more simplistic designs of their menu items on consumer-facing packaging. Meanwhile, Magnum made headlines when it tweaked its logo and typeface, inspired by the “culturally democratizing” fashion industry.
Even brands with longer-standing company histories are looking to move with the tides: with a century-old heritage, fish delicatessen brand Appel gave its logo a clean revamp in July, just as KFC re-illustrated its signature Colonel Sanders for a more modern look two months earlier.
“Maintaining brand heritage when modernizing a company’s image is a continuous challenge. It’s incredibly difficult to balance because the ultimate ambition for a redesign is typically to drive reevaluation and impact among consumers,” Tight stresses.
Loftman agrees, calling it one of the trickiest issues that design agencies must navigate, while Christou flags the difficulty of walking the tightrope of not pushing a design far enough or pushing it too far.”
Creative directors are consequently forced to walk a product design tightrope: “When a brand has a lot of history, it can be tempting to just dive into the vault and pull out an archival asset, clean it up, and call it iconic,” Tight notes. The risk here is an absence of new dimensionality to propel the brand into the future.
“On the other side of the spectrum, it’s also very easy for a team to get excited about reinventing the brand’s world from scratch and going a bit too far, without considering what is beloved and desirable about that brand.”
Pivoting from redesign failures
Either way, Loftman flags there are “huge pitfalls to avoid,” such as a drop in sales due to a loss of recognition and relevance or not moving the needle far enough in such a way that the brand misses out on an opportunity.
“A common mistake is a knee-jerk reaction to a brief and being too quick to throw out or ignore the true essence that has been the catalyst of the brand’s past success,” he says.
“This may be a color with unusual stand-out, a font treatment with character, an illustration or symbol with a unique story, or a material or production finish that people have fallen in love with. But often, the answer is already there – it just requires a strategic connection.”
Ultimately, understanding a brand’s key equities, business objectives and true stakeholders is key. “Once we have that sense, it’s about exploring design concepts that can push these equities to the limit of unrecognizability and then scaling back as needed,” Thomas Christou explains.
“For all brand evolution projects, we take our clients on a visual journey – from concepts that are closer in to their current identity to those that are much further out and push the bounds. We always present a spectrum and advise on a good balance based on their business aspirations.”
Views on minimalism: “Not our only tool”
Several factors are driving interest for the wider minimalism trend, ranging from environmental concerns to aesthetic preferences and mental clarity in our busy globalized worlds. But how well can minimalism compete as an artistic style in the food packaging industry?
Loftman notes that in previous years, the art of minimalism was used to denote premium quality, luxury, and exclusivity. “But today and going forward, minimalism can be even more effective to promote transparency, honesty, sustainability and integrity.”
Tight agrees minimalism can be useful in clarifying a product’s unique selling points, but poorly thought-out minimalism can simultaneously slip into bland branding – or “blanding.”
“Not every brand is well served by stripping its packaging of color, text, or vibrance. We see this exemplified in fashion, for example, where the vibrant maximalism of Versace is contrasted by the subdued, minimalism of brands like Everlane,” Tight explains.
The spectrum for success is evidently wide: in previous interviews, PackagingInsights revealed minimalist designs can be “an easy win” in botanical beverages, but also at risk of removing too much product information on cheese packs.
Know your competitor
Thomas Christou warns a successful minimalist packaging design is difficult to achieve without falling victim to looking like a “store-value” brand.
Chasing that same logic, Loftman highlights minimalism can only be considered effective when in an environment of over-saturated design aesthetics.
“Then the decision to deploy a minimalist approach would be to make a statement, so that the brand in question could be more direct than its competitors,” he emphasizes.
For example, design agency &Walsh used competitor packaging as an orientation point when designing vibrant-colored packaging for retailer kale and lettuce.
What’s next in packaging designs?
There are significant challenges ahead for F&B packaging designers. “Consumers are becoming more brand agnostic,” flags Christou.
“It’s our job to make sure that we understand consumer shifts, and then to help our clients tap into those shifts through impactful and effective design that lasts and isn’t just a fleeting trend.”
Meanwhile, Loftman expects appetites for more relevant product information will inflate, aligning with increasing conscience of hygiene, nutrition and ingredient content.
“To do this, food companies will begin to drop any aspect of design that is counter-productive, such as long-winded content that over-promises, or design that is purely cosmetic and fails to educate,” he predicts.
Tight from Pearlfisher looks forward to a shift toward equitable brand experiences en route to embracing environmentally sustainable materials used safely and globally.
“I reject premiumization that is exclusive in nature. If a rising tide raises all ships, good design needs to offer solutions for everyone,” she concludes.
By Anni Schleicher
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