It would be an understatement to say that not all licensed consumer products sell through at retail, regardless of how hot a property may be. More often than not, we can pin this on a poorly conceived, visually disjointed, or underachieving licensed product packaging program. Unlike traditional consumer product packaging, which typically leverages a single structural strategy, consists of one packaging format in various sizes, and is merchandised in a single shelf set within one category, licensed product packaging must represent a property in a visually distinctive manner, and it must do so while also accommodating diverse packaging formats across a range of consumer product categories throughout the retail environment. With all of this to consider, many brand owners struggle to build a packaging program that’s visually unique among the proliferation of licensed brands in today’s consumer product marketplace — one that will resonate with consumers on an emotional level as they move from one product category to another.

Leveraging the Most Equitable Brand Assets

When we think of the visual oversaturation that exists within the toy aisles of the mass retail environment, what draws our attention most about a particular licensed brand’s packaging? What do consumers connect with most immediately? Is it the property logo that first catches their eyes? Is it the brand’s color scheme? I say it’s the package design architecture — a distinctively dominant aspect of the design that embodies something emotive and unique to the brand — which is something highly identifiable that works in conjunction with the property logo and brand color palette to ensure instant recognition in every consumer product category.

Most traditional consumer product brands can still be successful without distinctive package design architecture because the entire product line is merchandised within the same shelf set in a single category. But, most licensed products aren’t merchandised by brand outside of the toy aisle. They’re merchandised by category throughout the retail environment. So, for licensed brands, distinctive package design architecture is an absolute necessity to ensure consumer recognition. Whether they do it consciously or subconsciously, it is what consumers look for when they’re trying to find their favorite licensed brands in stores.

As the key component of a licensed product packaging program, package design architecture should never be arbitrarily conceived. It should always be based on an iconic visual attribute associated with the brand. Only equitable brand assets will have the potential to resonate with consumers on an emotional level. Think about the sparkling pink glitter texture that falls behind the property logo on every Disney Princess package, or the rainbow that sweeps down the left side of packaging for Nickelodeon’s licensed JoJo Siwa products.

Toy Story 4 merchandise features a logo made out of lights reminiscent of those present in the film’s carnival lights, as seen in this still.

Capturing Mindshare Through Design

To establish a distinctive look for the Frozen 2 packaging program, Disney was inspired by the wooded landscape setting of the franchise’s sequel, in which Elsa, Anna, Kristoff, Olaf, and Sven journey far beyond the gates of Arendelle in search of answers. In contrast to the packaging program for the first film, which featured an icy blue horizontal bar along the bottom of every panel and a background of ornate snowflakes, the Frozen 2 packaging program leverages a birch tree as its primary package design architecture. The angular, cut-paper-like tree defines the left or right side of the package in bright white with a gray, stylized birch bark texture. The birch tree, which is often treated as a dramatic die-cut on window-box packaging for core products, seamlessly merges with the wave-shaped packaging along the bottom of the front panel to hold the property logo and key art of Elsa and Anna.

The white birch tree is an iconic representation of the new film and symbolic of Elsa’s journey into the unknown to learn the truth about her magical powers. It is a visual, storytelling device that’s highly recognizable across categories. Even the in-store Frozen 2 experience at Target incorporates the tree as a key component of the display system, simulating the film’s wooded landscape for store guests.

Minecraft, a sandbox video game that can be played on multiple platforms, was introduced to gamers in 2009. Thanks primarily to word of mouth and without the support of a massive marketing budget, it has become one of the most popular games in the world with more than 112 million monthly active players. The world of Minecraft is a virtual land where players can create their own worlds using pixel-like building blocks. The brand has evolved considerably over the last 10 years and is more popular than ever, with last year being its best to date.

Minecraft-licensed products can now be found in almost every conceivable category. And they’re quite easy to identify thanks to a distinctive package design architecture: a horizontal header made from various tones of green pixels that are the visual essence of the Minecraft world. Regardless of the packaging format or structural configuration, the green pixel header consistently dominates the top of every Minecraft product’s package. Arguably, fans will hone in on this visual asset even more so than the property logo due to its significance to the brand. In fact, when package design architecture derives from a brand’s most equitable visual asset, consumers would readily identify the brand at retail even if the property logo was completely removed from its packaging.

Being Subtle Can Still Be Powerful

Some entertainment properties are so inherently recognizable at retail that package design architecture can take a back seat to other equitable visual assets. Such is the case with the packaging program for Toy Story 4-licensed products. Disney•Pixar has done a wonderful job of maintaining a consistent treatment for the Toy Story franchise’s primary-colored logo through all four installments. The most recent film’s logo incorporates the number four, as expected, but lights spelling out “Toy” have been added, and the number “4” brings to mind the new film’s carnival scene — all of which helps differentiate this logo from the previous ones. But does this slight update enough for consumers to differentiate Toy Story 4 packaging across categories? Not very likely.

The new film’s packaging program introduces package design architecture in the form of a burst defined by a soft blue-to-white radial gradient. As with the signage lights in the new film’s logo, the burst artwork is also inspired by the film’s carnival scene. The burst is subtle to maintain an overall white aesthetic for all Toy Story franchise packaging — and it is leveraged as a background texture rather than a dominant graphic treatment.

Despite the subtly, the packaging effectively draws in attention. If properly conceived and implement- ed, package design architecture will build equity in consumers’ minds and become subliminally associated with the brand on a deep level. When it’s derived from something uniquely inherent to the brand, it has the ability to evoke powerful emotional responses, create category leaders, and certainly make lasting impressions.