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Using a recent packaging redesign project in China as an example, Malcolm Dale offers some simple rules for successful export packaging design.

Entering any new export market can be a long and intricate process.
What does your market want?
What does the government want?
What do you want?
In China, getting the right answers to these three questions can make all the difference between success and failure.
Packaging design is a form of communication – often the only one you have with the person ultimately paying your bills. Like any communication medium, the signs and symbols have different meanings for different cultures.
Just as you might feel (without necessarily knowing why) that a product, promotion or even photograph ‘looks American’, your target market overseas will probably sense that your packaging comes from an unfamiliar culture with an unfamiliar set of values. This raises a question mark in the consumer’s mind.
It can be a good thing. If answered well, this moment of intrigue can create a really positive engagement. If not answered, it leaves a lingering doubt that pushes the consumer elsewhere.
We’ve recently been involved in repackaging the O:TU range of Marlborough wines, available in New Zealand but also widely exported. China is one significant market.
Looking at wines on the shelf in first or second-tier China, you’re struck by the overwhelming use of traditional European wine cues – gold foil, calligraphic scripts, natural uncoated label stocks, a formal, centred layout with a picture of a chateau or a heraldic crest, and so on.
O:TU chose not to follow the traditional conventions for their Reserve packaging in China. The new labels are bold and unconventional, deliberately unfamiliar in the context of a Chinese wine store. They support and are supported by the proposition that New Zealand wine is fresh, modern, stylish and different. They appeal solidly to the small but growing proportion of first-tier Chinese wine consumers who really know wine and want to know more. The intrigue raised by the bottle is very satisfactorily answered by the wine in it.
But that’s only one approach, and it might not be the right one for you. Wine connoisseurs can be open to intrigue and novelty. By contrast, purchasers of infant formula want to be absolutely sure there is nothing unexpected in the package.
Infant formula is often purchased as a gift; by grandparents for example, and the only thing worse than buying a dubious product for yourself is giving it as a present to someone else. The familiar cues and highly regulated information panels of infant formula packaging give purchasers much-needed reassurance and security.
Those officially-mandated blocks of numbers and technical details are not all bad. Although they are ugly and mar the visual appeal of the package, they do provide a sense of authorisation and official approval which can help allay uncertainties about a ‘foreign-looking’ product.
Meeting regulatory requirements can be tedious, but you need to work through it and get it right. Your agents in-country should help you through the approval process, but there are also people here who can navigate the tangles of international bureaucracy. In the past I’ve worked with Jonathan Watt at Globalink Consulting, who has been very helpful in negotiating the official requirements in China. New Zealand Trade & Enterprise (NZTE) or New Zealand China Trade Association (NZCTA) can also be a great help in putting you in touch with the right people.
It’s important to emphasise those New Zealand strengths that we might take for granted in the domestic market, and that quite frankly we’re all a bit tired of hearing about. The New Zealand brand has very positive qualities – pure, natural, safe, modern – and we always need to bear in mind that our export markets don’t hear it as often as we do.
But don’t compromise your own passion for the product to meet the needs of the market.
I was recently disappointed to meet a client who was disappointed. We had worked together to produce packaging for sale in China, and by all accounts it was very successful. It appealed to the target market, and communicated the right values and messages. But for him it felt very conventional and he simply didn’t like it much. Furthermore, as the market in China grows and changes – at an extraordinary pace – he meets occasional customers who now also find it too conventional. It makes it more difficult for him to sell to the clients he would most like to be selling to. The lesson is simple: design for your target market, but make sure that you love it too. Above all else, you and your team need a genuine enthusiasm for your own products to be able to sell them effectively.

Here are three simple rules for successful export packaging design:

1. Know your market
Appeal to your market. The goal is to communicate clearly with them, not with yourself. Do the research in-market to check that the correct impressions about your product are getting through. Get feedback from more than one source.
But be bold, and make sure you like your own design too. It’s very hard to be passionate about a product that you think is dull or you don’t like the look of, no matter how well it fits the target profile. Design for the future, not the past.

2. Do the paperwork  
You do need to allow plenty of time (and energy) to make sure you meet the official requirements for packaging in each of your target markets, to avoid major headaches in the future.

3. Know your own strengths and communicate them
Be clear about what distinguishes your product. You may have a different message to tell overseas markets than you do at home, incorporating New Zealand strengths and values that the market here takes for granted. You can’t assume that your overseas market knows what they are.
There are many questions to resolve in designing new packaging for export, and it’s worthwhile taking the time and getting the assistance you need to get the right answers. Overseas or at home, an early investment in the design of market-appropriate packaging can make all the difference between success and failure.

Malcolm Dale is a partner at leading graphic design and web development company gardyneHOLT. Visit


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