Gen Y and open source brand design

Bruce Nussbaum, the design columnist at Business Week, was in South Korea last week and gave a provocative speech to the Design Korea 2009 International Conference. He spoke about what he feels are the “5 most powerful global forces transforming our lives.”

His discussion of one of these forces, demographics, or more specifically the rise of the Millenial generation and the fall of the Baby Boomers, got me thinking about the potentially dramatic implications on the design of brands and packaging. Here’s why.

For much of the last half of the 20th century two things were happening in tandem, the growth of large sophisticated global brands and the maturation of the baby boom generation. An awful lot of brand growth happened simply to take advantage of the various life stages and needs of this generation. Until recently, these brands have tended to be monolithic, one-size-fits-all, and often very narcissistic.

But as Nussbaum points out Gen Y has “a unique and powerful culture—urban, collaborative, participatory, green, generative – it likes to use tools and make things – , public, pan-ethnic, trans-gender and trans-national.” This sounds like a generation that is going to want a branding message, and package design, that is much more collaborative, much more interactive, and certainly much more fluid in their identity.

There are three important words in that last sentence that begin to sound like any open source idea,

Fluid, Interactive, and Collaborative.

These words pose an interesting question, to which I propose three possible solutions to the dilemma marketers may be facing when trying to appeal to this new generation of consumers.

First the question.
How do you make old school brands like Tide, Colgate, or Budweiser, that matured throughout the 20th century, more fluid, interactive, and collaborative while still retaining their inherent brand values? And what role does the package play in this transformation?

Now the potential solution.
First, the package must become a more fluid brand symbol in all forms of media. The days of the stoic and passive beauty shot of the package in advertising is over.

Second, the package must become more interactive at retail. I have talked recently about some of the in-store smart phone app technology that is on the way. Whether through these tools or others, all packages will need to engage the consumer in the store.

Third, the package must become a more collaborative part of the consumer’s lifestyle. This needs to be a two-way thing. All brands will need to support what Nussbaum calls the “Learn-Share-Make culture” of this generation. The package can be one way to foster this relationship between the consumer and the brand.

This next decade will be an interesting time for brands. As the baby boom generation retires, it is likely to take with it many of the brand building approaches of the late 20th century, often based simply on frequency of message and the power of a unified global idea.

The Gen Y consumer is likely to insist on a conversation not a lecture. And the conversation is likely to go something like this. Tell me about your product, if I like it I’ll share it with my friends, and together we will build a useful relationship with your 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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