Retail Branding Design is More of a Solution than a Creation


retail branding designUnfortunately, many new CPG product designers think that branding design has an open door to the world of all possibilities. They mistakenly think that they have wide latitude to create new, disruptive designs that they believe will be distinctive, attractive, and compelling. But in the CPG space, good branding design is really the best solution to a monumental problem. And the best solution wins!

The Challenge

Design a logo, label, and package that will get through the crowded and imperfect distribution and retail system. Provide all the required contents and compliance information, and still stand out on a competitive, overcrowded, and poorly lit retail shelf. Gain and hold the attention of a moving customer who is severely compromised by limited time, too many choices, and at least 4 feet away!

Now, design a package that will fit within the shelf dimensions provided for its category, allow for the maximum number of units on the shelf, and be shipped in a multiunit carton that won’t collapse under the pressure of other cartons stacked above it, on a pallet, or on a floor display. Oh, and the signage on the carton has to be visible from 10 feet away so it can be seen in a dimly lit warehouse to avoid mis-deliveries.

These are just some of the parameters you must satisfy before you even have the luxury of getting “creative!” Other challenges include the shape of your package which can severely limit the amount of readable space left on your label. So, you’re not designing in the world of all possibilities. On the contrary, you’re solving a very specific problem in a world of multiple design restrictions.

Veer Away From the Impractical and Confusing

Every day we see new brands with package designs that are impractical for the retail marketplace. Every day we see logos that are confusing and completely unreadable. And every day we see label designs that omit the very thing the customer is looking for: what’s inside the package. It seems like the designers got carried away on an art project with little regard for the realities of the marketplace.

Having spent 20 years building the famous Barefoot Wine brand, we are painfully aware of the limitations of the retail marketplace. At first, we were in denial. We underestimated the practical reasons for the rigidity of the retail environment. Our products suffered until we finally began to address these realities.

Cartons – also known as Shippers or Cases

Why start a discussion about branding design with shipping cartons? Simply because the carton design can affect whether or not your product ever gets to the retail shelf. Cartons must solve many problems and, in the process, can dictate the design of your package.

Number of Products in a Carton

How many of your products should be in a carton? One thing for sure, a human being has to be able to lift and carry a carton. That generally limits your carton weight to between 30 and 40 pounds. Depending on the size and weight of your products, your cartons may contain as little as four or as many as 24 of your products.

Carton Durability & Label

Your cartons have to protect your products from impacts. They have to be strong enough to support other cartons stacked above them without collapsing and crushing your products.

Because of realities of handling cartons, they have to be clearly labeled, and easy to spot in a warehouse by a forklift operator from 10 to 20 feet away. We recommend the super graphic name and logo depictions on the sides of cartons to eliminate confusion. We also recommend large, easy-to-read font, like Helvetica or Arial to clearly state what’s in the carton, how many units, and the weight or volume.

Carton Design and the Pallet

The 4’ x 4’ pallet is the fundamental basis for carton design. You want to maximize the number of cartons in the smallest amount of space. But you still can’t overload the pallet or the trucks in which the pallets are being transported. This is a challenging puzzle and requires some careful analysis.

Cartons Designed to Vend Product

Most of the big box stores want specially designed cartons that include their own inventory codes and are cut down so the customers can see the products. This means that pictures of the products contained inside the cartons have to extend from the cut point. This is usually one third to a halfway up from the bottom, in order for the customer to see what they’re buying. Typically these big box stores are selling out of boxes, not off of shelves. So they want your carton designed to vend your product right from its shipper.

Packages – Glass, Metal, Plastic, or Fiberboard

Packaging design for the CPG space must start with getting the most packages on the shelf space allotted for your products. Products are usually allotted one or more rows called “facings” or “faces showing.” Designing to maximize products on the shelf demands respect for the minimum footprint to allow the most packages front to back and side-by-side.

Tall and Thin Sell

Packages that are wider at the top than at the base tend to tip over when they are squeezed onto the shelf. So top heavy designs, no matter how attractive, are just not practical. Packages that are tall and thin seem to be the ones that fit best on a store shelf, as long as they are not taller than the vertical space allotted by the shelf design. We’ve seen products that were beautifully designed but too tall for the shelf. So, they were placed on the very top shelf and didn’t sell because customers simply couldn’t reach them!

Even though rectangular packages take up the least amount of space on the shelf, they can be perceived as containing less volume than they actually do. For instance, we tried to sell wine in one-liter rectangular packages. They were very efficient and could be stacked easily. Why did they fail? The consumer perceived that the much taller and cylindrical standard wine bottle package, which only contained .75 liters, had more volume due to its superior height than the stout one-liter box!

Carton Size and Content

Packaging must also take into consideration how many packages will fit in your cartons. For instance, in our industry, 12 was the number of standard size bottles that could fit into a standard wine carton. But in order to sell our products in Europe, we had to reduce the number to 6 because the Europeans didn’t want their customers lifting any more than the weight of six bottles. They also found that they could sell more if the cartons were smaller and easier for customers to lift into their cart.

We recommend packages that are taller and thinner and tend to have wide bases with parallel sides. We also recommend the minimum number of horizontal lines to give your product more stature on the shelf. Your packaging design must be orchestrated to solve all these requirements to give you the advantage in the marketplace.

Labels – Front, Back, and Side

If your package is a rectangular box design, you are in luck. Because now you can use your entire package for point of purchase advertising material and still have room enough for contents, volume, and legal requirements. Now you can create a comprehensive design including advancing color, quotes, accolades, awards, and pictures to make your sale from the shelf.

But if your package is cylindrical, the curve of the package significantly reduces the readable space. Now your label wraps around your package. Now there is only a very small amount of space where the most important parts of your labels are visible. And what if your package is rotated on the shelf and not facing exactly forward? You lose visibility.

Front Label Legal Requirements

Front labels usually have legal requirements which take up a lot of space. Then there is the description of contents. That takes up even more space. If your package isn’t in glass, see-through, or product evident, a picture of the contents may be required. Finally, after you have satisfied the basic requirements of packaged commerce, you have the luxury of designing a logo and brand name that will fit in the limited space remaining.

Labels and Lighting

Also keep in mind that the lighting in the retail market is overhead, throwing shadows especially when your product is under a shelf, or in the back of the shelf. It’s not like the bright image you see on a backlit screen when you’re designing. Your design must stand on its own with no backlighting.

Back Label Should Compel Customer to Put Product to Cart

The back label is the last chance you will get to convince your customer to make the buy. If they are reading your back label, they typically have your product in their hand. When they are done, they have two choices. They can put it back on the shelf, or they can put it in their cart. This is why the back label has to be well thought out with compelling information in very short statements.

Logos – also known as a Brand, Brand Image, or Insignia

What is a logo? It is the graphic image that represents your brand. It should have something to do with your product or your brand name. Ideally, it is the same as your brand name. Some branding designers prefer logos that depict a feature of the product like the way the user will feel upon using the product. In the CPG space, logos are important locators. It’s how your customers find your brand. It’s what they have in their mind when they are looking for it on the shelf.

That’s why logos must be simple, clear, crisp, and easy to understand. That’s why logos must be surrounded by lots of white space uncrowded by brand names, legal requirements, or contents. Use advancing solid colors as much as possible. Your customer is whizzing by, pushing a cart, 4 to 6 feet away, confronted with an ocean of brands each vying for attention. Your package, label, and logo have to stick out and say,’ “Here I am, the brand you’ve been looking for!”

Most branding designers focus on the logo first. But from a practical standpoint, you must first identify the space that is left over for your logo after all the required information is satisfied. It’s not much on most 2.5” x 3.5” labels, the space allotted for the logo is usually less than 1 ½”. That’s a little larger than a postage stamp! So, there’s no time to be silly, frilly, or fancy. Lose the mystery, vagary, and innuendo. When it comes to logos, be clear and concise. You don’t have much time or space, and it’s already pretty noisy out there!

Brand Name – It’s how they will remember you

You spend a ton on advertising to get your name out there. But will they remember it when they get to the store? We learned that brands with names that are three syllables or less are easier to remember than those that are four or more. Brand names that are reinforced by a logo that is the image of the brand name are easier to remember than brand names with entirely unrelated logos.

If you’re a new brand, steer away from family names. Leave that tactic to the big established families. They’ve been around so long that their names carry weight all by themselves. But without that history, choose a brand name that has something to do with your product or the effect of your product.

Today there is a trend toward creating brand names that are deliberately misspelled, seemingly taking a shortcut by using “r” for instance instead of “er”, and “x” instead of “s”. Being creative with the spelling of a brand name can be eye-catching and memorable, but as mentioned, it’s a trend. Trends end. We like English words that are one and two syllables spelled the way they appear in the dictionary. It’s easier to spot when you’re looking over 100 brands in a retail store. And that’s the purpose of the brand name. It should be designed to help your customer find your product.


So as you can see, there are many factors to take into consideration before you get carried away with too many creative designs that may prove impractical in the marketplace. They may look great in your website design, but when you put that product upon a poorly lit retail store shelf, surrounded by other creative designs, you will soon find out if you have really found a solution to the challenges of the marketplace.

To be a successful product designer, spend more time in the retail store than you do in front of the screen. Learn the limitations that the retail environment demands. Once you thoroughly understand the realities of the marketplace, then you are prepared to create your branding design!