The film industry used to have an unwritten rule about not working with children or animals for a successful outcome. Nowadays with the likes of Pixar and Dreamworks inventing wonderful human, animal or alien beings, and giving them character through Hollywood’s finest voice actors, the game has changed.
But what has all this to do with packaging design? A quick look around your local supermarket shows these self-same 3D, computer-generated movie stars adorning dozens of packs aimed at kids.
So when we started working on packaging design projects for children’s products, we had a few questions: why do nearly all kids' packs feature characters? How do brands get the balance right between child appeal and parental approval? And why do kids grow out of certain characters?
The findings helped us to see past the seemingly undifferentiated mass of smiling faces on nearly all packaging for kids.
We identified three basic strategies: "draw a face on it" "back story for hire," and "best of both worlds."
"Draw a face on it" is the entry-level strategy for many products, but few of these invest enough effort to deserve being called a brand. Kids can anthropomorphize practically anything -- from animals to apples, strawberries and every other recognizable ingredient known to man.
This might get you to first base, but you’ll still need some serious Mom-credibility.
It’s the "back story for hire" strategy that we see most often in the supermarket, where manufacturers license well-known TV or film characters to give products or brands instant kid appeal. You can also see the appeal for the brand manager, which is big impact for very little effort: Simply follow the communication guideline provided by the licensor, and in particular note their number one rule: thou shalt not show our character doing anything that is "out of character." such as actually consuming your brand.
Despite this limitation, the arrangement works pretty well as long as you realize that it's not your brand being built here.
There can be technical issues to consider too. Packaging is not a movie. The character is static, and we have to use a very small, still image on a substrate that might not have a great print technique, like a plastic tube. Now all those lovely shadows that gave us depth and character in the movie suddenly just look dark and dirty.
There is an area of the supermarket where manufacturers don’t need to hire characters because they’ve got plenty of their own, each with decades of advertising dollars behind them -- breakfast cereals.
Back in the day when all brands were made on TV and the biggest ones were seen daily, it was possible to invest in some well-drawn characters and give them a bit of a story. A simple story admittedly, in which their only activity was demonstrating the play value of the product to kids, and its nutritional value to moms.
Nowadays they have been redrawn several times, but they stick steadfastly to their task of being the face of the brand. And for kids up to about the age of 7, this strategy can still work well.
But around age 8 kids' behaviors start to change significantly. They test out "‘rebellion" to find their boundaries, and they develop a keen interest in fantasy worlds. They are highly influenced by TV, video games and what their peers think is cool. They realize that the world is complex and they start to enjoy nuance -- or as Shrek would say, "layers."
This means that simple, one-dimensional characters become redundant overnight. Characters that appeal to 7- to-10-year-olds have more complex personalities, they behave "on the edge," yet ultimately still play out the familiar story lines of challenge/obstacle/struggle/resolution.
A great example of well-crafted homegrown characters belongs to French soft drinks brand Oasis. These slightly weird fruit characters have bags more personality than a hundred "Sally Strawberries," and star in some witty commercials that easily pass the nuance test.
In another example from France, Yoplait Kids brand P’tit Yop has created its own "bottle" character, who introduces any new licensed offer with a short TV spot. This "Best of both worlds" strategy allies the brand’s own character with licensed ones.
The brand stays top of mind, and gets credibility by association, while the packaging manages to combine branding, a free gift, nutrition claims and both characters. Just like the kids' world that parents know and love, it's a perfect example of organized chaos!