Visual trends to watch in private brand packaging

It always happens this time of year that trend predictions seem to come fast and furious. In truth, trends are constantly emerging and fading, and sometimes — as in the case of COVID-19 — we see them accelerate and take on fresh prominence and relevance.

At this time however, the discussion of trends does seem particularly timely. Retailers and suppliers, and many consumer goods agencies, are working hard to pin down the trends that are likely to dominate the coming year. 

They will be asking, which trends are likely to harness the groundswell of new product innovation and refocused messaging of 2020? Which are likely to help a private brand retailer to lock in and build on the market share they earned as a result of shifting consumer loyalties?

In 2021, here are just a few of the trends likely to deliver those sought after outcomes for CPG players… 

One of the positive aspects of 2020’s locked-down lifestyles and working from home regimes was the fresh perspective it gave people on how our normal patterns of commuting and travel impact our natural environment.

Climate change and the role of every individual in living more sustainably to make a positive difference have resurfaced as a key political priorities and media themes — with many hoping to recover lost ground after the plastics binges (the countless masks, cleaning wipes and plastic wrappers) seen during the pandemic.

A focus on sustainability can be seen in retailers’ own branded ranges and national brands alike. There’s a renewed energy into removal of avoidable plastics from packaging, such as for greeting cards and fresh fruit and veg.

We can expect to see continued rethinking of conventional substrates and a focus on recycled materials and recyclability. Glitter and foils utilized by private brands to denote premium tier or seasonal products are being slowly but steadily decreased — and we’re seeing simple changes being made to packaging elements which ease post-consumer recycling.

We will see sustainability increasingly used as a differentiator for marketing purposes — such as key callouts about waste reduction and recyclability on-pack, enabling sustainable packaging to take center stage in ad campaigns as it becomes a central element of the product concept and brand development strategy.

Invisible bar codes will enable “smart sorting,” and a further advantage of this exciting technology is that it can be extended over the entire label surface in a way that does not interfere with design. Improving efficiency of plastic packaging sortation at waste facilities will help to raise the quality of the recycled material while reducing the amount of plastic sent to the landfill. 

Our agency has partnered with Digimarc, an Oregon-based leader in digital watermarking. The company is intent on revolutionizing plastics recycling through its HolyGrail 2.0 project and is working closely with players in packaging and private brand retail to help them prepare for a future in which “smart sorting” is standard at post-consumer facilities worldwide. 

Alongside the influence of sustainability on the use of recycled and recyclable materials, we can expect the continuing growth in natural, healthy and plant-based foods to be reflected in the packaging materials used. Interesting natural packaging formats, and features such as ribbons, string and swing tags, underscore the wholesomeness of the product.

This will further be reflected in the natural tones and textures of the packaging materials. While we can expect to see continued use of transparent materials to showcase the product and evidence its health benefits, recyclable and reusable packaging will remain a vehicle for delivering added benefit to the product — jars that can be used for home storing and preserving, for example.

With the financial and social impacts of the pandemic driving consumer appetites for a touch of “attainable” luxury, private brands are in an excellent position to deliver that quick hit of indulgence and to build differentiation as part of their tiering strategies.

With the financial and social impacts of the pandemic driving consumer appetites for a touch of “attainable” luxury, private brands are in an excellent position to deliver that quick hit of indulgence and to build differentiation as part of their tiering strategies. Expect to see the link between luxury and wellness strengthened.

Bold Patterns
Bold patterns will be one of the ways that product, category and brand managers use to bring the fun back into food, shopping and (hopefully) sharing in 2021. Appealing to consumers’ sense of optimism while creating impact on shelf, geometric patterns will be featured in eye-popping colors and apparently random designs.

We can also expect to see plenty of color-blocking, with a palette that takes inspiration from the most recent raft of tech and automotive launches, and shapes that take their cues from nature, featuring abstract leaf, mountain and river contours.

Earthy Palettes
The back-to-nature theme remains dominant, but here it specifically pertains to color choice. Paint manufacturer, Dulux, released its color of the year, Brave Ground: a shade which can best be described as an easy-to-complement, pastel walnut.

As biophilia becomes an increasingly important design concept for homes and workplaces, the emphasis on tones inspired by nature will also be visible in our store cupboards and refrigerators. Greens, browns and greys are all on-trend hues that bring the outdoors to the in-store and home environment and have strong associations with natural ingredients and wholesome recipes.

Modern Serifs
Vintage and nostalgia will bring comfort and a sense of belonging to packaging design in 2021 and modern serifs will play a central role in delivering packs that reference these trends without becoming twee reproductions of antiquated design.

Typography will take inspiration from classic labels and packaging design, while updating it with modern serifs that bring clarity and complement both bold patterns and nature-inspired hues. Hand-drawn serifs will enable brands and retailers to bring an authentically original look to their packs, which works with the contours of the packaging’s shape and visual elements.

Tactile Print Effects
When it comes to print effects, 2021 will be all about depth and texture, allowing consumers to make a tactile connection with the product and, by extension, the brand. 2020’s social distancing regimes have resulted in a longing to touch and experience life with all senses, so we can expect raised-print effects, interesting substrates and lustrous natural finishes to create packs that invite consumers to experience the products with both their eyes and their fingertips. Meanwhile, white-out designs within a solid color, and repeating patterns will also create a sense of depth that stimulates the senses.

Each of the trends outlined above is likely to manifest in the evolution of private brand packaging across 2021, and go on to impact packaging design in the longer term. Thorough trend audits and deep dives into global design trends, localized to dynamic private brand markets including the United States and United Kingdom, are an essential part of the equation. At Equator, this approach to dedicated research is a vital ingredient in supporting a comprehensive strategy-to-shelf service with a big picture view. In turn, this puts private brands in a competitive position where they can meet consumer needs and present like-for-like quality on the packaging front and in the e-commerce pack render.

In 2021, it’s tools like these that will help national and private brands alike, to retain and build traction out of the market share gained in 2020, rather than seeing those gains diminish as markets and consumers move on.


Aaron Funke is creative director at Equator Design, Chicago. With more than two decades of experience in branding and packaging, Funke is a great believer in the tenet that great design is always preceded by clarity on what you are trying to communicate and why.

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