Living in New York, I see the color black everywhere I go. On jeans. On jackets. On handbags. On those tiny dogs women carry around as accessories. Hell, even the sidewalks are black (close enough). It’s the unofficial hue of our city, and urban dwellers sport it year-round. Every September, fashion journalists profess to seek out a new hue to replace the reigning king. “Purple is the new black.” “Green is the new black.” “Brown is the new black.” At the end of the day, however, nothing holds a candle to black, and my guess is that its star won’t be fading anytime soon.
But while black has always been popular in fashion, it is less expected in the supermarket aisle. Sure, a few companies – most noticeably the frozen dessert company Breyers® – have used black packaging over the years to convey premium, but for the past few decades packaging design has been dominated by the “white and simple” movement (for which I believe we have Target’s “Design for All” and A.G. Lafley of P&G to thank). This is precisely what makes the current use of black on packaged goods – specifically in categories such as feminine hygiene, water and household cleaners – so surprising. When it comes to certain brands and situations, black has the potential to be the new black.
Take, for example, the Kimberly-Clark brand U by Kotex*. In 2009, CBX – the brand agency where I am a founding partner – was asked to help re-position this brand for millennials, an audience who previously hadn’t given Kotex the time of day. Research showed that this group of 14-22-year-olds was tired of the clichés associated with feminine care products – pastel colors, floral designs and flowery, inauthentic language. They wanted products that reflected their tastes, and copy that talked to them straight. With the bold decision to use groundbreaking black matte boxes – the polar opposite of the whites and pastels used by virtually every other brand – CBX and Kimberly-Clark tapped into millennials’ emotional needs and deliberately positioned the products as cooler, hipper fashion accessories. Today, these boxes literally pop off the shelves, and as a result, the brand has created a new paradigm in the feminine care category, ushering in a huge success for Kimberly-Clark.
Similarly, the household cleaning category has long been dominated by color and expressions like, “fresh” (with a variety of qualifiers, such as “mountain,” “April” and “garden” before it), pure,” and “springtime.” Perhaps taking its cue from U by Kotex*, Downy recently broke the category mold for its latest product introduction, Unstopables, by using black packaging and a bold name to convey strength, power and effectiveness. The black package and strong copy for this brand – an “amped up” scent booster that comes in two different “feisty” scents – proves it is not just your average cleaning product, and its design made me take notice in the supermarket aisle.
And in perhaps the riskiest move of all, a new beverage introduction called BLK Water – which is infused with electrolytes and antioxidants – actually changed the color of that age-old thirst quencher. As opposed to the pure, refreshing vibes projected by brands like Aquafina, Poland Spring and Fiji, BLK Water – as both a name and a product – projects an edgy, energy vibe, as does its tag line, “The Dark Side of Water.” In a category that’s all about the next hottest, coolest thing, and one that seems to have new products coming to market pretty much every quarter, the need to shake things up is not only important – it’s the only way to get noticed. The makers of BLK Water clearly knew this, hence the totally gutsy move of making their water black. And while I can’t wait to see how the public responds to this new product introduction, I also can’t say that I believe it’s going to be a huge success, either.
Each of these products is a perfect example of how – whether you’re trying to give new life to an existing brand (and therefore have nothing to lose) or give birth to a brand in a saturated category (and want to shake things up a little) – black has the power to make a big impression at the point-of-sale. Of course, brands should keep in mind that black isn’t always relevant; in fact, it can often be quite risky. You always need to consider the context with which you’re using the color, and the audience to whom you’re selling your product.
So go ahead, and tell me: What brands do you think present the perfect opportunity to utilize black packaging?