Art & Commerce: A Match Made in Hell

By Joe Parrish, partner and chief creative officer, The Variable

I’m a sucker for good design. Always have been. Always will be.

Let me back up a little bit. I’m a copywriter by trade. In ad school, I tried to take design classes, but my hands couldn’t do what my brain wanted them to do. That still happens to me. I will have a design idea that seems perfect in my head. I will sit down to my computer and open up Illustrator and spend half the day slaving away, only to produce the most embarrassing monstrosity anyone has ever seen. I’m just not wired to produce great or even mediocre design. But I think I appreciate it more than anyone I know.

I am the sucker who pays huge premiums for well designed experiences and products, even if I know they are an inferior offering. I am the sucker who has my kids’ team’s jerseys designed by professionals and pays for the printing. I am the sucker who pays more attention to the design of movie intros than I do to the movies themselves.

Which brings me to this age-old story of a love of design crashing headlong into a desire to make money.

Several years ago, my agency had an idea to create an alternative to all the exxxxtreeeme energy drinks that were flooding the marketplace. We felt like there was an opportunity to create for an energy drink for the rest of us; something that would give you a kick-in-the-pants, not a punch-in-the-face. We briefed a super talented copywriter/art director team and they came back with an idea we loved. Knowing the importance of story in building affinity, they created the backstory of a legendary moonshiner named Buck O’ Hairen. Buck, after one too many rough nights and rougher mornings drinking moonshine, decided to create the antidote to moonshine. And he called his product Sunshine. Legend has it that he spent the rest of his life peddling his elixir out of his stagecoach until he passed away and his recipe was lost to history.


We were looking for a completely different design sensibility for the energy category. Something that felt more like a traveling medicine show than testosterone pushed to eleven. We engaged a local and incredibly talented design firm called Device to help us achieve our vision for the product packaging. And to say they hit it out of the park would be to do their work a disservice. It was THE most perfect piece of design we could have imagined. It felt unique and ownable. It perfectly captured the era we were trying to capture. One of the panels had an amazing hand-lettered story explaining the story of Buck O’ Hairen. In short, they crushed it.

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As a sucker for design, I was sold. And we launched.

Sales took off. Amongst the backdrop of the energy drink category, we were incredibly unique. But as things started to get serious, we started to realize that, other than design aficionados like ourselves, the can wasn’t working as hard as it could at retail. People were having a hard time understanding what the product was and how it was different. We did some research and found that, in the few seconds a consumer had to decide between a Sunshine and a Monster, Monster was winning because their communications hierarchy was so simple.

And so, the battle between design and commerce reared its head.

We loved the product packaging design of the original can, but we realized that, to sell more product, we needed to change it substantially. Sadly, we set about redesigning the can. We were introducing two new flavors and felt like this was the ideal opportunity to create a system that allowed for multiple flavors, had more presence, and clearly communicated our core differentiators.

We did it in house this time. Trying to preserve the parts of Device’s original design that we loved so much (primarily the logotype and the stylized sunbursts), we shuffled the deck. We ended up with a family of cans that felt cohesive, that told a better on-package story and was better received by buyers and consumers.

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The moral of this story is that this business isn’t easy. You can come up with the perfect design, and still have to change it because of the vagaries of consumer demands. It was incredibly difficult for us to move away from the original design. It did everything we (as creatives) were looking for. Unfortunately, buyers needed something slightly different to get them to try. So we ended up with what I think is the perfect marriage of design and commerce… which, in our business… is the exact outcome we needed.

About Joe Parrish: Great ideas rule the world, and with Joe’s creative mind at the helm, ideas are what rule The Variable. Joe has worked in the advertising biz for 20+ years on global brands like Audi, Nationwide and Sony developing award-winning campaigns recognized by the likes of The Dieline, Communication Arts, The Addys, The One Show and Ad Age. When not making advertising, he keeps on making other things—like the fast-growing Sunshine Beverages and a social good startup brand called Careolina. Nothing drives his creativity more than his family. They are an endless spring of inspiration.

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