UPGRADE Magazine

Walking the Fine Line of Design

When developing packaging for an entire line of products, it can be a fine line between
promoting a family of products and confusing the customers.

By Valorie Cook Carpenter, Claris Corp.

Congratulations! The line of products you've worked so hard to develop is ready to be packaged for retail sale. Or, your first product has been hugely successful, and it's time to bring out a line extension - or two. Either way, it's all too easy to misstep when designing a "line look" for your product packaging. Here's how to avoid common mistakes in this tricky task and create packages that maximize sales for all of your products. The biggest error most software publishers make in designing packaging systems for multiple products is to constrain the design template too tightly. Just as it would be difficult to design a database template that worked equally well for an electronic business card file and an invoice system, it is hard to optimize a package design for an individual product's competitive situation if too many of the design elements are already specified.

Confusion and Competition

The result is often a set of products that look confusingly similar - and if you confuse, you lose. Customers are still hesitant to make mistakes when purchasing computer products. So if anything about your package or product gives them pause, they'll pass on your software rather than take the chance of selecting the wrong product.

Too tight of a packaging system also leaves your products more vulnerable to better-positioned competitors - particularly the less-established products in your line. Why? Because packaging systems are most often optimized for the leading product. After all, it¹s only natural to ensure that a new package design showcases your flagship product. Other products in the line are then forced into the same mold, whether optimal for their particular situations or not. Not only does this limit their ability to compete effectively against other competitive products, it dilutes the shelf impact of the leading product as well.

So with all of these potential pitfalls, why do companies attempt to design packaging systems in the first place?

One common response to this question is so that customers know that all of the products are from the same publisher, with the idea that if they know this, they will be more likely to purchase a product in the same line rather than a competitor's. However, unless all of the products are within the same, rather narrowly defined category, this line of reasoning lacks support from the realities of the retail marketplace. The fact is, in the vast majority of cases, products are shelved by category, not by publisher. The only time disparate products are seen together in the store is when the publisher co-promotes them on an end cap - a relatively rare occurrence.

Another typical answer is that packaging systems build brand and/or corporate awareness. This is a prime example of putting the cart before the horse. A strong, well-established company name or "brand" can sway a purchase decision, assuming that other critical factors such as the product's major benefits, performance, price, service and support are equivalent. However, trumpeting a relatively unknown brand across a series of products will not create awareness for that brand. In the personal computer industry, brand awareness is built by successful products, not the other way around.

To maximize the sales of each product in your line, you must effectively differentiate it from its competition. Can this be done within a packaging system? Yes, but the system must be flexible enough for you to adapt packages for individual products to meet competitive realities.

How do you develop a packaging system that will support all of your products? First, try to limit the amount of space on the package that is constrained by the design template. Let's take a look at how consumer packaged goods companies handle their corporate identity/branding on their product packages. In the case of Procter & Gamble, which pioneered brand management, the company name appears nowhere on the front of the package. It's in tiny type on the back. Nabisco, which in my opinion does the best job of branding of any manufacturer in any category, uses less than 1 square inch in the upper-left corner on the front panel of each of its packages to display its red triangle logo. Think of your corporate identity or logo as an endorsement along the lines of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval - it's a reinforcer, not in most cases a primary reason to buy.

There can even be situations when your brand or corporate identity might actually be detrimental to a particular product's sales. For example, when Brøderbund decided to enter a new category and publish 3-D Home Architect, qualitative marketing research revealed a credibility gap among targeted end users of the product. After a product demonstration, they simply didn't believe that such a product could be published by Brøderbund, "that games company." Guess which product package didn't display the Brøderbund logo on the front panel?

If you do choose to develop a tight design template, take particular care to avoid the problems we've highlighted so far. Let's look at some outstanding examples from the software industry.

Brøderbund's Living Books have a very constrained system that includes the product line's logo centered at the top, a large illustration taken from the originating book in the center, the author's name and product title - always in the same font - centered at the bottom and a surrounding frame of color. Whew! So why does it work? First, it works because all Living Books fall within a single product category - animated stories for children. Parents seek out the next in the series, much like their parents and grandparents looked for the next Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys mystery. Second, each product is differentiated from the others by the use of the large illustration taken from the book, which differs dramatically from other illustrations, and by specifying a distinctive color for the frame of each product's package. The use of strikingly different colors is a terrific way to instantly differentiate individual products in a tightly constrained packaging system.

The Learning Company's Reader Rabbit series is another tight packaging system. In this case, the products are all designed to help young children learn to read and are clearly titled in this regard: Reader Rabbit Ready for Letters, Reader Rabbit 1, Reader Rabbit 2 and Reader Rabbit 3. This naming scheme easily leads parents from one product to the next as their children progress. Similarly, Knowledge Adventure's JumpStart series moves children from kindergarten to first grade to second grade so parents can easily select the appropriate product for their children, then move up to the next product when their children are ready.

If, on the other hand, your products compete in different categories, even closely related ones, a common packaging system is more likely to hurt sales than to help them. Again, this is because people buy products by category, and if the packages for products in different categories are confusingly similar, they may think they already own that product. Also, keep in mind that in many retail chains, products are frequently arranged within a given category in alphabetical order - so, for example, Math Rabbit and Reader Rabbit would be shelved far apart rather than side by side, even though both are published by The Learning Company.

Examples of effective packaging systems in the business section are harder to come by. One successful strategy in this sphere has been to use the company's name as the first part of every product's name. Microsoft (Word, Excel), Adobe (Illustrator, Photoshop, even PageMaker after Adobe acquired Aldus Corp.), Lotus (1-2-3, Notes) and most recently Netscape (Navigator, Navigator Gold) are all examples of this approach. Even here, however, for the most part the emphasis in the package is clearly on the individual product name and functionality, not on the corporate identity. Choosing this path is a major strategic decision that requires careful consideration of your company's current situation and long-term product strategy.

Obviously, publishers able to offer multiple products are in a stronger position with key channel partners. In fact, it is increasingly regarded as a checklist item for distributors and retailers who choose to do business with you. Just be sure that each package in your line is working its hardest to sell the specific product inside it. Anything else compromises and therefore limits your sales ­ a consequence virtually no software publisher can afford in today's competitive environment.

Valorie Cook Carpenter joined Claris Corp., Santa Clara, Calif., as vice president of marketing in June 1997. She previously served as vice president of marketing for Brøderbund Software, vice president of marketing and manufacturing for Ashlar Inc. and in various marketing capacities for Software Publishing Corp. Before joining the personal computer software industry in 1982, she began her career in the consumer packaged goods industry with Procter & Gamble. She can be reached at vcarpenter@aol.com.

This article is taken from the August issue of Upgrade Magazine.

© 1997, Software Publishers Association. All Rights Reserved.