Package Design

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Although the underlying technologies required for package making—such as paper and cardboard production and multicolored lithography—progressed from the late 18th century, packaging as a mass commercial marketing function began to achieve momentum only at the threshold of the 20th century.

It came with the development of three things: first, folding boxes and the machinery to assemble and stock them; second, the technology of canning, which was first developed in France in 1795 and took a big leap forward in the 1850s when Gail Borden managed to safely package condensed milk in a vacuum-packed can; and third, bottle-making technology that introduced the first screw-top bottle in 1872 and the first automatic glass-blowing machine in 1903.

Among the first products to utilize the transformational power of packaging was oatmeal, which from the 1870s through the turn of the century was promoted up the food chain from horse feed to a "delicacy for the epicure" and "a delight to the children." Branding and packaging gave the product that soon became famous as Quaker Oats a perceived personality that could be promoted and sold anywhere.

The "science" of packaging

After World War I, psychological factors came into play as increasingly sophisticated marketers recognized the emotional overtones of a package's visual elements: shape, color, graphics and imagery. While some companies clung sentimentally to outdated designs, Procter & Gamble Co., for example, regularly revised and updated the graphics of its Ivory soap brand.

A few package designers worked for ad agencies. Rene Clarke, for example, created the Snowdrift cooking fat can and cosmetics marketer Richard Hudnut's Le Debut powders box while at the Calkins & Holden ad agency. But most worked in their own studios and believed that packaging was part of the larger scheme of industrial design.

As early as the 1920s, designer Arthur S. Allen became a prominent exponent of color and simplicity, designing or supervising the packaging for Graham crackers, Lifebuoy soap, Lux soap, Eveready dry cells, Kleenex tissues, Baker's chocolate and the Dixie Cup.

By the end of the 1930s, the concept of packaging had expanded to include everything from the simple toothpaste tube (introduced by the Colgate-Palmolive-Peet Co.) to the retail environment in which it was sold.

In the mid-20th century, package design fell into certain expected graphic and color patterns dictated by previous experience and successes. The bull's-eye graphic of P&G's Oxydol laundry detergent, for example, was varied and carried forward in the concentric circles used on the Tide package.

The dominant orange and yellow used for the Tide box were intended to alarm and convey a sense of heavy-duty power. (Those colors distinguished the brand from P&G's milder Dreft.) The bold lettering of the word "Tide" was in blue and intended to offset the possible dangers implied in the orange and yellow with a safer, reassuring emotional message. (P&G took care to distinguish between its Tide and Oxydol.)

"Hidden persuaders"

At the same time, design elements also became more subtle. As early as the 1930s, psychologist Louis Cheskin asked a sample of 1,000 consumers to evaluate two different products. In fact, the products were identical, except that one was packaged with a graphic design that featured triangles, the other with circles. Eighty percent preferred the product with circles incorporated in its packaging.

As packaging technology grew, marketers were quick to discover the opportunities presented to prepackage ingredients that once were sold separately, setting off a whole new category of "convenience" products. In 1954, Swanson, a unit of Campbell Soup Co., introduced one of the breakthrough products of the post-World War II era: the frozen TV dinner.

The era of general prosperity that followed World War II saw the launch of an enormous number of new products, some of which introduced fresh package design concepts. Secret and Ban deodorants were applied with a large ball that transferred the product from inside the bottle to the skin in a constant rolling motion.

Philip Morris Cos. repositioned its Marlboro cigarettes from a woman's brand to a man's in part with a package redesign incorporating a cardboard container that became one of the three main selling points in the advertising tagline: "Filter, flavor, flip-top box," by Leo Burnett Co.

Deodorants, cleaners, paints and insecticides also began appearing in aerosol spray cans that expelled an even, cloudlike plume at the touch of a tab.

Changing sizes and materials

By the late 1950s, packages were offering consumers an ever-proliferating choice among portion sizes. Coca-Cola, for example, went from a 6-ounce bottle, to 12 ounces, then 16 and on to one- and two-liter sizes; from the six-pack to the eight-pack; from returnable glass bottles to disposable cans, and glass and plastic bottles; from cans requiring a "church key" to self-opening snap-top rings in 1963; from the six-pack as the standard unit of sale to the 24-can case.

The change in packaging materials affected all product categories. Milk went from glass to cardboard to plastic. The trend in packaging moved toward larger-sized containers as marketers found that bigger portions were an inexpensive way to justify higher prices while at the same time giving the consumer extra value, at least on a unit basis (i.e., buying 64 ounces of a product would cost less per ounce than buying 12 ounces).

Redesigning packaging generally is not undertaken lightly. Typically it comes when there is evidence of a slip in market share or a shift in the competitive environment. Less quantifiable but just as necessary is the need to keep the product graphics in step with the spirit of the times. That often requires walking a fine line between ignoring fads while recognizing fundamental change.

In the late 1960s, psychedelic imagery was everywhere, but few marketers of major brands embraced it in their packaging—partly because of its controversial association with drug use, but mainly because it was seen as a passing trend.

Most packaging changes are subtle and driven more by improvements in technology than by image tinkering-such as the switch from metal toothpaste tubes to plastic ones. Other changes retain the packaging's familiar structure while incorporating improvements. Such improvements may be promoted briefly but usually are adopted quickly by competitors, rapidly diluting any competitive advantage.

In recent years, concern for security and safety has become an issue in package design, particularly in regard to medications and food products that lend themselves to invasive tampering and deliberate contamination. While a secure container can be a useful marketing point, it is seldom the central one. Like auto safety features, it is something people are not inclined to pay for. The incentive lies more with the marketer, which must take measures to protect itself from product liability lawsuits.

Transcending containment

In certain rare preserves of luxury commerce, the product is so defined by the package that the power of the package becomes more precious than the goods inside. In other words, some packages become so compelling that they become objects of desire in themselves. In the industry, such a situation is called "experiential packaging."

The music business has produced some intriguing examples of such packaging in opulent boxed sets of recordings. Such packaging—which also characterizes expensive liquors (Absolut vodka), perfumes and elegantly bound book collections—transcends the mere function of containment.

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