Article: 11.25.2021

Packaging: between sales instrument and cultural icon


We live in a time when we don't need to spend so much time exploring how to do things, where knowledge runs freely and democratically. This is a huge privilege because, when we don't need to invest so much time in learning how to get things done, we have time to invest in what really matters, which is design, creation, searching for solutions that lead us to the best result for our customers, which boost sales, which improve the consumer experience. But if all this makes things easier, at the same time it establishes higher standards: we have, today, an obligation to be better designers than we were in the past. However, if today we are better designers, why have we lost the ability to produce iconic work?


However, if today we can be better designers, why do we seem to have lost the ability to produce iconic work?



As almost all design pieces, or at least those pieces that to some extent mix with advertising, packaging as we understand it today is a relatively recent concept, which will appear more or less along with the brand concept by the time of Industrial Revolution. Mass production takes the place of artisanal production, what will distance the manufacturer from the final customer and the relationship of intimacy that existed between them, of knowledge that existed between them, is replaced by a more universal language that takes care of establish the authorship of a product by a certain manufacturer, so that the consumer can buy that product again.

Of course packaging as a practical object to enable the transport of goods and to protect those goods from adverse conditions is much older than that. But packaging as an instrument for, what centuries later would come to be known as branding, that is, packaging as a way to establish authorship of a product and, a little later, to add some value to that product when it starts to needing to compete with others for customer attention, this will emerge in a really noteworthy way with the establishment of the first supermarkets. It is the supermarket and the concept of self-service, that is, when the figure of the clerk of the old grocery shops leaves the scene that would enhance the need for immediate recognition of a product: if there was a counter separating consumer from the products for sale that forced him to ask an attendant for a certain item, the figure of this intermediary no longer has space in the new retail chains that begin to establish in the United States around the the 50s and, here in Brazil, a little later. Now, it's up to the consumer to pick up the product he wants and put it in his shopping cart. And that changes everything. First, because it makes a product need to sell itself; second, because it becomes increasingly important for this product to become recognizable in the eyes of the public very assertively and very quickly; and, finally, due to the retail system we know as category management, that is, all options of the same product being exposed at the same shelf space, what establishes a silent competition in which the winner is often determined by the price, but where the power of attraction and the power of seduction also count a lot to close a deal. And in retail, which is a system in which profit is directly linked to volume, each-sale-matters.

So, we've reached a point where the packaging will accumulate a new function for its original purpose. But note that I said accumulate and not have this original function replaced or made obsolete: a package still serves to allow the transport, protection and fractional sale of a product, and it continues to need to perform this task in an increasingly efficient way , which adapts to the new production and distribution chains, which are now much larger, much longer and that are slowly starting to automate, which requires that the standardization process for these packagings evolve very and very quickly. And, besides that all, now the packaging. needs to be beautiful. Packs become a clear example of the binomial form and function, something I usually call an object with body and soul.

The body

A package is, roughly speaking, a container. It is something made for the sole purpose of containing - or even protecting - something else. Therefore, it is easy to understand that a package is not something whose existence stands on its own. It only supports itself in relation to another object. So, from the moment packaging begins to form part of the industry's production chain, it is the object to be contained that will determine the characteristics of that packaging. But not only in terms of better packs, but also in terms of optimizing transport, storage and, more recently, even disposal, as concerns about sustainability issues increase. A package becomes efficient, then, from its functional point of view when it manages to optimize all these factors and combine them with a competitive production cost. Why? Because packaging is a part of the final price of the product it contains, and this needs to be a properly proportionate part. On the contrary, the product cost my turn prohibitive. It is the same relationship that online commerce often faces towards to the cost of shipping, which in certain circumstances may not only match, but even extrapolate, the price of the product itself, which generates an automatic rejection by the public and the non-conversion of the purchase.

This can lead us to think that the body of the package, that is, the set of its physical characteristics as an object, is something to be perceived from a purely functional point of view, its success rate in containing, transporting and storing a product and, at the end of its life cycle, allow for its fast and correct disposal. However, when all these characteristics are respected and, in addition to them, we manage to add a personality element that makes this packaging a unique object, recognizable as such by its own shape, we are creating an icon of the segment. Of course, these personality elements, most of the time, are superfluous, that is, the packaging would still meet its fundamental requirements without prejudice if they were not there, but the presence of these elements helps to reframe the packaging, adding to it a communication value arising from the uniqueness of its form. But please note that there is a hierarchy here: first the functional elements are established and then we add the personality elements, establishing a relationship in which the two never conflict. From this harmonious relationship, a proprietary packaging emerges, an authorial packaging, a packaging whose pure form, without supporting graphic elements, is sufficient to make a product not only recognized, but also for the packaging to represent a relevant element in the universe of that brand's image.

This does not mean, however, that any packaging that receives characteristic elements in its form to the point of making it immediately recognizable has the potential to become a brand icon. That happens because many packaging projects result in shapes that sound extremely familiar to us, shapes that we can immediately recognize and associate with a product, not a brand, but a niche.

That is the case with this object:




Realize that when looking at this object my general understanding of what it contains is instantaneous. And this understanding was forged not only by my own experience with the object itself, but also by its own iconic power that is potentiated every time a girl orders Chinese food delivery on the movie screen, or even when the exhausted detective, after a long shift at work, comes home, goes to the fridge, and everything in there is this box and a beer (this says as much about the product as it does about the character's lifestyle). The iconic shape of this package makes me understand what it contains, or at least makes me understand the idea it contains: I know it's Chinese food, although I don't know if it would be a yakisoba or a chopp suey, or even know which of the hundreds of Chinese restaurants in New York that came from.

When the body of a package reaches this level of icon, it becomes a paradox: it ends up becoming less efficient from a communication point of view because now it represents an entire segment, and by doing this it equals all products that are part of this niche under the same generic reference: Chinese food.

The question, then, is: How to take advantage of this semantics and recover the brand's individuality in the same object? The answer lies in what I call the soul.

The soul

If we agree that packaging is a container that is intended to contain a product, to protect that product, to facilitate its transport and to allow its storage, it is certain that it is also one of the many points of interaction between a brand and the public. Packaging is a platform as good as any other to support brand communication, the deliver an advertising message, whether institutional or promotional.

Back to the supermarket, where brands compete inch by inch not only for the physical space of the shelf, but also for the space in the consumer's mind and heart, it has already been said that point of sale communication is the front line in this brand war. In the iconic Why we buy?, Paco Underhill, the guy who first raised the observation of consumer behavior to the level of science, proposes that the entire communication chain through which a product travels, from the moment it is launched until the moment a customer places this product in their cart and takes it home, point of purchase communication is the last chance we have to convince that customer to choose our product. A series of devices such as banners, headbands, shelf banners, woblers, mobiles, tasting booths, promoters, in short, is usually taken as a point of sale communication... A whole set of pieces developed to ambient this product inside the supermarket. But what is often forgotten is that the point of purchase communication that determines the purchase decision, that is, actually the last frontier before check-out, is nothing more or less than the packaging. And using it to support communication is more than just a powerful selling point. Sometimes it surpases this practical function and, just as happens with some advertising films, which manage to penetrate popular culture, some packages also end up making this transition.

In the 50s, Andy Warhol had already realized that the place that some of these objects with their shapes, but also with their colors and graphics occupy in the daily life of our society makes them deserve not only to be perceived as small cultural facts, but also to be celebrated. Hence the Campbell’s Soup can eventually migrates from the grocery store aisle to the wall of one of Los Angeles' most respected art galleries, and then to New York's Museum of Modern Art. Note how a package ends up becoming a cultural icon per se, but also how it inscribes the name of a product in the history of culture and makes this product as iconic as it is itself, which collaterally ends up making this soup – a very ordinary soup, by the way - first in a sort of meme and then something like an object of desire and a symbol of a country's identity, as much as MacDonald's, as much as Coca-Cola, as much as Marlboro, as much as Ford.

Conclusion (?)

So, if we think about packaging from the point of view of its effectiveness in terms of what it proposes, we will judge the intrinsic qualities of this packaging based on a series of criteria. But if we are willing to think about this package because of the possibilities it brings as a platform for content distribution and, above all, the potential it has - or that it may have, to re-signify itself outside the brand universe, outside the advertising universe, we're going to start judging this package by very different criteria. 

New materials, new processes, new practices, everything that is linked to this material aspect of packaging as an object, these are things that the industry will necessarily reach. If not for a matter of awareness, for a matter of legislation, for a matter of market demand or, in the last case, for a matter of the purest necessity. But maybe we can think for a minute that this intelligent component, this smartness is not something that is linked only to the packaging object, something to be pursued in its manufacture, but it can also be in the space of interaction with the public.

Originally presented as a lecture at La Salle University.

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