Branding & Packaging

Reusable bamboo beer bottle anyone?

By Mark Stubbington
By Mark Stubbington

Mark, DA’s Design Director talks about the challenge of FMCG brands trendsetting

When it comes to design briefs, we’re often asked by clients to predict trends for the following year. This can be a bit like trying to predict next weeks lottery numbers – it’s no easy thing!

For every project, it’s essential to gain customer insights, analyse the market and be clear on a brands vision to determine the right design strategy and the spectrum of risk for the design phase – from safe to brave.

There are 4 keys areas in packaging design that can influence, align or set trends: the style of the design, the structure of the pack, the materials and the print finishes. Alternative materials and manufacturing processes are becoming particularly relevant with an increased demand for more environmentally sustainable business practices.

At DA we focus on branded packaging design and make recommendations about materials and construction, challenging brands with a range of concepts that push the boundaries – often taking clients out of their comfort zone.

It’s usually the designs at the safer end of the spectrum that fall into the trend-following zone and the designs towards the braver end that become the trend-setting category breakers, but in the majority of cases the braver designs are rejected in preference of a safer middle ground that will meet consumer needs, but won’t necessarily set a trend.

When a brand does decide to enter the slightly uncomfortable position of ‘the unknown’ towards the riskier, we often get asked questions like, “will it work, and will the consumers respond and understand it?”

Creating a trendsetting pack design

Trendsetting often involves a lot of guess work – you look at what happened this year and think about what’s popular and try to anticipate next year’s trend. I have a slight issue with this because the real talent comes from setting a trend, not just following one or evolving an existing design idea.

In recent years we’ve seen the craft beer category lose the more traditional beer cues for almost ‘anything goes’ in terms of design styling. Now, lots of beer brands are following suit, following the likes of Brewdog Punk IPA or Beavertown. It takes a brave design agency or brand to buck a trend and do something different that results in triggering a new trend.

So, is there any value in trend forecasting for packaging designs?

Being relevant is extremely important. If customers don’t want plastic bottles that can’t be recycled, then it’s an opportunity to provide an interesting and functional alternative, and with the right design application, it could set a trend – just like the bamboo beer bottle could! Branded pack design and the materials the pack container is made from both play a role in trendsetting and differentiating. For colour, forecasting trends is only really relevant in the fashion industry where turnaround times are much faster, but will ‘Neomint Green’ be relevant for a pack design in 14 months’ time? Possibly not…

Is trendsetting only relevant for on-pack promotions or limited-edition packaging?

Not necessarily, although promotional or limited-edition products can be very useful for creating something on trend as it’s only available for a limited time. This means it’s unlikely to date, which is often the problem when imitating trends for core ranges.

Setting trends with such lengthy turn-around times

A frequent challenge our design team face is the length of time it takes for a product to reach the shelf. In some cases, brands approach us to create a product concept and packaging design before a formulation has been signed off. Sometimes this can take up to a year, so a design we create at the start of the process ends up being manufactured long after the initial brief stage. If we’ve created something based on a style today then it won’t look ultra-fresh in 14 months’ time, especially if a style has been replicated. Another reason to try and create something unique!

Being on-trend and timeless

Nobody knows when they’re creating something timeless. The E-type Jaguar is a timeless classic. It looks every bit as good today as it did in 1961 when the first one rolled out of the factory. It is the holy grail of design to create a classic, however it is impossible to know at the time of conception that it is or will be timeless. Only something that last’s and stands the test of time can be considered timeless.

How a trend typically evolves

When one designer, somewhere in the world creates something wonderful and desirable it can often spark a wave of similar designs. We observe what’s happening in the marketplace and create a similar style and find a way to differentiate. If a brand approached us to create a beer bottle design that would revolutionise the craft beer category trend and we create a branded pack design for a bamboo beer bottle – this could spark a trend wave and the cycle begins!

Make it ‘now’

Most of what we do should be modern and ‘of now’. Our clients expect it and we demand it of our design studio. If it doesn’t match up to this then it doesn’t get presented as a viable concept. Stylistically speaking, every design should therefore be ‘on trend’ because all brands want their image to be current.

The gains of taking risks and challenging the norm can be enormous, and by doing something unique that results in brand success, other competitors will take notice, and some may even follow. This is trend setting in my mind – creating something that people aspire to and want and gets a conversation started.

There is always an element of risk and it’s not for every company or brand, but with high risk can come high reward.