Bland Equity not Brand Equity

Let’s be honest, things have gotten a bit too simple.

The image at left contains a vodka, a Bluetooth headset, a battery, an auto cleaner, socks, spice jars, olive oil, food take-out containers, shampoo, soup, chocolate, men’s and women’s skin care products, and a beer.

Can you tell which is which? I certainly can’t, and the only thing that might hint at the product type is the package structure.

And I am a huge fan of simple. I would much rather live in Philip Johnson’s Glass House than any of the ornate Macmansions that sit near it along Ponus Ridge Road in New Canaan.

But to impose this pared down mid-century design aesthetic (Helvetica was introduced in 1957, just 8 years after the completion of the Glass House) on today’s brand equity and package design may be an inappropriate use of this architectural design aesthetic. And surprisingly much of this work is reminiscent of the quickly abandoned “generic” trend of the 1980s.

Those of us who watch this stuff carefully, have noted the mostly positive turn away from the over-rendered, garish, ostentatious complexity that characterized many consumer product categories in the late 1990s and early 2000s. And I have posted on this subject before.

But the pendulum usually swings too far with most trends, and its time to take an honest look at where the movement toward simplicity has now taken us in the late 2000s.

There are two critical issues with this image that go way beyond simply identifying the content of the package. These issues relate to the two things that consumer product companies often work hardest at and must get right on a package  .  .  building the characteristics of a unique brand and making the shopping experience reasonably painless. Let’s discuss each in the context of design simplification.

The first issue deals with brand equity. And obviously the straightforward and long-term presentation of consistent brand equity on a package is a good thing. But this equity must be, at its minimum, unique and memorable. The qualities of uniqueness and memorability are not something you could accuse any of these products of having.

The second issue deals with simplifying not just the design but also the shopping experience. It’s fair to say that as the similarity of package graphics from SKU to SKU goes up, the ease of shopping for specific flavors or product types, goes down.

The one thing you may have noticed about the products is that they are generally not large consumer product brands. True, but the qualities of uniqueness and memorability are even more important for small brands that are normally unsupported by large amounts of media. In these instances the consumer first encounters the brand on the shelf. So it must make an immediate impression.

Perhaps the only advantage some of these packages would seem to have is the ability to decorate the shelves of upscale boutique retailers. Great for the retailer, and perhaps critical for some small brands in finding any shelf space, but certainly not great for building meaningful, long-term brand equity.

The only impression I get from most of this work is one of homogeneous similarity. This is bland equity not brand equity.


Thanks to for most of these images.


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.
This entry was posted in Beauty & Personal Care, Beverages, Design Practice, Food, Wine, Beer, & Spirits and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Bland Equity not Brand Equity

  1. Pingback: Our Top 10 List of Packaging Stories for 2009 « The Package Unseen

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