Packaging Unpacked: Why and How to Audit Your Packaging Design

Sam Wilkes, Creative Director

Sam Wilkes, Creative Director


Have you ever stopped and asked yourself why you just picked a product up? Was it the clever copy, the “30% more” offer, or simply the latest offering from a trusted brand?

Packaging has a tough job to do. It needs to tell the consumer who you are, what you are and why you are better than the brand next door. And it needs to do all that in mere seconds. When your brand sits alongside another 10 products trying to do the same job, being able to decode how the category uses colour, shape, form, typography, logos and imagery to win the hearts and minds of fast moving consumer targets is invaluable. If you can’t speak the language of the category, you’re never going to be heard.

Distinctive packaging that uses category semiotics can help us to quickly navigate a very cluttered space. By examining the supermarket aisles with a packaging audit, we can reflect on our own behaviors and understand what’s driving shopper decisions. 

What Is a Packaging Audit?

Simply put, a packaging audit is a view of the marketplace today for brands that live in the retail space. Sound boring? Actually, it can be fascinating and can even make your brand work harder in a world where being different isn’t enough.

Packaging audits are an essential part of the design process, and help you find the creative and strategic ‘space’ for your brand and packaging to breathe.

5 Tips for Performing a Packaging Audit

Here are a few fundamentals to help ensure success at the shelf.

1) Start with the shopper

Having a better understanding of how people shop for your product means you can be more targeted and tactical about how you design for the job the packaging needs to do. Do they contemplate in the aisle? Do they compare features and benefits from pack to pack, like with toothpaste or cleaning products)? They may have made the decision before setting foot in the store (common with a mobile phone or a TV), or they might graze flavors based on cravings. Or, perhaps they shop impulsively while waiting in the line for the register.

Having a good idea of how the typical shopper journey unfolds can give you a massive advantage when deciding how to use the precious real estate on a pack design. 

2) Understand category conventions and semiotics

Look at your whole category and audit every product in it — not only visually, but also physically. How does the pack feel in the hand, and how does this express the personality of the brand? Is it ‘considerate’, with generous openings? Is it ‘indulgent’, with special finishes and refined detail? Sometimes an online audit prevents you from seeing the smallest of details printed on a pack, but a consumer will see them in the store.

Develop an understanding of category conventions. For example, vodkas are all in clear glass bottles and most have rounded shoulders, a style point that could have been borrowed from Absolute. Ask yourself how they play up to consumer expectation, in the way that vodkas use a color palette of blue and red to subliminally cue Russian standards of quality and authenticity. Emulating these observations can give you a shortcut into the category convention, which will be to your advantage. A well-established category can give you a great foundation to build on.

3) Make sure you’re distinctive enough

It’s crucial to understand what key brand assets you own in comparison to competitors. This means auditing your competitors and seeing how you compare. What do you have that others don’t?

Bahlsen biscuits recently rebranded their packaging with a super graphic logo akin to the recent Kellogg’s cereal rebrand. It was a brave move. Originally, Bahlsen’s packs were an iconic blue and the biscuit brand used this to its advantage to colour block on the shelf. When rebranding, the distinctive logotype logo was deemed more important than the blue pack, but the blue was maintained within the logotype.

When you’re a big brand, copycats are not far behind you and auditing your category regularly is essential. You don’t want to be left behind.

Having unique and easily recognizable brand codes allows consumers to recall and buy your brand. Establish your brand codes and go past instant recognition so you can stand out through being more creative with your assets.

4) Steal from outside your category

Warning: If you only borrow from within your category, you are in danger of looking like everyone else. The most successful brands steal from outside their own borders.

Take for example Haig Club. Whisky has traditionally been in round clear/green glass bottles, some closer to wine, some evoking decanters, but all anchored in the world of beverages. Haig broke with convention and stole instead from the world of fragrance. Their brand stood for style and self-actualization, so they created a blue square bottle that owed more to the world of fashion and cosmetics that to that of premium spirits. By making this shift, they brought a fresh language into a world that was trapped in tradition. Turns out it is hip to be square.

So, audit the neighbours, the aisle-mates, the big old brands and the new upstarts. Then go further by looking way beyond the category. What can you learn from the packaging of motor oil that could bring cooking oil into the 21st century?

5) Remember, first impressions are the only impressions that matter

People spend a frighteningly short amount of time reading a pack. Just three seconds, in fact. So how do you make the most of that moment? What is the singularly most important story that each pack in your audit is trying to tell you? Here is a checklist you can ask yourself:

  • Is your USP clear? What makes you different?
  • Do you have a distinctive POV? What do you stand for?
  • Is your packaging easy to navigate? – Effective packaging makes it easy to understand at a single glance.
  • Have iconic assets. There is only one you!
  • Find your white space. Spot the opportunity and disrupt.

So next time you’re at the shelf, stop and ask yourself why you picked up a specific product. Was it the cheapest? Did it look better quality? If so, why did it seem better? Asking yourself the questions that are normally left to an autopilot response can unlock the secrets of understanding the opportunity spaces for your brand.

Sam Wilkes, Creative Director