Epigenetics of brands

Earlier this week I posted about the new Minute Maid package design, but I’m going to stick with the topic because there are some interesting lessons to be learned here.

Epigenetics refers to changes in appearance or activity of a gene caused by mechanisms other than the underlying DNA. Recently the orange juice business has given us examples of two widely divergent opinions on how to deal with the DNA of a brand.

For a CPG brand, the package is its DNA, containing the basic code of its visual life. The aesthetic building blocks of color, shape, materials, typography, etc. are wound into the strands of its visual heritage. Change any one, and the brand changes, often in radical ways that cannot be predicted.

But biologists have known for some time what marketers and designers, are just beginning to grasp. Their research tells them that even if two individuals have the same DNA, identical twins for instance, the environment can alter the way they look and act. Nature and nurture, right.

Savvy marketers may not have a clear understanding of exactly how the DNA of their brand evolves, but they are beginning to understand that outside influences can have substantial influence on how the genes are expressed. As a result they are more often tinkering with the external factors of advertising, web presence, promotional programs, point of sale material etc., and leaving intact the package, the basic building block of their brand. They are beginning to learn, especially for heritage brands like Minute Maid or Tropicana, with very rich and complex DNA, that it is probably better to rely on these other tools.

Tropicana chose to radically alter the basic building blocks of its brand, changing the DNA itself. Their new design contained almost none of the visual equity it had been known for, and consumers reacted, violently.

With the release this week of its new Minute Maid package design, it is clear that Coke has taken a different approach. Leaving the DNA intact. As Brian Kelley of Coke says in an Ad Age article this week,

“Importantly the Minute Maid logo is clear; it is what links the brand to its terrific heritage. We didn’t stray far from that,” Mr. Kelley said. “Unlike what our competitor did, this is all about improving and moving forward. We certainly weren’t running away from anything.”

As Tropicana learned earlier this year a good way to kill a brand is to radically rearrange its DNA, the package. As Minute Maid has now confirmed a better way to manage the direction of a brand is to leave the DNA essentially intact and use epigenetics, everything other than the package, to influence and adjust the course of the brand.


About Richard Shear

designer, husband, teacher, blogger, father, athlete, author, historian Richard has over 25 years of brand identity and package design experience, with a wide range of clients such as Ahold, Coca-Cola, Hasbro, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Pernod Ricard and Procter & Gamble. He began his career working with the legendary advertising art director, and AIGA Medalist, George Lois and the British design manager Clive Chajet. In his next design management position at Lippincott & Margulies, he worked with Walter Margulies learning the complex skills of global corporate identity. He then became Creative Director and Partner at Peterson & Blyth, one of the premier brand identity and package design firms of the time. He is a founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding Program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He publishes the blog The Package Unseen, and has been a guest lecturer at colleges including FIT, Trinity College and Tyler School of Art. He is a graduate of the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. Richard is a Board member of the AIGA MetroNorth Chapter, past President of AIGA‘s Brand Design Association, President of the Package Design Council and a member of its Board of Directors. He is a member of USA Cycling and US Rowing, a nationally ranked masters bicycle racer, and a member of The Saugatuck Rowing Club, the 2010 Masters Club National Champion.
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One Response to Epigenetics of brands

  1. William Eldar III says:

    Tropicana absolutely killed their brand identity with this latest inept packaging update. Design by committee is just as bad as design by idiot.

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