So why do you need to know all these details about your competition? At the end of the day you want to be unique and not simply follow what everyone else is doing. Well of course you do. But knowing your competition will ensure that you don’t create something too close to what’s already out there. And whatever look you decide to go with it will be important to get to know your category’s ques. While it may not be obvious without dallying a bit deeper, each category has specific rules that help people recognise and understand them. Corporate logos while amazing on stationery and signage often look terrible when applied onto food packaging. Colours have a different meaning depending on where they are used and different products require different level of explaining on the pack (think about a beautifully simple coffee packaging compared to a washing detergent). Of course you may choose to break the rules and there is absolutely nothing wrong with this. Most fast growing, very successful brands do this but the truth is that in order to break the rules, you first need to know them. Only then will you be able to make a conscious decision without shooting in the dark and hoping for the best.

There are a few ways to approach your brand:

  1. Make it fit into the category - learn what’s out there and put your own (hopefully better) version of it
  2. Challenges the norms but don’t change everything. Unusual photography style that’s never been used in your category or bringing elements that work in different categories but have never been used in yours (Heist thighs)
  3. Break some rules completely and retain others - Familiar design in a completely new form is a good example of this (muesli in a paper tube)
  4. Break every rule in the book (Frank)

Depending on your personality, you’re probably strongly gravitating to one of those. But should you aim to break the rules or try to fit in? What approach will be the best for you and your business? Unfortunately this question doesn’t have a simple answer. Personally I strongly believe in always making sure that your business is visually doing something that’s unique and stands out. There is no point bringing something to the market and just replicating what’s already out there no matter how much you like it. When possible, breaking the rules can do amazing things for your brand. But in great design, everything has to have a reason so your rule breaking should not be done so purely for the sake of being different but instead because it reflects who you are. If your market is full of brands with a minimal look and your product is all about simplicity and minimalism, there is no point giving it a fun, busy look just to look different. You will need to find a way to bring something new to the picture while still capturing your essence. When creating the look for your brand, the most important thing is that it truly represents who you as a business are and what message you are trying to send to the world.

Breaking the rules is easier in some categories and not in others. This is particularly true with physical products as most of them are being sold online. A great example is a premium painkiller. While currently we are all loving the minimal trends and each category is introducing new products with a very clean look, try to put a minimal looking pack competing with the leading brand. Yes, it will look beautiful and it will be nice having it in your bag, but on the shop shelf it will literally disappear and your customers won’t believe that it will actually do the job. And when pain strikes you don’t care about aesthetics, you need action.

Another thing that will affect how far you should steer of the norms is the market that you are joining. In different countries consumers have different level of sophistication. I don’t mean this as an insult to the consumers themselves. This is purely the result of the product they have been used to seeing and expecting. I was fortunate enough to work in both Australia and the UK. The first one is run by only 2 big supermarkets who pretty much dictate the rules. This is a way safer market where the audience still need the traditional way of communication to make a purchase (eg. food photography on food packaging). The latter is packed with different supermarket options and therefore packaging styles. This means that the consumers are used to seeing very different approach to branding/packaging and therefore aren’t wedded to only one way of presenting a certain product. A design that works incredibly well there may not perform all that great in a Sydney’s supermarket.

The next thing to consider when choosing how you should steer from the norms in your target market. While Gen Z has been exposed to a huge amount of information from an early age and is easily open to new ideas and new styles, baby boomers are often a bit more scared of new things and new approaches. I’m not saying that you can’t do something very different for them but you may just have to thread a bit more carefully. Knowing who you are aiming your product towards will help you determine the best approach.

Lastly you’ll need to think about how your product or service is going to be sold. Purely online businesses have a very different possibilities to ones sold in physical stores. And those also very depending on the stores themselves. In supermarket both your competition and consumers will partially dictate your look. Selling online allows you to plan exactly how you want to tell your story and things like packaging are more about the customer experience than the sale. Department store may have a sales assistant ready to share your product story. In supermarket your product is there on its own and the look and packaging will have to grab customer’s attention and then convince them to buy.

So here are some questions you need to ask yourself before choosing your approach:

  1. What’s your product about? Are you wanting to break the norms just for the sake of it or is the different approach aligned with your company’s purpose and story  
  2. What market are you entering - is it one that people are very familiar with? If so it will be easier to introduce something different.
  3. Is it a completely new idea? - if so you will be creating your own language but will also need to give people something familiar to help them understand this brand new concept. Your design will have to do both excite and educate them
  4. Is everyone in the market already breaking the rules? If there are no rules then there is nothing to be broken
  5. How open to changes your target market is?
  6. What fundamentals (if any) do you need to retain to make people trust you
  7. How you are going to distribute your product

Answering those honestly will allow you to make an informed decision and not just simply follow the trend.