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Limited edition or limited potential: Does limited edition packaging really work?

The emergence of limited edition packaging has increasingly become a brand strategy in its own right.

From cars to cat food, limited edition releases are ubiquitous in every industry. They’re a marketing effort that provides products with a sense of immediacy and exclusivity unseen in regular editions. The economic thinking behind the concept is simple: scarcity encourages a greater sense of value, and that increases customer demand while the scarcity exists (i.e. until the promotion ends).

You don’t have to go far to find examples of the strategy in action - but does limited edition marketing actually work?

Limited edition or limited potential?

Done right, limited editions can have a significant positive impact on sales. Coca-Cola's 'Share a Coke' campaign is the high watermark of the art. By adorning every bottle with an individual's name, Coke capitalised on the trend for personalisation while sticking to a brand ethos built around sharing. The result? Coke sales grew for the first time in 10 years.

Some brands only offer limited edition goods. New York streetwear brand Supreme releases a small number of products every week to round-the-block queues. Resellers then inflate the cost of the goods up to 600%, driving increased demand for new ‘drops’.

Limited edition releases don’t only work for global brands. Justus-Liebig University of Gißen research found limited edition packaging strategies can be especially effective for smaller FMCG businesses seeking to boost consumer attitudes towards brands, by showcasing the business’ creativity and encouraging the ‘reciprocal effects of a limited edition product’.

Limited edition success is not a given, however. Nielsen research demonstrates that 90% of limited edition packaging designs fail to increase sales. In many cases, poorly executed limited edition strategies have a harmful effect on brand equity. So why do some brands succeed and others fail at the game?

The answer is simple: alignment.

The relationship between the brand and their limited edition offering must be clear in consumers’ minds. Studying different limited edition strategies shows why.

Gives you wings

Red Bull offer a masterclass in brand alignment. Since 2000, the drinks manufacturer has positioned itself at the centre of the extreme sports world with a global mix of events and rich media content focussed on going faster and harder for longer.

This approach has extended into limited edition activity. In 2015, the high-energy drinks company collaborated with UK musicians Disclosure to promote their Music Academy with a limited edition pack design. In turn, the brand sponsored the release of the act’s debut album Settle.

Paul Coppin, Red Bull’s Head of On-Premise Marketing, explained the move at the time: "The striking can will help create cut-through in this busy environment, driving sales and increasing profits for outlets." The success of the strategy saw it relaunched in 2017 – this time with Gorillaz supporting the brand’s new sugar-free alternative.

Not so souper

Brand alignment doesn’t happen by accident, as the collaboration between Heinz and Cath Kidston shows.

As part of their 25th anniversary celebration earlier this year, the British fashion brand worked offered up three limited edition cans of soup, also available as a box-set for £10. The result was a limited edition that felt incongruous and unnatural because the two brands lack affinity for each other. This was perhaps made more confusing for consumers by the fact that the products were sold in aid of charity.

A quick Twitter search highlights a significant lack of interest in the Heinz campaign from the label’s usually vocal fanbase, especially compared to their recent Royal Wedding and Disney limited editions. Sales results from the campaign have yet to be published, but it seems to have failed in terms of generating brand awareness.

Black and white

From soup to sauce. In 2011, Heinz market research indicated that more children than adults ate their tomato ketchup. Cue a renewed focus on attracting an older, more affluent consumer.

With our help, Heinz released new limited edition packaging to gauge how this shift would perform in the marketplace. Our version switched the traditional ‘57 varieties’ label from white to a stylish black, highlighting the new balsamic-vinegar recipe.

The limited edition was a critical success, according to Harry Wallop of The Telegraph. "This is one rebranding that should become a permanent fixture on supermarket shelves. The bottle is elegant rather than gimmicky, and in the world of highly-processed sugar and seasoning, packaging matters."

The secret to the success of the rebrand? We offered a new visual identity that was aligned with the traditional values of the brand; namely, heritage and quality of ingredients. The limited edition was subsequently rolled out on a wider basis.

Limited edition packaging is effective when well-considered and carefully executed. In this way, tying a brand or product to an event, sponsorship opportunity or endorsement can offer a valuable opportunity for building loyalty and visibility. The key is to find – and not force – natural alignment and a purpose behind the limited edition release.

Now, where’s that Coke with my name on?

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