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.
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?
Step 1: Select a Name That Helps You Sell
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
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
- related to the product's functional purpose
- easy to pronounce and understand
- easy to spell
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
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
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.
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:
- Give the participants a copy of the approved strategic objective
statement in advance, and ask them to think about possible names before the
- Bring dictionaries and thesauruses to the meeting.
- Appoint a leader for the brainstorming session, and have that person set
the ground rules in the beginning. Emphasize that the objective is to generate
lots of names, and that none of the names will be evaluated or judged until
later. Write down all names (even names like RoadKill and Spam-Master are fair
game!) on a large pad of paper.
- Tape all the filled sheets of names on the walls of the room. Try to come
up with at least 100 names.
- At the end of the session, strive to get consensus on five to ten of the
- Type up the entire list of names and high-light the favorites.
- Repeat as necessary until a handful of preferred names emerges.
- Obtain trademark clearance on the top five names. (By the way, a quick
name search on the Alta Vista or Yahoo Internet search engines can save you
time and legal fees.) This is probably the most frustrating step, as many great
names are already taken.
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
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.
Step 2: Design for Key Channel Partners
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
Here are some distribution trends and resulting implications for your
- More inventory is required due to the greater number of stocking
locations, so it will save you warehousing and shipping costs if you can
minimize packaging weight and volume without compromising the package's
competitiveness on the retail shelf.
- As the number of copies of your product in the channel increases, you
should expect more returns. You'll want to make sure that your software
packages and shipping containers are strong enough to survive additional
shipping, and that the increased cost is taken into account in your budget.
- You must ship directly to stores--at multiple locations--rather than to
just a few centralized warehouses. This may mean you'll need to include fewer
units per shipping container than you did in the past, or even offer multiple
case packs, as the packaged goods industry does. Again, you will have to take
into consideration the incremental costs associated with this reality.
- Pilferage, shrinkage, or slippage (in other words, theft) is much more of
an issue; packaging needs to be specifically designed to foil thieves, or at
least slow them down. Many software publishers distributing their programs on
CD-ROM have created cardboard inserts that hold the jewel case more securely in
the outer package for this reason.
The following are some of the trends affecting the marketing and merchandising
- The retail store's staff is less knowledgeable, so there is more reliance
on packaging and merchandising to sell the product. You'll need to compensate
for this with better box copy, graphics, and point-of-purchase materials.
- The self-service environment increases the need for high-impact packaging
and merchandising, especially amid the clutter of competing products.
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.
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
Step 4: Set Strategic Packaging Objectives
- the product name
- the target customer
- the "why-to-buy" target customer message--again, ideally expressed in
four to seven words
- a concise description of the product (one or two sentences at most)
- any information that absolutely must go on the package, such as a
platform designation, system requirements, and so on
- the tone, or the emotions the package must evoke in the target customer;
for example, corporate and business-like, warm and inviting, or whimsical and
- any other information that would be helpful to the creative team
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:
- Solicit recommendations. Identify packages that you think are effective in
the retail environment, then find out who did the graphic design. Sometimes the
designer is even listed on the package (in small print on the back or bottom
panel). Otherwise, if the software publisher isn't a direct competitor, they
may be willing to tell you who did the design. Initially, identify three to six
prospective design firms.
- Meet with each potential design firm. Ask each design firm to present their
portfolios. See if they mention design objectives of past clients and ask them
if they have data that proves that their designs resulted in increased sales.
Discuss how they like to work, and make sure they're willing to work to a
strategic objective statement, within a competitive framework. Ask them how
they've resolved creative differences with clients in the past, and make sure
they'll present you with a number of design alternatives. Be wary of agencies
with a particular "look" unless you're sure you want that look for your
product. Having designers with some software package design experience is
ideal, but not absolutely necessary.
- Select the most creative and collaborative design firm. If forced to choose
between creative and collaborative skills, go with the latter. You'll be more
satisfied with the results!
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.
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!
Step 6: Aim for Maximum Shelf Impact
Here are some design elements that contribute to high shelf impact:
- Bold, clear colors. Avoid black, because it turns into a "black hole" on the
shelf, especially when shrink-wrapped. Two well-known software products that
have successfully "owned" the bold colors used on their packages are Lotus
1-2-3's goldenrod and Kid Pix's bright green.
- Simple graphics that relate to the product. Don't use "insider" visual jokes,
photographs of founders, and so on. Norton Utilities, which once featured a
picture of Peter Norton on the box front, is an exception to this rule because
of Peter's fame among computer users.
- Large, readable fonts. Avoid "reverse-out" type (in other words, white or
light-colored type on a dark background), because it's harder to read than dark
type on a light background. The fact that Claris, Microsoft, and Apple
(companies that, by the way, spend a lot on customer research) stay with the
black-copy-on-a-white-background approach, is a testimony to the effectiveness
of this rule.
- Limited copy. You only have a few seconds to sell your product, so make sure
your box copy is short and compelling. A good example of just the right amount
of copy can be found on the products from Living Books (for example, Just
Grandma and Me).
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.
Once you've finalized a trademarkable name and gotten the strategic objective
statement approved, design can begin.
Step 7: Manage the Design Process
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:
- Present the strategic objective statement, bringing new creative team
members up to speed.
- Show competitive product packages, both in the meeting and ideally in an
actual store setting, such as a computer superstore. This is the environment in
which your product must stand out to achieve shelf impact.
- Review the proposed packaging structure.
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
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
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.
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 8: View Proposed Designs in Stores
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).
Step 9: Allocate the Time and Money to Do It Right
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:
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?
- The steps I've detailed here are guidelines that need to be applied
intelligently in each specific situation. Sometimes other considerations
outweigh the goal of maximizing shelf impact.
- If you're going to "break the rules," do so deliberately, carefully weighing
what you are giving up and risking versus what you hope to achieve.
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