In a departure from the mainstream of our columns, this month we touch on the food package exterior, a subject of some controversy during this past year. In food packaging classes, graphics is only casually mentioned. In art school, package design may be a course or an afterthought. In marketing courses, packaging is given one paragraph or one page in the text book and 10 minutes in a 15-week course.
So, why disturb the reading, learning, and ruminations of food scientists and technologists with a brief on design? Because, folks, the package is the first and only entity seen by your target consumer at the physical interface of the purchase decision. The package promises, and you deliver—safety, quality, and convenience. Whether any food scientist/technologist perceives it or not, his/her product is inextricably linked to its dress.
Historically, one might gaze at the weird convolutions of the Coca-Cola signature or the Budweiser imagery and ponder how either ever became icons. Post facto analyses assert that the red and white are so powerful that consumers’ retinas see only the big pattern and not the scroll of the Coke logo and the fine text on the Bud label.
But red and white is not the exclusive province of these two superstars. Campbell’s soups are in this color mix—so much so that in the trade the condensed soups are called “red and white.” Some consumers may believe that the Campbell’s can label has remained the same since early in the company’s history, but there have been some changes.
The Campbell’s soup trade dress now features powerful red and black colors and close-up product photographs. (According to law, the product depictions must match product reality, so food technologists must work closely with marketing when products are relaunched.) Plastic bucket cans in “man size” employ red and black patterns—even on a difficult-to-print expanded polystyrene substrate. Does this color shift signal a demise of the classic red and white? That’s a good question. Consider that the company has invested a bit of capital in store shelf-organizer displays engineered to hold various sizes and shapes of its canned soups.
ConAgra’s Healthy Choice, which inaugurated the green package era to signify health, has redesigned its frozen food packaging, eschewing the dark background color and converting it to white. Dark is more difficult to find at that touchpoint moment in purchaser action—especially behind glass in upright freezers and in the well of coffin freezers.
White is bright and clean, great for contrasting copy and photography, and it stands out in the ocean of edge-to-edge color photography that characterizes freezer compartments. So as not to lose its classic green, however, Healthy Choice retains this color in its logo and in the use of a stylized exclamation point on the right side of the packaging.
In another much-publicized design change, Heinz has erased the pickle from its tomato ketchup bottle labels and replaced it with—of all things on a ketchup label—a picture of a tomato. That is a courageous change since green is the symbol of sustainability, and red, well, as written above, is almost ubiquitous.
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The Kellogg Co. has made much of the square-faced package it is testing in a few markets. Heralded by the company as a means to reduce the amount of paperboard in the carton and thus deliver material (and cost) savings, the breakfast cereal carton reduces the facing acreage available by reducing the height.
Post Cereals made a similar move some 40 years ago to distinguish its No. 3 brand from the competition. Post’s square-faced carton was touted for its ability to reduce carton size while still delivering the same content volume, a fact that the target consumers of that day did not perceive. This change was removed from distribution rather quickly when sales fell, suggesting that not all package design innovations are as successful as some designers try to imply.
Meanwhile, at packaged foods giant Kraft, the entire product line appears to be undergoing a major package design change. Have you noticed DiGiorno pizzas shifting from red to white and light? pizzas shifting from red to white and light? And Kraft cheese is going from blue to almost all white—on which pictures of the white and yellow cheese contained become almost invisible.
The company’s most-publicized change was pourable salad dressing, which was changed from the almost-generic, bulbous polyester bottle with a screw-off top to a taller, slimmer, narrower-waist polyester bottle using less plastic and dispensing through an aperture in the closure. Again, this bottle was hyped as a benefit to the solid-waste stream, but less plastic mass also equates to lower package cost. Change of bottle shape also meant that the label design underwent change for greater shelf visibility. But the classic red-and-white, six-sided logo remains undisturbed; thank goodness for little appreciations of historic significance.
And cousin Oscar Mayer, known in the design world for its long-time bright yellow background with the red-and-white logo in the upper left corner, appears to be gradually changing its background color into a more-muted earthy tone, again blending into the design, but retaining the iconic red-and-white logo, as does Kraft Nabisco with its red-and-white logo of 1960s vintage, also in the upper left corner of the package. Red and white is a popular color combination because the two elements neatly contrast with one other and render the entirety instantly visible and identifiable.
Writing of the retention of tradition that comforts target consumers, it is time to focus on the most dramatic package design events of 2009—no matter what happens during the remaining seven months. For breathtaking leaps, this year will be remembered for the PepsiCo “challenges.” Moving from last to first, the Frito-Lay brand of salty snacks is going from traditional, large, solid color blocks to more-subtle blending of earthy colors sort of floating in the large surface areas that characterize flexible package surfaces for light-weight food products. Chips are made from corn and potatoes—agricultural crops grown in the ground, bathed by rain, and nourished by the sun. All of this is reflective of nature and its place in our lives, which is suggested by the new designs.
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Tropicana is another PepsiCo group that underwent a major package design change (although, in this case, a mostly temporary one). The brand announced early this year that it was moving away from the traditional “straw in orange plus quirky logo across the top.”
The new design featured a stylized orange rind with a textured screw closure on one gable. Gone, however, was the orange. Gone was the funny—but instantly recognizable and readable—logo positioned horizontally across the top. Replacing this was a clean, upper-and-lower-case typeface placed vertically so that it had to be read from bottom to top. Gracing the left vertical corner of the gable-top carton was an elegant stemmed glass of orange juice in a sort of yellowish-orange color. The remainder of the package was off-white.
Although the rollout of the new design was much heralded by the company and the designer, consumer reaction was immediate (via Twitter, Face Book, etc.) and largely negative, with many complaining that the new design looked less like a long-trusted brand and more like a private-label product.
Tropicana management responded quickly, too, announcing that the brand would revert back to its former look, although, currently, the new design can be seen on the company’s Web site showcasing its Trop50, an orange juice that contains 50% less natural sugar and 50% fewer calories than regular orange juice.
But the biggest flap of all is the commotion over the new Pepsi logo and design, claimed to resemble your—and your planet’s—smile on a background of dark blue. In a soaring range of brand image fantasies, the designer described his journey from convention—last year’s core design if anyone recalls—to the future and innovation. He floated on a sea of 5,000+ years of evolution and of shared ideas in design, “creating a constitution of design,” but quickly dropped into the more recent history of Pepsi-Cola’s bottle shape structures of the 20th century, noting swirls and ridges and waists and squats, with the stated objective of retaining the best of the past to generate an icon for the future.
The new smiley face design has been met with less than enthusiasm in the realm of brand design critics and target consumers (except those cited by the company management, of course.) Interestingly, the logo is mysteriously absent from current commercials. Why?
It’s likely that issues of package design, such as those described in this month’s column, will remain controversial endlessly into our future. Perhaps we shall not discuss this topic again, but you can never say that we did not alert you.
Aaron L. Brody, Ph.D.,
President and CEO, Packaging/Brody Inc., Duluth, Ga., and Adjunct Professor, University of Georgia