Creating Packaging That Sells

By Valorie Cook Carpenter
Market Savvy Consulting Group

If you sell your product through retail distribution channels, the appearance of that product on the shelf is critical to its sales success. A great package helps you sell your product to retailers and customers alike; conversely, a poor package can keep your product from reaching its full sales potential. To help you create a package that works its hardest to sell the product inside, here are nine tried-and-true steps that I've put to good use in companies such as Brøderbund and Procter and Gamble. These steps are based on my marketing experience of over 20 years in both software and the consumer packaged goods industry.

Step 1: Select a Name That Helps You Sell

Selecting a poor product name probably won't prematurely kill a product, but a good name definitely helps sales. So why not attempt to create a compelling name for your product?

First things first. While your product is in development, give it a nondescriptive code name--one that couldn't possibly become the final name for the product. This is important for a number of reasons.

In the early stages of development, a meaningless name lessens the possibility that a competitor will understand the essence of your product concept if it is overheard while your staff is discussing it at lunch, on an airplane, in the lobby of a retailer, or at a trade show. It also keeps your team from "locking in" a name too early, before the marketing group really understands the key differentiators of the product from the target customer's point of view. These differentiators should guide the naming and positioning of the product to maximize its effectiveness. Development groups get very attached to names, even nonsensical ones; don't compromise your marketing effectiveness by giving your product anything but the name that best communicates your key message to your target customers.

Also, make sure that your product's code name won't embarrass the company or get it into legal trouble if it appears in print. Names based on neutral themes (animals, rock types, and so on) work well. Strive for whimsy and charm rather than grotesque or just plain gross names.

As a prelude to selecting a final product name, develop a strategic objective statement. This is a short, half-page document that summarizes a product definition (in one or two sentences), a target customer, and a "why-to-buy" customer message (ideally expressed in four to seven words).

In this document, set high-level priorities for the new product name. Typically, great product names are

Some excellent Macintosh product names that I've run across include Datawatch's Virex (for preventing and exterminating computer viruses), Iomega's Zip drives (fast, convenient data storage), and Intuit's QuickBooks (quick business accounting). Also, I admire Berkeley Systems' tongue-in-cheek CD game show title, You Don't Know Jack, for its humor and audience appeal (though it's not particularly short).

Some why-to-buy statements that I find particularly compelling include "Organizes Finances Painlessly" for Intuit's Quicken, and "The Paint Program Just for Kids" for Brøderbund's Kid Pix.

Your strategic objective statement should be finalized and approved by all interested parties at least eight months before the product is scheduled to release. This lengthy time frame allows for the inevitable dead ends and roadblocks that occur in the naming and package design process, without burning people out.

There are several approaches you can take to develop an effective product name, once you have a strategic objective statement that everyone agrees upon. The two I'll discuss here are brainstorming and hiring an outside agency.

In-House Brainstorming

Invite a small group of 10 to 15 creative people to a one-hour brainstorming session. It's preferable to schedule it in the morning, when people are fresher. If there are lots of interested people, hold several smaller brainstorming sessions rather than one huge one.

If you're organizing the session, here are a few tips for achieving the best possible set of potential names:

Hiring an Outside Naming Agency

Hiring a naming agency is expensive (it can cost $25,000 or more) and often these firms only commit to providing you with one trademarkable name. Large companies with the resources to go this route, however, have obtained outstanding names in this manner. It may be worth obtaining outside bids for these services, particularly if you're unsatisfied with the results of internal brainstorming.

Step 2: Design for Key Channel Partners

The number of outlets carrying personal computer software products has grown to more than 30,000 storefronts over the past few years in the United States alone. This explosive growth has come primarily from new, nontraditional chains entering the marketplace, such as Wal-Mart and Best Buy.

Computer superstores (such as CompUSA, Computer City, and MicroCenter), office supply superstores (such as Office Depot and Staples), consumer electronics stores (such as Best Buy and Lechmere), warehouse clubs (such as Price Costco), mass merchants (such as Target and Sears), and others have all joined computer specialty stores (such as Egghead and Electronics Boutique) as sources of computer hardware, peripherals, software, and related supplies. Each of these account categories attracts a different type of customer and needs to be analyzed specifically for its packaging needs. However, in general, they all share one characteristic: They require more of a self-service, "grocery-store mentality" in packaging design.

Impact of Distribution Trends

The increase of self-service retail stores has significantly affected the approach that software companies need to take in marketing, merchandising, and manufacturing products.

Here are some distribution trends and resulting implications for your manufacturing teams:

The following are some of the trends affecting the marketing and merchandising of software:

Step 3: Evaluate the Competition

It is vitally important to design your packaging in the context of the products that it will be competing with on the retail shelf. The most striking design or color will not draw attention to your product if the product right next to it looks too similar. That's why I strongly recommend that you visit the retail storefronts of your key channel partners to evaluate competitive products that are already on the shelf. What's more, you should bring home the closest competitors' packages to use as the "benchmarks to beat" in the design process.

Also, don't make the common mistake of assuming that your product has no competition. Even if it doesn't have a head-to-head competitor, it will sit on the shelf next to other related products. It's in your best interest to anticipate the product section that it will be placed in, then design your package to stand out. This is much better than leaving this critical decision to your channel partners.

Step 4: Set Strategic Packaging Objectives

As with naming the product, the best starting point for creating an effective package design is to develop a strategic packaging objective statement. Again, it should be short (no more than one page) and should cover the following key points:

Step 5: Select Creative and Collaborative Designers

Should you use an-house or outside design firm? Either can work, but what's important is that the creative team can work both creatively and collaboratively to meet strategic objectives.

Here's one way to manage the process of selecting an outside agency:

Although most graphic design firms work project by project, rather than on a ongoing retainer, it's preferable that you work with a single firm for all of your package design work. There's a learning curve for every new agency that comes on board. Once you've found a group that understands your products and company, repeatedly using this group will result in a smoother design process and better results.

Step 6: Aim for Maximum Shelf Impact

The whole point of the front of your package is to get it noticed: You want to attract target customers as they're walking down an aisle full of software, and you want to motivate them to pick up your package. You must accomplish this in less than two seconds, from as far away as ten feet. That requires nothing less than maximum shelf impact!

Here are some design elements that contribute to high shelf impact:

A word about flaps--those extra pieces of cardboard that open out like a greeting card on the front panel of some software packages. Don't use them--they can compromise your shelf impact by yawning open and obscuring the front panel you've worked so hard on. Further, they usually allow the product copy to run on far too long. If you must use a flap, put it on the back panel, where it won't affect your shelf impact (because it can't yawn open), and make sure that it is inviting to look at and read--use lots of graphics and a minimal amount of copy.

Step 7: Manage the Design Process

Once you've finalized a trademarkable name and gotten the strategic objective statement approved, design can begin.

Before you conduct the first creative team meeting, you should select a packaging structure. Choose a packaging structure based on your product's competition as well as the shelving and shipping requirements of your key channel partners. Their input may influence whether you choose a folding carton, candy box, or slipcase box format, or whether you need to limit your package dimensions, material, or weight. In addition, make sure that your proposed structure is sturdy enough to withstand the rigors of worldwide shipping, and that it communicates appropriate value to your target customer when it's picked up.

I learned a lot about perceived value when I worked for Ashlar, a company that sells an award-winning $995 CAD software product called Vellum. For this type of product, a $1 plastic CD jewel case wouldn't be appropriate. To look like a $995 product, the box needed to have some physical heft (a good use for reference manuals and tutorials), as well as larger dimensions.

Choose a box size that will fit on your key channel partners' shelves and is comparable to other products of similar functionality and price. And finally, by working with packaging materials vendors, make sure to build and shrink-wrap a prototype package that is packed with the actual media and manuals (or a manual mock-up that includes the same page count, binding, and paper type). Test it for balance on the retail shelf, making sure it won't tip over.

First Creative Meeting

Once you've decided on the physical configuration of the box, it's time to bring in the graphics creative team. Insofar as is possible, have all interested people attend this initial meeting. Here, the marketing group should accomplish these tasks:

Second Creative Meeting

Again, try to have all interested parties attend this meeting, at which the design group presents a number of rough design directions (at least three, and preferably six to eight) for your box's front panel. Competitive product packages should again be presented for shelf context. Participants should then narrow the choices for further development to the best two to three based on the strategic objective statement and their potential for high shelf impact in the retail environment. Or, ask the design group for more rough concepts. Strategic feedback, rather than art direction, is the key to successful refinements of the designs. For instance, offer your designers advice such as "The product name needs to be more prominent" rather than "Make the product name red."

Third Creative Meeting

Here the design group presents the refined concepts, again in the context of competitive packages and the strategic objective statement. These designs should also be viewed in a retail store environment. Hopefully a clear winner--in other words, the most visible package on the retail shelf that meets the requirements laid out in the strategic objective statement--emerges for final development.

At this point, all panels should be detailed. Make sure the product name and why-to-buy message appear on every panel--the front, back, both spines, top, and bottom. If you're using folding cartons, order a "tuckable" bottom-flap configuration rather than a center-cut bottom, because this will give you a larger printable surface area.

Step 8: View Proposed Designs in Stores

As you may recall, in the beginning of this article I suggested visiting your key channel partners' storefronts to check out the competition. Once you have a tight prototype of your final design, or better yet, two or three concepts, take them--and your design team--into one or more stores. Put the prototypes on the shelf in the section you have targeted for their placement, stand ten feet away, stroll down the aisle, and see how they actually look next to their competition. It's always an eye-opener--trust me! If your designs don't physically fit on the shelf or fail to leap out at you, it's back to the drawing board for another round of concepts.

Step 9: Allocate the Time and Money to Do It Right

I like to start package design at least six months prior to a product's scheduled release date. Again, it can be done much faster, but for the most part, compressing the package design cycle is unnecessary; it adds stress to an already stressful situation, and it results in compromises. In terms of cost, I would suggest budgeting $25,000 to $50,000 for the complete process, from design through mechanical art preparation (the last step prior to actually printing the boxes).

As the retail software channel becomes more self-service, mass-market oriented, having effective software packaging is key. Your software box must increasingly stand out on crowded retail shelves, and your box copy must sell your product, without the help of sales people. The best packaging designs come from a well-managed process that incorporates feedback from target customers, retailers, channel partners, company employees, and packaging design firms. And, of course, the time and money to do it right.

Valorie Cook Carpenter is a recognized industry expert in creating effective retail packaging. Currently head of her own consulting practice, she most recently was vice president of Marketing at Brøderbund Software. She co-leads Seymour Merrin's acclaimed "Selling Off the Shelf" seminar, is a frequent speaker at Software Publishers Association and other industry conferences, and has served as a judge for the Soft¥letter Marketing Summit Awards in the areas of packaging, point-of-purchase materials, and marketing strategy. She can be reached at Market Savvy Consulting Group, P.O. Box 205, Los Altos, CA 94023-0205; phone: 650-941-0487; e-mail:; website:

The Making of the Myst Box

When my marketing group at Brøderbund began working on the Myst package, we hired an outside design agency. Based on our strategic objective statement, the agency generated a number of striking front panel concepts--none of which the senior marketing manager for the product felt accurately represented the product. After numerous, increasingly frustrating rounds of creative work, the program's outside developers finally submitted a front panel design based on the central computer graphic of the game--Myst Island. With some minor modifications, this became the final design, despite the fact that it was a very recessive package on the shelf--it used murky, grayed-out colors, a computer graphic rather than a more traditional illustration, the product title in a less-than-optimal position, and the why-to-buy statement in reverse-out type. In fact, we had created a similar design with much more shelf impact, due to a pink-orange sunrise in the background behind Myst Island. But we didn't go with it because the marketing staff convinced me that the package they preferred was truer to the game. Over 2,000,000 copies later, I have to say they were right!

So what did I learn from the process?

Apple Directions October 1996
© Apple Computer, Inc.

Contact Us | Privacy Notice
Copyright © 2000 Apple Computer, Inc. All rights reserved.