"A smile is a curve that sets everything straight," said American stand-up comedian Phyllis Diller. Everybody likes to smile. In the same way, witty packaging design is a technique that can transform brands, sparking sales, forging loyalty and creating buzz.
It was with delight we spotted the newly relaunched and redesigned Heston Blumenthal range at Waitrose. Its clever use of wit in the pack design shows us how this technique can forge an emotional connection with consumers and stoke brand loyalty.
Illustrated anthropomorphic characters on Heston’s relaunched range combine with a pared-back, matter of fact style, allowing the wit to engage with customers.
The Lapsang Souchong Smoked Salmon features a salmon wearing a Chinese-style outfit to reference the tea flavours, while the Mini Sticky Toffee Apple Sponge Pudding sees the apple sitting in the bath to wash the sticky toffee off. It’s this subtle and intelligent integration of elements which makes the packaging interesting, and which conjures a smile in the mind, without any drum roll or exclamation mark.
This is a critical moment for pack design. As the power of advertising has dwindled in recent years, so brands are looking once more to design to gain attention and form emotional bonds with customers. How can packaging achieve this? For many the answer lies in the form of wit.
It is not a new technique. Brands like Jif Lemon and Oily Bird made shoppers smile decades ago. But it remains as relevant today – just look at the impact of the new Domino’s Pizza boxes or the Simple Value packaging at Argos. So why is this sort of design so effective, and crucially, what can brands do to replicate that wit and that success?
Wit is such a powerful tool because the response it elicits is involuntary. No one chooses to laugh or smile – you just do. It’s a more direct, more visceral, reaction than the considered appreciation of beauty or craft, which is why it works so well in an FMCG environment. On the supermarket shelf, wit can take you unawares and transform a functional retail environment into an emotional experience.
It can also provide a brand with an instant depth of character, revealing a personality and instigating a conversation with the consumer that doesn't depend on reams of quirky copy.
What’s more, we want to continue that conversation off-pack, engaging directly with those brands on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, as well as sharing our discoveries with our own friends and followers.
Take the top selling fruit juice brand in India, Frooti, whose distinctive presence on Instagram builds on the playfulness on its packaging to create a unique and unexpected brand world.
It’s a powerful technique but one that is far from easy to produce. We can all think of large corporate brands that have, overnight, decided to trade in a staid trustworthy image for a playful one, and fallen flat on their faces.
This is not to say that big brands can’t be witty. Although challenger brands tend to find subversive playfulness easier than established rivals, you only need to look at the hugely successful limited editions from Marmite to see that new entrants don’t enjoy a monopoly on it.
Big or small, brands need to use wit wisely. It must feel like a natural expression of your brand personality, and it must have a purpose beyond "being funny". It goes without saying that whether you’re a disruptive start-up or a market-leading brand, if you try to be funny, you have to be funny. There is nothing more awkward than a joke that falls flat.
How then to get it right? One technique is to find a way to make the consumer think twice, by concealing a hidden meaning within an apparently straightforward design.
People have a fundamental desire to understand, so we find ourselves irresistibly drawn to notice and disentangle this kind of double meaning. Our natural curiosity gets the better of us. Once we have understood the joke, we feel like we have joined the club. It gives us a sense of discovery, achievement and belonging.
Wit often emerges as a solution to the need to communicate multiple messages for brands. Combining two thoughts into a single logo or image enables us to create design that feels simple and effortless at first glance.
At the same time, the thought that has gone into the design reassures consumers that the same care and attention has been taken over the product.
Keep it simple
Another approach is to be refreshingly single-minded. Finding a compelling way to highlight a key aspect of the brand or product is a powerful way to deliver a vital message without overloading the consumer.
Finally, perhaps, the most important point to remember with wit is never to over-do it. As Noël Coward put it: "Wit ought to be a glorious treat like caviar; never spread it about like marmalade."
Wit should be there if you want it, but it shouldn’t be forced on you. So keep it subtle, allow consumers the sense of discovery and the joy of understanding. And above all else, be funny.
Lisa Desforges is strategy director at B&B Studio