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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Custom Printing: Consistent Branding in Packaging

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Increasingly, my fiancee and I depend on products ordered online. You push a button, and the boxes show up at your door. We recognize the delivery trucks by their sound out on the neighborhood street, just like the mail truck and the garbage truck.

Amazon. UPS. These entities are their brand, and their brand comprises everything from the look of the boxes (and the imprinted logos) to the kindness of their drivers, to the color of and imprints on their uniforms.

Clearly, this is the core of the new economy: the convenience of one-click ordering plus door to door delivery. We now take it for granted.

Consistent Branding

For years my fiancee and I have received products from one of these large distributors, and for years this distributor has presented a consistent brand image in their packaging. The logo has been consistent and eminently recognizable, even from across the street. Even their logo mark (without any type) has been iconic.

All custom printing except for the brand mark (or pictorial mark) on the carton (without the name or other type) has been on the packing tape strapped across the brown corrugated cartons. Even the second color, used as a minimal highlight on the packing tape, has become immediately recognizable along with the solid brown of the corrugated packing boxes.

Just recently, however, this established brand image has changed a bit. Boxes are now printed on all surfaces with imagery and an additional logo for an upcoming movie franchise. The otherwise recognizable brown of the carton is obscured by this promotional printing. From the white of the reversed type on the box I can assume that all custom printing was done on a white press sheet that was later laminated to the corrugated board of the cartons. That said, under a 12-power printer’s loupe, the random dot pattern in the halftone images suggests to me that inkjet imaging was the chosen commercial printing technique.

Perhaps this is either a short-run test of the new packaging or even only one localized version of the box (perhaps only in my fiancee’s and my neighborhood), with other custom printing on cartons sent to other customers.

Furthermore, another package from the same distributor arrived today, promoting the same film franchise. However, in this case the background color printed on the vinyl bubble-wrap envelope is different from both the first (mustard-colored rather than various tones of brown) newer version with the “altered” print presentation (printing all over the box and a secondary logo for the film franchise) and the long-standing “look” of the original almost-blank carton. So these are relatively major graphic changes.

Why Does This Matter?

Granted, in the world as it is, this is not a crisis by any means. It is just marketing. But to me it is a curious event, based on my understanding of the goals and processes of brand maintenance.

In marketing, the goal is the immediate recognition of a brand by potential clients. If this is a new brand, such buyer recognition can only come from a certain number of exposures to the marketing image and message. (I’ve heard it’s six to ten impressions. The number is less relevant than the concept of awareness and positive associations growing organically over time and arising from the customers’ seeing consistent imagery.)

This nurturing of brand recognition in the minds of potential customers depends on consistency across a number of defined areas. Such consistency includes the treatment of the company logo (everything from colors to size to placement on a printed product), to the typefaces associated with the logo and any tagline or any other writing on the box, brochure, banner, sign, billboard, or any other printed or digitally displayed promotional piece.

But Branding Is More Than Just the Logo

Branding is more than just the logo. It is all of the intangibles linked to the logo and other related graphic presentations. From there, by association, the graphic presentation itself absorbs and then reflects the values of the brand (or corporation). Amazon, Chewy, and UPS do this beautifully.

The qualities and attributes linked to the visual depiction of their brand may include quality, responsiveness, speed, knowledge, environmental stewardship, fairness. The list goes on. When the company employees do their jobs well, compassionately, and knowledgeably, they help foster a positive customer experience. (A business-owner friend of mine also uses the term “frictionless” to suggest that it should be easy for the consumer to get what she or he needs from the corporation, or brand. That is, in his own business, my friend tries to eliminate stress for the customer within all transactions.)

In addition, the brand is reflected in the interior design of the company buildings, the signage, the customer uniforms, and especially, least I forget, both the look and the “frictionless” user experience of the website (and how successfully and seamlessly the website is linked to the physical brand presence).

As an analogy, consider Pavlov’s dog. Pavlov’s dog began to automatically salivate when he heard a bell. This was because getting his dog food and hearing the bell had been linked physiologically and psychologically because they occurred simultaneously. Once food and the bell had been linked in the mind of the dog, Pavlov could ring the bell and fido would salivate.

Branding works in much the same way. You have a great experience in the store and with the product, and you associate these with the interior design of the store, the colors, signage, logo. Once the brand values and experiences and the graphic presentation have become linked, when you see a consistent presentation of the logo and brand colors, you salivate. I mean you remember all of your good experiences with the company and you buy more product or service.

I actually understand this on a conscious level, but I also respond to it just like Pavlov’s dog because it serves my needs. I know I will get what I want from the transaction with the business.

For instance, I moved my cell phone service to Cricket from another carrier a number of years ago. On a whim, my fiancee had suggested that I visit a Cricket store when I was dissatisfied with my current carrier’s price and service. I also didn’t like the little add-ons and extra fees and taxes that drove the prior carrier’s price much higher than the advertised monthly cost.

I actually had a good experience in the Cricket store. They were helpful. The monthly cost matched exactly what Cricket had offered in its promotional literature (with no hidden fees or taxes). And now I recognize the logo and other elements of the branding wherever I see it, even from a distance while driving. And since the initial fortuitous meeting at this first Cricket outlet, every Cricket store I’ve been to for help has solved my problem (at any given moment of crisis) immediately and successfully. That is, they provided consistency and frictionlessness.

Brand Dilution

To return to the concept of brand consistency, I’m not sure I’d have the immediate recognition and positive associations with the logo and logo treatment (colors, typefaces, logo mark) if I drove past a strip mall and saw a different Cricket logo, maybe different colors, or if I received direct mail with a different logo or printing or color treatment. I’d be confused. I wouldn’t get the immediate “aha” moment (the norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin coursing through my brain). And the key there is immediate.

So when we look at the distributor whose boxes wind up on our porch on a regular basis, having some of them be different visually, and without even a visible link (base background color, level of simplicity vs. complexity in imagery and type treatment, etc.), this difference may cause confusion, a lack of immediate recognition of the brand and its associated attributes and values.

I call this “diluting the brand.” I even refer to it with my fiancee when we’re choosing art projects for our art therapy work, since we have a brand, too, which encompasses everything from our art projects to our billing invoices. Our goal is always to build the brand, or “burnish the brand,” as I call it, not dilute the brand.

So in the case of door-to-door delivery and the graphic treatment of the distributor’s cartons, I personally think there’s a risk of diluting a brand by presenting the logo, typeface, corporate colors, or any other aspect of the corporate “look” in different ways. Again, why? Because consistency breeds recognition, and change risks confusion (particularly change that deviates dramatically from the treatment of the prior corporate branding).

The Takeaway

No matter what you design, whether it is for the internet or for commercial printing projects, from products to promotional literature to wall signage for a store, consider how your individual item fits in graphically with everything else the company displays or sells. Think about everything as a complex system with minute interactions between each component part. But most of all, think about how all of these elements not only work together visually but more importantly how they support and reflect the core values of the brand.

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