New look! Same great taste!

When your husband is a biologist you find yourself participating in unusual activities for a graphic designer. A couple weeks ago I found myself providing moral support by tromping around the forest after dark as part of a citizen science activity led by my better half. I had a headlight strapped to my forehead and I was sweeping my gaze across the leaf-litter looking for the blue-green reflections from the eyes of wolf spiders. I’m proud to report that I was a very successful “citizen scientist” as I located quite a few of the little guys. To use the scientific term, I had developed a search image, by becoming hyper-sensitive to the the minute details that differentiated between the shimmering slug slime and the spider-eye glitter (Happy Halloween!). My brain had learned to look for one very specific thing set of traits, and to ignore anything that didn’t match up.

Spider eye-shine search image

Spider eye-shine search image

I observed a similar phenomenon when I worked for a tea company a couple years ago. (No spiders. I promise.) For a variety of reasons the company had decided to switch the format of packaging for its retail products from tins to paper boxes. As with the tins that they were replacing, each grouping of of the boxed teas (herbal, green, black, etc.) had a different visual theme to reflect the rich history and craftsmanship behind the individual lines of product. Some of the lines kept graphics that were nearly identical to the labels on the tins that preceded them. Some lines were completely revamped.

When the redesigned boxes finally hit the shelves, tea sales showed mixed results. Some sold quite well, but the line of teas that had the worst turn in sales was one that was completely redesigned. For all of the teas, customers had to look for boxes on the shelves instead of the tins that they were accustomed to. The tea company received calls asking why stores had stopped carrying customers’ favorite products. The products were still on the shelves, but the customers’ established search images were making them blind to the new packaging. This was very early in my career, and though I could be proud of how handsome the graphics had turned out on these boxes, I learned a lesson. Redesigns happen at a price. No matter how satisfying it might be to completely overhaul the aesthetics of a product it might not be worth the blow to customer recognition. Having an established search image can help a scientist or a tea lover quickly find what they are looking for, but it can also blind them to anything that doesn’t match up.

In the field of technical communication, the concept of ambient design is related to the effects of a search image. Salvo and Rosinski explain that, “effective ambient design helps users understand the purpose or content of a [document] with a quick glance.” (p. 120) Users create an entire mental library of meanings tied to visual cues. When looking at the magazine shelf in a store, a reader can quickly deduce the kind of content she would expect from Seventeen Magazine and how it might differ from Vogue. She doesn’t need to read the headlines on the front cover to know this. She makes her conclusions based on the magazine’s use of colors, typefaces, photography, and white space. If her favorite feature is always in the first twelve pages with a blue headline, she might flip directly to that page without critically observing the pages before or after. It would be a mistake for an editor to move that feature to the back of the magazine and use red headline, because the reader is already cued in to the ambient design with a pre-established search image.

These are the powerful forces behind a brand. A company or product establishes a set of cues that get filed away in the mental library of the consumer. Companies will go to great lengths to establish and protect a brand. For example, last year Cadbury lost a legal fight with Nestle after it attempted to trademark a very specific color purple. In the U.S. many people can name the postal service that deploys brown trucks, or remember the cause behind trendy yellow rubber bracelets that were popular years ago. Coca Cola’s brand is so strong that its name can be easily identified when written in a foreign language as long as it’s in the iconic white script on a red background.

Hebrew "Coca Cola"

Hebrew Coca Cols (Source:

As a technical communicators, designers and consumers we can form opinions around the subtle shifts or dramatic reinventions of our favorite brands. What can we learn from the companies who make big changes gracefully, and others that flop? Is there a right way to tweak a brand without alienating your consumers, or is it always a negative experience for the customer whose pre-established visual language is being re-written?

Posted on October 4, 2015, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Hi Allie,

    Great post this week! I love all the examples you pulled in that demonstrate the force images can have on consumers. The fact that brands have to advertise “New look. Same Great Taste!” reinforces this idea that images/logos become ingrained in our minds. Despite the product underneath is the same, the companies have to reassure consumers that we shouldn’t be alarmed by packaging’s cosmetic change.

    While change can be risky, oftentimes this graphic “face lift” is necessary. It keeps the fresh and current. In your case, the drastic overhaul of the graphics on the boxes seemed to be too much of a shock to consumers. (Thus the angry calls about why their favorite teas are no longer being made.) I can see where it becomes tricky for designers to find the right combination of old and new designs.

    Despite the fact that changing imagery may confuse consumers, there are other benefits to re-designs in packaging as well. Im sure the shift from tin boxes to paper containers saved the tea company a ton of money in both shipping and production. Plus its better for the environment. While people’s perceptions may not register the extent of these changes, they are changes for the best.

  2. Love the Coca-Cola example. What a success story! In my experience, brand redesigns are best done deliberately, thoughtfully and in phases. What if the tea company had simply, as a first step, kept the old design on the new packages? Then, after customers had grown used to looking for the new box, gradually introduce other design changes over time? When my company merged with another a couple of years ago, subtle changes, including the logo, were employed over a couple of years, and changes are still being made. I think that approach has accomplished the challenge of brand retention and recognition.

  3. Like your peers have stated, this is a great post and the focus on ambient design is something others haven’t touched this week, so I’m glad your experience with redesigns could be woven in. in fact, this could be a potential final paper topic–historicizing these redesigns and possibly seeing how their social media or web presence is also affected.

  4. Chelsea Dowling

    Your post this week reminds me a lot about the change management discussions that happen within organizations. Ultimately change management looks at how change impacts employees and how can we implement / change things without reeking havoc on our employees. You tea example is an interesting parallel example of how a visual design change for customers is very similar to how a technical change within a company (going from Windows XP to Windows 8.1). It ultimately comes down to truly understanding the impact that something might have and weighing the risks and benefits. The caveat to all of this, in my own mind, is making sure we don’t over analyze it to the point that nothing every changes.

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