IBM, Google, Augmented Reality and a Retail Revolution

My sense is that 2012 will be remembered as the transition from the second wave of mass retailing to the third wave.

And some retailer is about to step up and own it, by creating a truly new retail format based on the evolving technology being pioneered by Google, IBM and others. And with this change in retailing will come a radical redefinition of the role of the retail package as the singular representative of the brand in store, a role it has owned for 150 years.

We are now living in a time much like 1859, the year A&P launched the first wave of mass-retailing with the concept of a chain food market, and like 1916 the beginning of the second wave, when Piggly Wiggly took that concept and made it self service.

Smart retailers are now experimenting with technology that will allow them to become the A&P or Piggly Wiggly of the 21st century, by evolving the retail experience from assisted retailing, to self-service retailing to . . . I don’t know . . . lets call it cloud-based retailing.

About three years ago I began discussing Augmented Reality (AR) and the transformational influence it will have on retail brands, packaging and the shopping experience, when learning about early tools like SixthSense (an early version of a device developed at MIT Media Lab with Google glasses-like capabilities), Wikitude, Yelp, and Scanlife.

Since then we have reached a point where QR codes have become ubiquitous and frankly passé, from the shelves of Target, to the pages of every newspaper and magazine, to the walls of a subway car. Retailers are now experimenting with the next generation of retail AR platforms. And two recent pieces, one in Ad Age Digital and one in the NY Times Bits column, begin to hint at the next steps.

The Ad Age Digital piece, written by Jack Neff, talks about an IBM technology that will take the retail experience far beyond the traditional one-to-one relationship between the shopper and the package. As John Kennedy, VP Corporate Marketing, describes,

“You specify the things you’re interested in, and then using your device and the video camera on the device, as you scan the product the app will recognize it and superimpose the information you’re looking for on the product itself . . . (the app) marries the wealth of information on the web so the shopping experience becomes more informative and personal to help them make better decisions. It opens questions about what can happen in the relationship between the retailer and shopper and ultimately the (brand) marketer.”

The NY Times Bits piece, written by Nick Bilton, talks about the way ideas have been communicated from Gutenberg and Aldus Manutius to Sergey Brin and Google’s Project Glass. A technology that is likely to be very similar to what IBM and its retail clients are exploring. His point is that “When technology gets out of the way, we are liberated from it. Wearable computing will free us from peering at life through a 4-inch screen.”

At retail, and soon by the looks, we will no longer be limited to peering at a brand through a bag, or box or can. These new forms of retail experiences led by AR will free us from the package as the sole brand storyteller in-store. Our retail experience of the brand will be transformed by in-store media that goes far beyond just the physical package. And when the package is not the sole communicator of the brand, it will lead package designers and their clients to redefine the future role of a package.

Obvious questions come to mind.

For designers
What should a package look like in a third wave retail environment?

For marketers
What does a package say about a brand when so much is being said by the AR platform?

For Retailers
How do I display a package or create an environment that supports a connected shopper?

For regulators
What must continue to be communicated, by law, on the package?

Sounds like we have some thinking to do!

Posted in Design Criticism, Design Practice, Packages Tomorrow, Packages Yesterday, Packaging Technology, Retail Technology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Estroven, Relief Reimagined

iHealth, Inc., a division of DSM Nutritional Products, is a consumer health and wellness company that recently asked us to reimagine the shelf presence of Estroven, the number one selling brand of OTC products for the relief of menopausal symptoms. In support of a newly defined brand equity, that was both feminine and efficacious, the new identity was created to clearly communicate both the functional and emotional benefit characteristics.

The old package was typical of the nutritional supplement category dominated by either generic natural cues or sterile medicinal heritage. Our intent was to create an approachable woman’s health brand with an honest simplicity and clarity of message.

The new package design system has been launched, with enthusiastic retailer response, in the mass, drug, and natural channels. It is supported by a redesigned website.

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Dee Dee’s Dieline Discussion on Co-Creation

Just back from the Dieline Conference, and again amazed at what Andrew Gibbs has accomplished in a few short years. The number one global package design resource with 3.5 million hits a month! Yikes!

On Sunday Dee Dee Gordon, President of Innovation at Sterling Brands, gave an interesting talk about the work she is doing with the consumer. She called it “Breaking Down Walls: Co-Creation with Consumers”. Her tool is a global consumer panel called the Callaboratory.

And just for the Dieline audience she polled her group and asked them what they thought were current trend influencers of package design around the world. Here are their 7 top issues.

  1. Excess is Out
    Consumers are looking for understated simplicity, want the product not package to shine, and feel comfortable with a clean minimalist approach to structure.
  2. Going Global
    Design influences are coming from all cultures, both traditional and new hybrid mixes of new and old from all over the world
  3. Hand Crafted
    Consumers are looking for the small indulgences that are implied with packaging and brands that take the time to present carefully crafted packages.
  4. Haptic Packages
    We are talking texture, surface details, raw papers, letter press printing, stickers, embossed glass, and the surface details and contrast between the package and product.
  5. More Than Green
    The package materials need to be more than environmentally responsible, the brand itself needs to stand for something and be making a proactive difference.
  6. Beauty
    The package is playing a larger role in the home environment, out on display in the bath or bedroom, not hidden in the cabinet or thrown away. It therefore must be a considered part of a person’s life.
  7. Everything is Mobile
    Its not just about the home anymore. Streamlined, with portable options, packaging must support the active lifestyle of many consumers.
Posted in Design Criticism, Design Practice, Environmental Packaging, Packages Today | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Baby Food Fight

I am always fascinated when a new package form, all by itself, begins to influence culture.

And especially, as Tom Guarriello my fellow faculty member at the SVA Masters in Branding program and former clinical psychologist likes to say, when it has a major impact on normalizing and habituating new forms of traditional behavior. And it looks like a package form for baby food is causing a food fight among parents and the CPG companies that market to them.

Before we get into the discussion, let’s make two things clear. First it has been a long time since my kids were babies, so I have no personal experience with this package form. And second I would never presume to tell a parent how to raise their kids.

As a piece in today’s NY Times points out, Plum Organics started putting food, a mix of fruits, veggies and grains,  in little single-serve pouches in 2008. Thus allowing kids to eat on the run. Since then most of the major baby food companies have jumped on board.

This is causing a serious discussion among parents about how this one little package may be enabling a life style that discourages traditional mealtime and the cultural learning that goes along with it . . . manners, the ritual of shared time with family, maybe healthier eating, etc.

But as is typical with all things parental, there seems to be no clear consensus on right and wrong. After doing much research and interviews for this piece Matt Richtel, the author, admits,

“At last, I realized the source of my nagging discomfort. The pouch may help us negotiate the age-old battle of wills at the table, not to mention relieving me of my vaudeville act. But it also creates children in our own frenetic image: energetic, vitamin-fueled, moving frantically from one thing to the next. I wonder if that’s a good thing.”

I wonder too . . . and find it fascinating that the innovation of a simple little food pouch for babies and toddlers is enabling this life choice and of course encouraging this debate among parents.

Posted in Design Criticism, Food, Packaging Technology, SVA Masters in Branding | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sotheby’s brand of bubbly

It’s been amazing to watch the evolution and recent growth of private brands in North America. We may still be playing catch up to Europe, as I have mentioned in previous posts, but we are approaching the point where 1 in every 4 products purchased is now a retailer’s own brand.

The latest twist comes from Sotheby’s, a retailer of a different kind, with the introduction of a new champagne. As Christopher Durham noted on his site Prêt a Marque recently, it will be retailed at

The sixth generation of the R&L Legras family, a storied house of fine champagnes since 1808, is the producer. It is interesting to see folks with over 200 years of experience and pedigree getting into the private brand arena.

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Disney To Support Healthier Food For Kids

Today Disney is announcing a new initiative to help reduce childhood obesity, with advertising guidelines that set out a strict new policy on the nutritional standards for any food product advertised on their child-focused TV networks.

The strict new advertising program will also be supported by a Mickey Check program at retail, that will identify licensed products that meet the new nutritional guidelines,

Here is a link to the NY Times piece with additional details of the program.

And here is a link to the nutrition guidelines in brief.

Good for them!

Posted in Design Criticism, Food | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Barnes Foundation, Retail Package Customization, and Reception Theory

Ever walk into a new retail store for the first time and be startled by the look of an old familiar brand in this unfamiliar context . . . your left thinking something must be different about the package . . . and your left with a new sense of intrigue and fascination for the brand!

Hasn’t happened to you . . . well perhaps it should. And lets base this discussion on Reception Theory, a concept I am just beginning to apply to design strategy, and talk about which brands might be able to successfully surprise and customize their message for each retailer, and which might not.

This sense of gleeful surprise is the experience that Peter Schjeldahl describes vividly in his New Yorker review of the new Barnes Foundation building, recently opened in downtown Philadelphia. He notes being startled by the intense blue colors of Picasso’s “The Ascetic”, a painting he had seen many times in the old galleries.

The Barnes curator explained that the painting is the same, not cleaned, not spruced up in any way. The difference is the new sunlight that permeates the marvelous new building designed by the team of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. The new space and new light simply ignites the Picasso blues in a way that the incandescent lighting in the old space never could. Apparently many early viewers of this new space, including Roberta Smith in her NY Times review, have reacted the same way . . . seeing old friends in a new light.

Admittedly Picasso is not Pepperidge Farm or Pernod Ricard, but Reception Theory suggests that we might respond to these disparate objects in similar ways. And here’s why.

Reception Theory as it relates to painting might be described as follows. (When you read this description replace the words painting and artist with brand, and the word viewer with shopper. By doing this you’ll immediately see where I’m going.)

“A basic acceptance of the meaning of a specific painting (brand) tends to occur when a group of viewers (shoppers) have a shared cultural background and interpret the painting (brand) in similar ways. It is likely that the less shared heritage a viewer (shopper) has with the artist (brand), the less he/she will be able to recognize the painting’s (brand’s) intended meaning, and it follows that if two viewers (shoppers) have vastly different cultural and personal experiences, their reading of a painting (brand) will vary greatly.”

Today our clients are often asking us to customize their packaging and brand identity solutions for their largest retail customers. Costco gets one solution, and Target gets another. It’s the same brand but optimized for their retail environment. But while most often this simply involves subtle layout changes, such as a slightly different food photograph, I have been concerned about even these small changes in the past, thinking that brands are diluting their heritage with every one of these custom retail solutions.

But based on my reading of Reception Theory, its time to lighten up and give brands more latitude. There would seem to be much more room, at least with some older iconic brands, to take retail customization a step further, and with much less risk to brand “heritage” than I have perceived in the past.

And for this, an understanding the complex relationships of Reception Theory, brand heritage, and retail context can help. Simply stated . . . brands work hard at developing a common “heritage story” that they share with us and we share with them. Some brands have been at this a long time. Coca Cola, Gillette, or Campbell’s are all brands with which we share a very strong and common heritage.

In its simplest interpretation, Reception Theory would seem to suggest that these iconic brands, which share the most “common heritage” with shoppers, would have the most flexibility to tailor their brand identity to a retail chain. But maybe this is true, maybe it isn’t . . . I’d like to find some evidence.

So in the next few weeks I will be exploring more on this combination of reception theory, brand heritage, and retail context and seeing if we can find some real examples with real brands on the shelf today.

If you are aware of brands that are tailoring their brand identity to the in-store context of each retailer, I’d like to hear about them.

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