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Pharmaceutical Manufacturing and Packing Sourcer

Outstanding Designs

Sue Benson at The Market Creative provides some valuable insights on packaging and the importance of understanding design elements when branding products

The pharmaceutical industry is both an incredibly competitive sector and heavily regulated one, both in front and behind the pharmacy counter. Therefore, it is crucial that brands create clear differentiation, while ensuring the safe delivery of medicinal information. Creating shelf stand-out, instilling confidence in pharmacists and giving shoppers a reason to buy is the ultimate aim for any manufacturer, but the process of getting there is often not so easy to define. Knowing where to start can be the biggest challenge. 

Each customer group is different so there should always be a bespoke approach, not only to packaging design, but also to the initial period of research and testing. The early ‘discovery phase’ is all about gaining customer insight through a variety of research techniques, including but not limited to ethnography and shop-alongs, while reviewing the semiotic codes within the category and understanding a product’s ‘real world’ context.

Secondary to the discovery phase is the design and testing stage. This can be carried out via a simple ‘hall test’, where potential customers are asked what they think of a specific design in one location to assess their reaction. Alternatively this phase could take the form of an in-depth group discussion or even a co-creation of ideas.


Whether creating packaging for a range of children’s medicines, refreshing the design of a long-established brand or launching a new product, observational research should be central to phase one. Offering insight to shopper behaviour, the in-store environment, a brand’s personality and the overall customer journey, it provides unique and valuable information that will ultimately drive the creative strategy central to the brand’s positioning and new packaging concept.

The simple act of watching people shop around a store can reveal a lot. It’s an obvious place to begin when considering packaging design, but is often undervalued as manufacturers jump straight into looking for concepts that have more to do with creating a ‘wow’ factor than actually understanding how shoppers behave and interact in a particular environment or brand.

However, we have started to see more companies using observational research as a base from which to create new packaging. When it comes to fully understanding customers, their habits and how they make purchase decisions, pharmaceutical businesses (for example, SSL International) have put observational research to good practice for many of their brands.


It was watching people shop that drove the re-packaging for the Medi range of children’s medicinal products, including the well-known Medised brand.

For any audience it is vital that the packaging responds to the environment they are regularly found shopping in. This could not be more relevant than when watching parents out shopping with a screaming child – the usual three seconds decision-making at point of purchase is somewhat reduced. 

The result from the Medi range research is a packaging concept that allows both visual and verbal communication to work together harmoniously, giving busy parents quick brand recognition and product information. The creative development harnessed the principles of the existing Medised packaging, by simplifying some elements and exaggerating others. The Medi name was developed for use throughout the product range with the hero brand created in the established magenta, and a palette of vibrant colours distinguishes between products. Images of children were selected that reflected the medicine’s ability to either soothe or energise. 


The insights found from the initial stages of the packaging research and design process are central to the final execution. The Medi range focuses on helping ill children recover quickly so parents feel they have done their best for their child. In addition, the insight to Earex was all about sufferers wanting clarity of hearing; the final design features sound waves to indicate clarity. Earex is also a good example of a brand that has moved with the times while staying true to its heritage.


Any changes to the packaging design following a re-brand must be treated with extreme care, as in many cases it goes beyond emotional connections and infringes on habitual behaviour. The rebranding of Earex earlier this year created a more contemporary and consumer-friendly image, with a target of strengthening its position as a leading ear care product. As the brand evolved there needed to be a clear differentiation between products, making it easy for shoppers to recognise the product by creating shelf stand-out and clearly communicating the benefits.

The redesign has instilled a sense of modernity and freshness to the packaging by replacing a very colour-centric design with white, allowing colour to be used effectively as a product differentiator. The product information has also been reordered to ensure it is clear and consumer friendly, easing the buyer’s decision-making process.


Working in packaging design for the pharmaceutical sector brings its own unique challenges. One of the main difficulties lies in achieving a balance between legal compliance and creating engaging design. It requires creativity to overcome the issues yet work to deliver medicine safely.

Compliance with legislation is key and new concepts should always be developed in line with the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) best practice guidelines. Although having no legal standing, it should be read alongside the legislative requirements and will be taken into account when the MHRA assess the labelling provided with mutual recognition and national licence applications.

The Proprietary of Great Britain (PAGB) also provides assistance with how to produce good consumer information on packaging to ensure people can safely self-medicate, highlighting that the most important place for vital information is with the product itself. The PAGB code of practice for over-the-counter (OTC) medicines’ pack designs encourages best practice and provides practical advice to manufacturers designing and amending the packaging of OTC medicines. It is worth noting that the code has been developed with input from the MHRA and member companies can submit non-statutory pack design changes to PAGB for pre-approval in compliance with the code, and then receive consequent swift approval from MHRA.


Working to incorporate all of the essential safety messages and packet information outlined by the MHRA is a challenge in itself, but ensuring an effective use of space is fundamental. This can be achieved by creating a clear communication hierarchy, using iconography and shorthand messages and ultimately being ruthless as well as innovative.  

Designing for different containers also has legal repercussions. The role and legal requirement of each container must be fully comprehended by the designer to ensure the creative can be applied accordingly. For example, the outer carton is more likely to require full colour to engage with shoppers, while the inner container is about delivery of information such as posology and therefore one or two colours is adequate.

There is also the challenge of dealing with the pace the environment presents. The timelines involved can be incredibly lengthy and therefore it is often difficult to react to private label competition or competitors moving into your territory.


Creating new pharmaceutical packaging can seem a minefield, but a credible and experienced design agency should support the process and work to ensure the end results work on all levels. It is worth remembering that the category presents vast opportunities for the creative mind. You can, and need, to create incredibly distinctive designs, particularly when there are multiple products with different ingredients, which in themselves demand a real understanding about the use of colour, imagery and the brand.

Complacency is rife across the sector because of the degree of legal compliance required when designing a pack. More often than not a manufacturer will evolve a pack’s design rather than make the fundamental changes necessary to grow the brands. When the run rate for rate of sale is stable, it is often easier to continue with potentially dated packaging for years, which can ultimately have a negative impact on sales and the long-term growth of the brand.


If you take a typical supermarket or chemist environment, for many of the products or brands that we buy, the purchase decision is made without any conscious thought, and therefore changes to how a brand looks on the shelf will have an impact. The crucial factor to good packaging design is to identify the visual elements of the brand that provoke positive emotional reactions and build on them.

The benefits of a rebrand and repackaging are that they can attract a new customer group, invigorate a tired brand and open up discussions with new retailers. They also provide the opportunity to reaffirm a brand and product benefits, which reinforces purchase behaviour. We shouldn’t forget the stand-out it can give on the shelf where competitors have followed suit, or an own-label that has become too close for comfort. 

Designing packaging for the pharmaceutical industry is unique. There has to be a real sense of responsibility as the effect of unclear communication can have repercussions on a person’s health and well-being. As well as being demanding, it is also hugely creative and not just in the design sense. It is an innovative category and manufacturers can often seek new print techniques and formats that work to support and emphasise a distinctive design.


Ultimately, by understanding and building on the design elements that customers love, recognise and hold dear enables well-known brands to refresh packaging without losing appeal to existing customers. For new products it can add that extra bit of sparkle – it is all about creating shelf stand-out to lure and build confidence among customers and pharmacists alike.

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Sue Benson is Managing Director of The Market Creative, a shopper marketing agency which advocates the use of observational research as the basis for effective packaging design. Following a spell in management with Marks and Spencer, Sue moved to a large advertising agency, working as a director on blue chip accounts and later becoming a board director. Sue and her partner Dorina D’Ambrosio established The Market Creative in April 2006 – it has SSL International, G Plan, Homeform Group, Bounty and leading bakery GH Sheldon among its clients.

Sue Benson
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