Speaking of Polyglot Packaging

Culture drives design

Polyglot Packaging
Bilingual packaging on Colgate packs displayed in a supermarket

Modern packaged products are traded around the world from Atlanta to Amritsar or Shanghai to Stockholm. The visual and brand communication carried on the packs aims to satisfy universal human needs. Brand owners frantically aim to improve their distribution by creating “global packs” targeted to work world-wide. Alas, realities are different. Cultural differences and a babble of languages around the world demand polyglot packaging – packs that “speak” and “connect” one-to-one, writes Deepak Manchanda.

“My son must learn English,” the illiterate peasant woman in interior Maha- rashtra is reported to have told Rahul Gandhi, “so that he can read the names at least on the toffee wrappers sold in our village shop.” A moment’s reflection on this incisive comment by a person from a marginalised section of consumers reveals the huge forces that packaged products can exert on a society. Here is a simple, underprivileged woman who aspires to educate her son in English simply because of the power of the pack- aging she sees around her – but cannot understand. Here is packaging that reaches an interior village shop, speaking an alien language – English, in this case – and fails to connect with its intended buyers.

“Speaking the consumer’s language,” it has begun to be widely recognised, “is a primary principle of effective packaging.” By connecting with the consumer, emo- tionally, the pack has the potential to broaden product appeal. By proper de- sign and execution, the pack can tap into the aspirations of its customers and open up big new markets.

Such a principle, of connecting with the customers aspirations, is easier said than implemented in the increasingly univer- salised, mass markets of today. Many products, nowadays, are marketed not just in one city or country, but across a number of different countries (some even worldwide). In the minds of many brand executives, that means a universal approach to their packaging worldwide. Such a packaging strategy is seen to offer great efficiencies in cost and marketing efforts and delivers the same meaning, message and emotion to consumers around the globe. A global, or universal, pack design would surely simplify SKU’s and vastly improve operational efficiencies. Technology and material logistics choices demand a kind of global pack design if it could be possible! Alas, marketing re- ality dictates otherwise. Culture drives design. Cultural dimensions are said to signifi- cantly influence the way in which products (and thereby the packaging and advertising communication) are perceived and accepted. Brands must choose between global so- lutions or local preference for product design, packaging formats and label design com- munication. It becomes clear pretty quickly that a blanket approach to packaging is un- realistic. This is what makes Globalisation and Localisation the hot topics they are nowadays.

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Culture drives design – various Coca Cola packaging in different countries

The traditional thinking behind this global/local balance is dubbed “Glocalisation”. Being “Glocal” has always suggested that brands should remain as consistent as pos- sible to an international template, with some unique local elements built in. Interbrand, the internationally acclaimed brand communication agency, even assigned a ratio to the approach, calling it the “70/30 principle.” But in a complex global landscape with many trends emerging in categories and consumer segments, companies are choosing to go in different directions when it comes to approaching global branding and packag- ing.

In order to understand the marketing reality within which they must operate, brands must look at the “4C’s”:

  • Category
  • Consumer
  • Culture
  • Competition

Everything about the brand, from design elements to the USP claims must be overlaid against the 4C’s in order to see where the real design opportunities lie.

A vivid example of a brand that is thought to be the same wherever one goes in the world is none other than Coca Cola. Global standards around the key equities in Coke’s packaging design: the red colour, the brand’s iconic script, style, typography, the mate- rials used, the contour shape of the bottles, the packaging closures and other elements help to form the basis of the essential Coke design. But despite its reputation for ab- solute consistency, Coke indeed thinks globally and acts locally with its approach to packaging. Once the global standards have been created they are handed off to group- level design teams, which customise the standards for regional and local needs.

In this way, the regions are made to work within a pre-set “visual tool-box” that defines the essential brand and yet leaves enough room to demonstrate respect and sensitivity to local cultural needs of a specific market. Large global organisations, working across geographies and cultures, have tackled this complexity by defining the design bound- aries for their products in elaborately produced Style Guides which are circulated inter- nally within the organisation. The Style Guides are so complete in themselves that even if there are several different designers working in different regions, for different prod- ucts of the same company, they “do not have to re-invent the wheel.” (See PSA 4/07: “Pack Design can Lead Management!”)

Obviously Coke is not unique in their approach to “glocal” packaging. Brands across categories have adopted varied ways to tackle their needs for polyglot packaging and yet maintain an efficient supply chain. Among the strategies in use are —

Version packs

Packs are developed in several “versions” that are essentially the same but slightly “tweaked” or adapted, to suit the particular market towards which they are aimed. The Style Guide provides the skeletal framework on which the design is conceived and then features that are specific to a particular market are inserted while others are taken out. For example, one of the trends being observed in emerging markets such as China, Africa or India is to reduce on-pack text and communicate things more iconically. This addresses the needs of semi-literate consumers better and reduces the need for trans- lations from region to region. In each case, print artworks are produced in “Versions” that are specific to a particular region or market and inventories maintained according- ly. The result obviously helps to create more efficiency across the system.

Multilingual packs

In several cases brands attempt to create a “one pack suits all” kind of solution by in- troducing a pack which simultaneously features two, three or more languages. Regula- tions governing the packaging of specific categories of products that could be harmful or dangerous also require the printing of multilingual packs. (Pesticide packaging, for example requires the printing of 14 languages on one pack!) Though the challenge of designing such packs is greater than Version packs, the rewards are— reduced and more flexible inventories and easier trade across borders.

Designers and translators who work with multilingual packaging say many factors must be taken into account. Using more than one language on a package affects the most fundamental aspects of its design—a fact that some packagers are not prepared to face. One of the most obvious considerations is simply not having enough room for all the multilingual information.

“Fitting a lot of copy matter on a very limited space becomes very challenging,” com- mentsanexperienceddesigner,andcontinues,“Tryingtocramalotofmultilingualver- biage on the label is a recipe for poor design. Imagine taking a cologne package and having to put three different languages all over the bottle. A picture is worth a thousand words, and what we’re ending up with this is – packaging that has a thousand words and no pictures.”

Among the biggest challenges facing the packaging text translators is the problem of “text expansion”. Sometimes it just takes more words to describe something in anoth- er language. A foreign (and maybe Indian too) language usually expands in comparison to its English original. For example, Spanish texts are reported to expand up to 30%, or even more, over the English original. This would mean that if you have a label panel meant to accommodate 100 words in English, you may end up with 130 to 140 words in Spanish. Competent translation and editing of the marketing copy thus becomes criti- cal, but is all too often insufficiently done.

Ethnic packs

In their quest for globalisation or standardisation of packaging formats, many brands fail to understand a consumer’s entire experience with the brand and how it can differ around various areas of the world. For example, most foreign products, and even most Indian made foreign products, are designed from a view point that the package will be placed on a self-service shelf and the consumers will come, pick it up and – maybe, buy it. In reality, as we are all familiar in India, many products are sold from small shops or “kiosks” and a customer has to come and ask the shopkeeper for it by name, or descrip- tion. In many cases (remember the village boy asking for toffee?) the description maybe of a picture, or colour.

Under such conditions the brand’s Style Guide must be flexible enough to allow lo- calisation of the pack design to an extent that goes beyond “tweaking” the visual tool box – and allows drastic pack format changes. Foreign brand launches of “smalls”, “minis” or sachets can be observed as expressions of this intent.

Apart from adapting pack offerings to suit local community needs the importance of consumer “connect” cannot be ignored. Brands that cannot touch consumers in a per- sonal way are on shaky ground. Any brand that resembles the one next to it on the shelf is taking the first step towards being an unrecognisable commodity. Commodities can- not fulfill emotional needs of consumers. For this reason some brands choose to offer a one language, tradition based packaging that will inspire a sense of belonging to its buyers across the world. Some of the most striking examples of such packs may be seen among Ayurvedic herbal cosmetics products.

Ultimately every pack aiming to sell around the world aspires to create the next all-im- portant iconic brand. Without a doubt we can all envy the US for the sheer number of brand icons they have produced – Coca Cola, Colgate, HP, Apple, Jack Daniels – to name just a few. Many of us live in a kind of “five second world” in which choices are growing bigger and broader. As global consumers we are better informed, more sceptical, less loyal and for this reason, harder to reach.

This is the reality of the polyglot world in which we live. Creating a universal packag- ing system for such a world is the biggest challenge facing brand designers today. Not just something to speak about!

This article was published in July-August 2009 of the Packaging South Asia.


The Covid-19 pandemic led to the country-wide lockdown on 25 March 2020. It will be two years tomorrow as I write this. What have we learned in this time? Maybe the meaning of resilience since small companies like us have had to rely on our resources and the forbearance of our employees as we have struggled to produce our trade platforms.

The print and packaging industries have been fortunate, although the commercial printing industry is still to recover. We have learned more about the digital transformation that affects commercial printing and packaging. Ultimately digital will help print grow in a country where we are still far behind in our paper and print consumption and where digital is a leapfrog technology that will only increase the demand for print in the foreseeable future.

Web analytics show that we now have readership in North America and Europe amongst the 90 countries where our five platforms reach. Our traffic which more than doubled in 2020, has at times gone up by another 50% in 2021. And advertising which had fallen to pieces in 2020 and 2021, has started its return since January 2022.

As the economy approaches real growth with unevenness and shortages a given, we are looking forward to the PrintPack India exhibition in Greater Noida. We are again appointed to produce the Show Daily on all five days of the show from 26 to 30 May 2022.

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An engineering graduate from BITS, Pilani and a Post-Graduate Diploma from Milan, Italy in Human Factors Engineering. Over 40 years of work experience in branding, packaging design & development. Worked as Head of Packaging at Oriflame – Silver Oak; Dabur India and Ranbaxy Laboratories. Currently - an Associate with The Packaging Consortium – a packaging development consultancy. Worked closely with Jindal Polymer Films for Application Development of Specialty Films for flexible packaging. Now a packaging consultant for some reputed companies. He is also an Associate Director with Firstouch Solutions – a design company providing services in Brand Comm, Packaging, Exhibitions and Branded Retail Environments. He is closely associated with the Indian Institute of Packaging as a Member of the Northern Regional Committee. He is also active as a contributor to Packaging South Asia magazine and other journals and at forums and conferences. Has been writing articles on packaging design and marketing for Packaging South Asia since 2007.


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