Inside Design

Instincts Are Not Enough

Study your consumer to meet her needs.

By Robert Wilkes
President, Wilkes Creative

Give thanks to whomever you pray to. You work in the cosmetics industry—the most emotionally rich market in modern business. Creativity and imagination are your lifeblood.

Works of art, like Flaming June by Lord Frederic Leighton, capture emotions that never go out of fashion. These  motions can inspire fragrance designers as they create new products.

Cosmetics marketing reassures consumers about their hopes, fears, aspirations, and dreams. But as marketers, how do we harness these powerful forces? How do we identify a customer’s passions, and reward her with what she longs for?
To answer these questions, we may be tempted to turn to our instincts. But, while great successes are sometimes launched on heady dreams and strong intuitions, so are great failures.

Intuition is important—but not enough. Great creative ideas must be founded on logical, concrete, and rational reasoning—reasoning that wins the heart and the mind, and can be easily explained to anyone. Every line, form, shape, symbol, typeface, and color must have some meaning.

Strive for reason. It’s not as hard as you think. Here are some simple steps you can take:

Visualize in detail the core consumer for your market niche.
Use that vision to understand what she wants, needs, fears, and loves.
Offer her a promise that aligns with her deepest hopes and her aspirations.
Execute! Remember, the package is the product!

Visualize the Core Consumer
Define the customer to a level of detail so rich you can jump into her skin. Understand her better, and you will begin to think like her. Seems obvious? My experience is that it doesn’t happen in the real world of marketing. Most brand managers are too distracted by other business problems to do the work and be objective.

To demonstrate the power of details, allow me to introduce you to Valerie. We invented Valerie to better understand heavy users of flavored syrups for a specialty coffee company on the West Coast. With the help of research and some other demographic information, we knew she was a professional woman, aged 35 to 50 years. Observation and focus groups filled in the rest.

Valerie may be a composite, but once her life is drawn on a canvas, we can begin to think like her. We can be Valerie, and we can predict the decisions she is likely to make.

Understanding Her Wants, Needs, Fears, and Loves
Why not “think big” and market to every woman on the planet? It sounds wonderful, but when you speak to everyone, you become so wishy-washy you speak to no one.
Of course, many consumers who are not like Valerie will buy your brand. The power of a niche is in its clarity and focus. Be irresistible to someone. Instead of Freud’s famous question, “What do women want?”, you can ask, “What does Valerie want?”—a far more manageable question. Answer this question, and you’ve unlocked the key to her heart, and to her dollars.

Imagine her house. What styles do you see? What is in her bathroom? What books and magazines are on her nightstand? Which art periods and cultures does she admire? Does she follow the lives of celebrities? Does she read Soap Opera Digest or Vanity Fair?

Read these clues, and you’ll be prepared to write your “novel in plastic and glass” directly to her. The plot of the novel is yours to create.

Let’s review some basic rules of thumb for crafting a novel. First, you need well-developed characters with dreams and aspirations that readers can empathize with. Put them in an interesting or exotic place. Create some dramatic tension. Add a touch of intrigue and danger. Overcome fears. Pursue a noble quest.

Create a mysterious stranger who offers a chance to escape from suffocating normality. Rediscover long-suppressed passions. Finally, imply the denouement (how the plot works out), but keep the story alive so long as the brand is on the market. Create a story that never ends. All successful brands are stories that never end.

Promise to Satisfy Her Hopes
Through design, form, symbols, and imagery, communicate your message in your advertising and point-of-purchase presence. Get creative! Excite her heart. Capture her dreams. Liberate her from her fears, and give her hope.

Something is missing in her life, unrealized and longed for. Since most of us are not monks or ascetics, we all have something we’re yearning for. Fulfill her deepest needs and your product will be on her dressing table.


Let’s assume your company is developing a new scent. You need a concept, a brand name, a brand mark, a package, and an ad program. And let’s assume that your marketing department has done a market study that indicates there are a great number of women with life experiences like Valerie. The study also shows that the current group of competing options have not kept up with her situation in life or her emotional needs. How do we create our new fragrance expressly to win Valerie’s heart, and her business?

Look at the clues. Perhaps Valerie’s love of Pre-Raphaelite paintings foretells a path to her heart. Pre-Raphaelite is a mid-to-late 19th century rebellion of young English painters who wanted to return to the romantic and classical themes common before the High Renaissance. Coincidentally, it has passion, romance, beauty, and heroic women. Such a concept might be very attractive to Valerie.
Given our Pre-Raphaelite concept, we have many themes to draw from. A famous poem by John Keats, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” inspired a number of romantic paintings. From this we could invent a fragrance called “Sans Merci.”

Valerie: Put yourself in her shoes

She’s 42 years old and has been married 16 years. She has two kids, a three-bedroom split-level home in the suburbs, and works as an office administrator. She has a terrier named Ruff, drives a Honda Accord, and votes mostly Democratic. She occasionally escapes into a romantic novel, likes to go to art museums (loves impressionists and Pre-Raphaelite paintings), and buys Ann Taylor for work and casual clothes at department stores and at Target. Magazines in her mailbox include O, InStyle, and Marie Claire. Her favorite pieces in her living room are a pair of vases in French Empire style and some British antiques.

Valerie’s marriage is a bit stale and routine, but it sustains her and she loves her kids. Her friends are important to her, and she loves to shop with her girlfriends. She loves romantic movies and cries at love scenes.

She’s careful and protective about her family. Her most daring moves are a new hairstyle, fragrances, and makeup, which she changes periodically. These make her feel good, but are also an expression of her desire to have more excitement, love, and passion in her life.

I love the name, since it can be taken in so many ways. I imagine a woman saying to herself, “I am in control. I enchant him with my beauty, and if I choose, I show no mercy.” Imagine the power of the name “Sans Merci” if Valerie had ever been ill-used by a man in her life. Sadly, the knight in the poem dies, so perhaps the name foretells more of tragedy than of the wild and passionate love Valerie dreams.
Also commonly painted during this period are the mythological characters Psyche and Echo, who are the respective lovers of Cupid and Narcissus, as well as the tragic Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Finally, there is a famous painting called “The Awakening of Adonis,” a name filled with romantic promise, but too long. So, for the purpose of our demonstration, let’s call our new scent “Psyche.”
To attract Valerie to our new fragrance, our package might resemble a classic Greek vessel from antiquity.

Communicate through Form and Symbol
As we develop the packaging design for Psyche, it is useful to notice the many ways masculinity and femininity are expressed. Ovoid shapes and curvilinearity evoke the natural role and softness of the feminine, while squares and rectangles evoke the authority, strength, and solidity of the masculine. But women don’t always prefer feminine objects. They also find security and protection in masculine forms.
In general, consumers are attracted to brands with authority and stature. If a product is from Paris or New York, it’s emblematic of the world’s recognized fashion centers. The Estée Lauder brand mark is square, as is the logo of the investment banking house Goldman Sachs. Both represent stature, stability, prestige, and power. They say to the consumer, “We are the superpower of the industry.”

Heavy, massive solid-glass-like packaging also expresses quality and permanence. Plastics manufacturers have taken great pains to make them “clink” like glass when set down on a hard surface.

Use of such strength and power in packaging can be feminine. Think of Vera Wang’s fragrance, housed in a bottle shaped after a wedding dress. The bride is the center of attention, at the height of her beauty, and has new power and prestige. Strong stuff, and all it took to evoke these thoughts was the symbolic shape of a wedding dress.

Simple Elegance
In Western cultures, less is more. To express elegance and sophistication, we simplify.

Designers recognize their debt to Japanese art forms, which emphasize simple beauty and natural forms. Shi by Alfred Sung, for instance, is so simplified that no brand name is printed on its packaging. Eternity by Calvin Klein does the same.
These objets d’art often need the right finishing touches. Often the element is subtle and ethereal, a hidden surprise. The best of these touches are well integrated creatively and do their job without calling attention to themselves. The right finishing touch takes the package out of the ordinary, imbuing the presentation with a unique artistic expression. In addition, there must be harmony between the price and the customer’s impression of the worth of the package.

Projecting our Messages and Associations

We all carry cognitive maps” in our heads. That’s what I call the recording of everything experienced throughout our lifetime, an aggregate cultural heritage that settles in our brains from the 5000 years of Western civilization that makes up our common experiences and culture. It includes images as new as what girls are wearing in the mall today to images as old as Neolithic fertility idols. All of it has been recorded as you pass each day of your life.

Knowingly or unknowingly, designers use this map to communicate with consumers. For example, you may not be trained in typography, yet a Trajan font instantly communicates power. The Romans celebrated their triumphs by inscribing their glory on their monuments in a Trajan font. See the font and unconsciously we know the designer’s intended meaning.

The delicate swirls that enrich the Estée Lauder logo instantly connect you with the Glory of France, and perhaps with the splendor and elegance of the ancient regime of the Bourbon dynasty. The sumptuous living and high fashion of the day were the envy of the world. Anyone who has enjoyed Flaubert’s Madame Bovary knows the powerful attraction French high society has to those who are on the outside looking in.

For Valerie, our package might evoke classic Greece, but adornments can suggest the romantic beauty, passion, and vivid naturalism of the Pre-Raphaelites.
Advertising completes the story line and the plot. Romantic fantasies drive many brand images. Consider the descriptive language for Calvin Klein’s Eternity: “Romantic, timeless, and luxurious—a romantic floral fragrance inspired by the ideal of lasting love and intimacy.” Certainly, the prospect of finding eternal love, as implied in the name, appeals to romantic souls.

To draw in Valerie, our advertising would feature Psyche’s beauty, faithfulness, and love and marriage with Cupid.

There you have it, at least hypothetically. A product named “Psyche,” full of mystery and beauty, implying the hidden powers of the mind that women seem to possess. Psyche’s package might hearken to Greek antiquity, with a modern touch, or reflect the sensuous beauty of a Pre-Raphaelite painting. An advertising and merchandising program may include Pre-Raphaelite artwork, and with it, a healthy dose of dreamy and idealized romantic passion.

Mr. Robert Wilkes is president of Monaghan & Company, a national marketing and packaging design firm. He can be reached at

Wilkes thanks Gary Blackton of Blackton & Company, who developed some of the methodologies discussed in this article.

Copyright 2001