Low Style, High Sales
The Fine Art of Food Packaging
The Journal of the American Institute of Graphic Arts
Volume 17, No. 3, 1999
ON THE SHELVES OF THE LOCAL GOURMET STORE almost every package is evocative of a time and place that is decidedly not here and now.
A card bearing a small reproduction Renaissance painting of a nobleman is tied with gold cord to the Aceto Balsamico di Modena del Duca bottle. Beyond the checked gingham curtains on the Maple Grove of Vermont Honey Buckwheat Pancake and Waffle Mix box a verdant field surrounds a 19th-century country cottage. An antique world map forms the background for First Colony Whole Bean Coffee. A profile of Michaelangelo's David graces the label of Patsy's Fra Diavolo Sauce. This is "high" food packaging, where Italian peasants pick tomatoes and botanical prints decorate tea boxes; where the shelves are a collage of fabrics, ribbons, engravings, woodcuts, subtle colorations and bookish typography. The attitude is refined, well-traveled and pricey.
In the everyday aisles of the supermarket, however, a whole different graphic vocabulary bursts forth. It is very much in the here and now. The colors are bright, saturated, primary reds and blues and yellows. The type is big and fat with lots of outsized, ersatz Cooper Black Italic and friendly swashes. Outlines, shadows and gradients make brand names pop. Everywhere you look, circles, banners and sunbursts proclaim: New! Chunky! Instant! Lite! 99% Fat-Free! Zesty Fresh Flavor! 25% More! Free! The ultra-realistic photos could have been taken in Mom's own kitchen -- if Mom had a food stylist on call: Plump brown sausages sizzle in a frying pan. Generous mounds of stuffing sit next to juicy chicken legs. Sparkling cubes of colorful gelatin are garnished with slices of "real" fruit. And, of course, especially in the canned pasta and cereal aisles, cartoon characters abound.
To some, mass-market food packaging represents the "low" end, perhaps the nadir, of graphic design. Twelve years ago, design educator-historian Philip B. Meggs wrote in these pages: "A curious high-style, low-style ethic has developed in some corporate boardrooms and marketing departments. Graphic materials produced for stockholders, institutional ads in prestigious business and news magazines, and sometimes even employee communications, are high style, produced lavishly, with taste and imagination. By contrast, materials produced for the consumer public are often low style, strident and banal with little concern for design integrity." He singled out Container Corporation of America's "cereal-box mentality" that, even as it produced the laudable Great Ideas of Western Man corporate ad campaign, "filled America's grocery stores with the most banal cigarette, soap powder and cereal boxes imaginable."
Pick up a package of Post Fruity Pebbles or Nabisco Comet Rainbow Ice Cream Cups, and you might readily agree with Mr. Meggs. Yet, blow the facades up -- with their meteor showers of iridescent confetti and "Great Value!" starbursts and flying milk droplets and Barney Rubbles swinging from vines -- and paint their likenesses on large canvasses -- well, they might be worthy of a Kirk Varnedoe-curated exhibition at MoMA or inclusion in a Whitney Biennial. In their own way, they're Art. But unlike the borrowed graphic language of "gourmet" foods, their idiom is the audacious American vernacular of consumerism.
Indeed, many designers who work in the food packaging arena bristle when critics call what they're doing banal. They argue that the food industry is composed of different, equally valid, market niches and that a designer can create work with integrity for all of them.
"We can design in every category that exists," asserts Stan Church, principal of the 25-person Manhattan packaging design firm he founded in the early '70s. He says that his job is to "add magic," whether it's making a mozzarella cheese seem "more authentically Italian" or making kids say "wow" to a repositioned cereal. Church claims that a good package can show that a food is new, different, fun, and tastes good. And that accomplishing that is in itself an art. "It's important to work with the best photographers and stylists, to use lighting to create depth and mood and appetite appeal," he says. But it would be a mistake, he warns, to make everyday food packages look too special-occasion. "They'd send the wrong messages. Although we'd love the look, they wouldn't work if they appeared too fussy, too European, too expensive. Beauty doesn't drive sales. Too much beauty, you lose the consumer."
Primo Angeli, who heads a 60-person San Francisco design firm that specializes in food and beverage launches and repositionings, agrees: "The client gives us the position statement. What the product is and who is going to buy it. Is this going to be sold in a special boutique or have heavy competition on the end-cap?" Angeli says that the best design fits the context in which it's sold. "Don't overpromise," he advises, "If it's a Hershey bar and you make it look like Godiva chocolate, people will be disappointed. It won't live up to the promise and they'll only buy it once. If it's an everyday candy bar, you want to open it fast, eat it. Layers of packaging get in the way." Angeli says that his firm's success is based on the ability to give every product -- no matter what niche it's in -- its own strong, memorable identity. "A brand with authority," he calls it.
And owning the brand with the most authority is what every food marketer is after. Kraft Foods, which owns such old favorites as Philadelphia Cream Cheese, Catalina French Dressing, and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, as well as former General Foods brands like Post Cereals, Minute Rice, Jell-O, Maxwell House, Oscar Mayer and Stove Top -- has been a master of that. According to Terry Schwartz, director of Kraft's Glenview, IL, packaging and creative services department, Kraft succeeds by working hard at nurturing long-lasting relationships between its brands and the public. "Today, a package can't just shout 'buy me,'" Schwartz contends. "It has to signal how it's different from its competitors. We're looking to invest over the long term, to show how our brands are relevant to consumer needs."
Kraft Easy Mac is cited by Schwartz as a paradigm of relevance. He describes the product as a great-tasting, microwaveable version of macaroni and cheese that kids can prepare after school, presented in a package that's upbeat, reassuring, and that graphically represents the product as exceptionally good-tasting and convenient for moms and kids. "It does a great job of communicating critical needs," he says. "We do research to really understand the consumer and then we try to reach them on an emotional level; who they are and what their lives are like. If we don't meet their needs, they're not going to buy a second time." How does that kind of research translate into design decisions? "It's no big secret," says Schwartz. A written brief is prepared and the designer transforms the words and objectives into a package. Doing it successfully "just takes terrifically insightful and experienced designers," he adds.
Can a package meet mass-market consumer needs, capture brand authority, and achieve design excellence at the same time? Not everyone thinks so, at least in the design excellence department. Ed Maleki, a founder of the New York Type Directors Club and graphic arts practitioner for nearly 50 years, deconstructs the Kraft Easy Mac box like this: "It's macaroni type! It's derived from Cooper Black, but they drew it to resemble cooked macaroni covered with shiny yellow cheese sauce. Look how the top of it is redder, like the crusty top of baked macaroni, but it has a soft bottom." He reads the copy blurbs: "New! The Cheesiest; Original Flavor; 6 Single Servings; Just Microwave, Mix & Eat; Ready in Under 5 Minutes" and frowns at the illustrated, step-by-step directions on the back. Maleki sums up the effect as high marketing -- and low design.
He's not alone. An agency creative director who requests anonymity rolls his eyes at the supermarket packages he works with every day: "They all suck. The more they try to function like ads, the more they suck." When the agency shoots a commercial, he says, the art directors clean them up and take out all the banners. "You want to register the brand name and the main color and graphics, and all that stuff gets in the way, which suggests it shouldn't have been there in the first place."
Manufacturers, however, resist any moves away from the stuff that's proven to increase sales, and that mentality perpetuates the supermarket species. "Everyone follows the category leader," claims Stan Church. "If they're not the leader, they want to stay close." Thus, not only the proliferation of the ad-like "New! More! Free!" banner, but the genesis of the category-standard norm: the cake mix aisle, the cola shelves, the instant mashed potato section, filled with almost-lookalikes. It works like this, say industry insiders: one day a big mountain of mashed potato topped with a square pat of melting, creamy yellow butter appears on the front of a red box. Sales go up 22 percent. Within a week all the competitors know about it. Within months the red box with potato-mountain and butter-pat is category-standard. Woe be to the designer who tries to change it.
Food retailing is a basically conservative business, and margins are so small that a small mistake can mean enormous losses, explains Milton Glaser, who's been involved in food-business strategy and redesign for decades. "The entire business operates by stealing ideas from each other," he says. Glaser's firm proved, though, most notably on the Grand Union private-label redesign -- which made reference to brand leaders and took advantage of consumer recognition of category colors -- that industry constraints don't have to be design constraints. Unwillingness to stomach the whole supermarket game, however, keeps some packaging designers far away from it. Kristine Anderson, principal of Twist, a Seattle sole proprietorship, says she works solely with makers of boutique, upscale foods "so the package can be a thing of beauty, not an ad." She characterizes the buyers of her clients' products -- imported condiments, organic breads, limited-edition pastas -- as people who cook and know their ingredients. "You don't have to educate them as much." To launch a line of imported Moroccan olives and olive oils, she designed a purple and gold jacquard pattern based on 14th-century Moorish ornament. The bottles and boxes appeared in design annuals and, she notes, also got the products into the right stores. "When wholesalers who sell to Balducci's or Dean and Deluca are deciding whether to offer your product, the first thing they ask is, "Send me a photo.' Even before tasting the product, they want to know what the visual will be like. Is it up to par? The right packaging opens the door." For Anderson, it takes a lot of research to make an upscale package "right." Her kind of research, though, doesn't involve taking focus groups through simulated grocery stores or flashing pictures of crowded shelves while asking, "Did you see the Heinz catsup? Did you see the Del Monte?" It means going to the library, poring over art history books, studying textile patterns and architecture. Then, she says, you have to have an intuitive feel for what will look authentic, for the beautiful type faces and color palettes that will tell the story.
Some of the most intriguing food industry case studies have involved commodity items that could have gone either way-high or low-depending on the goals of the manufacturer and/or the available market niche-and how the graphic designer told the story. Take a tortilla chip, for example. Packaged in a bold red, green and white cello bag with an "Original Flavor!" burst, it could win the "share battle" as the right everyday, economy chip to gobble while watching Monday Night Football. The identical chip could be positioned, no doubt, at a much heftier price, as hand-cooked in a pottery olla by Oaxacan nuns -- if the illustration, color palette and typography told that story.
Orange juice is a case in point. The Tree Sweet brand was dazzlingly repackaged in 1985 by Primo Angeli to appear "fresh-squeezed and farm-fresh"; the brand manager later revealed that the juice inside those cartons adorned with paintings of dewy fruits bathed in morning light was purchased from the same commodity brokers whose stock filled many generic cartons.
Angeli dubs the psychological effects of evocative packaging "sense transference." He cites taste-tests for milk and brandy in which tasters swore that the identical beverage poured from the prettier container tasted better. Angeli's firm recently repackaged S&W canned fruits, putting them in screw-top glass jars with lushly designed labels; even at a higher price, he reports, sales bumped up immediately. There was a 100% increase in the sales of Mariani dried fruit when the fruits were moved into a bag with more shelf presence, he claims. And when Ben & Jerry's ice cream got a face lift that changed it, in Angeli's words, from "drastically underpromised" to "full of personality and emotion," its customer base broadened significantly. "The drama of the package will always give you a better appreciation of the product," he says.
Unless, of course, the brand is already so well appreciated by its target audience that you'd be a fool to change a thing. That must be the reason that Angeli -- or Stan Church or Kristine Anderson -- hasn't been commissioned to give a facelift to the Franco American Spaghetti O's with Meatballs can. With its cartoon "O" man with big sneakered foot kicking a "Full Serving of Veggies and Grains!" soccer-ball-banner on airbrushed green background, it's a classic of low-style, high-sales consumer relevance. Designed "better," it might lose its emotional bond with all those three-year-olds and their busy moms.
Besides, why not leave it to the consumer? Post does. At least for Post Fruity Pebbles: "Free Inside! Wacky Cereal Box Design Kit!" it reads. "Kit Includes Fun Stickers, Stencils & Tips on How to Design Your Own Cereal Box!" A pigtailed girl, holding up her personalized creation, says, "Check Out the Cereal Box I made!"
It's not bad looking at all.
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