Packaging looks are everything or – the packaging maketh the brand

The moment when customers first touch or lay their eyes on packaging is crucial. Brands have to go all out to make that moment count. After all, 75 per cent of consumers don’t decide which product to buy until they’re actually in the shop. Blessed is the packaging with instant appeal, for no matter whether we’re shopping at a supermarket or a delicatessen, we face the same quandaries over and over again. Which deodorant, which crisps and which of the countless coffee varieties should we buy?

Fresh coffee is simply a good start to the day – no matter whether it’s a quick espresso made using a capsule or a coffee celebration of hand-ground beans. These days, being able to grab an aromatic, perfectly roasted coff ee ground to our taste in the comfort of our own home is something we take for granted. Things were very different in the mid-nineteenth century. In those days green beans were sold loose from the sack and customers roasted them themselves in an oven or on the stove – often with less than satisfactory results as the beans easily got burnt.

Sweetening the package

As industrialisation advanced, the inventive spirit of the era produced a wide range of solutions across the world. The Arbuckle brothers in the United States, for example, started selling ready roasted beans instead of green beans in 1868. They filled them into one-pound paper bags and dispatched them from New York to the American West. To ensure the beans kept their aroma, each bean was glazed with a patented egg and sugar coating. The egg also helped the coffee beans to settle while the sugar ensured that the popular beverage came ready-sweetened.

Rivals initially laughed, but the Arbuckle brothers’ strategy soon proved right. Not long afterwards, they started shipping ready ground coffee. The accompanying unprecedented advertising campaign made “Arbuckles’” so well known that it became a generic name for coffee, just as Levi’s is for jeans.

Flat-bottomed bags and folding cartons

While the Arbuckle brothers were conquering North America with their packaged coffee beans, Margaret E. Knight invented a machine that made fl at-bottomed paper bags. These were an initial step towards individual packaging: they allowed products to be packaged and shipped on a large scale in small units intended for private households.

In 1879, Robert Gair, a Scottish-born American inventor, followed with an innovation that perhaps marked the birth of modern, industrially produced packaging: a machine-made folding carton. It soon proved to be highly versatile and helped Gair establish a business empire. Its advantages were many: it provided ideal protection for packaged goods; it could be stacked and easily transported; and all six sides of the box could be printed with advertisements – a key factor in its remarkable success.

We should remember that up until the mid-nineteenth century, grocers sold “raw goods“. Tea, coffee and other exotic and luxury goods came in simple wooden chests, barrels, sacks and other containers. Shopkeepers did sometimes sell “house blends“, guaranteeing the quality of their products with their name and giving customers detailed advice as a personal touch. Around this time, these goods started to attract customers from further afi eld and therefore needed to keep longer. Manufacturers began to print their names – and the associated promise of quality – on their packaging. The “market” was no longer ruled by the traders. Manufacturers seized control, printing advertisements on packaging, placing promotions in magazines or posting advertising on large billboards – all perfectly coordinated.

The demand for folding cartons sky-rocketed. They were perfect for detergents, sugar and cocoa. Colgate used them to package its soaps and toothpastes and Ponds its beauty creams. Robert Gair spent the rest of his life improving and optimising “his” folding carton. At the same time, he always focused on the lithographic process used to print advertisements on the cartons. By 1927, the year of his death, the world of packaging, consumption and advertising had been revolutionised.

Crackers and biscuits

One of the fi rst brands to become widely available nationwide was “Uneeda Biscuits” made by Nabisco and packaged in – you’ve guessed it – folding cartons. These crackers were promoted with perhaps the first ever multi-million dollar marketing campaign. The slogan “Lest you forget, we say it yet, Uneeda Biscuits” was everywhere. In Europe, meanwhile, Bahlsen pioneered production technology and branding, with its butter biscuits coming off the continent’s first conveyor belt system in small packages.

Classic brands thus date back to the early twentieth century. Initially these brands were mainly everyday items such as food, beverages and tobacco, washing and cleaning products and personal hygiene and pharmaceutical items – everything that we would call fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) today.

  • Visibility sells – super market shelves and cellophane bags

    Most goods were still supplied without packaging until the mid-twentieth century. However, in 1916 at the Piggly Wiggly Store in Memphis, Tennessee, people first encountered a completely new concept that boosted the demand for packaging once again: the self-service shop. Ensuring products were visible, recognisable and thus increasingly identifiable as a brand was suddenly a must. For the fi rst time, customers served themselves and then took the goods to the cashier.

    In Germany, Bonn-based confectioner Hans Riegel had already been making sweets under the name “Haribo” since 1920. His (dancing bears) made from wine gum did not sell that well at first. Their breakthrough came after they were renamed “Goldbären” (Goldbears) and, above all, packaged in cellophane bags, making the colourful bears visible and thus irresistible to anyone with a sweet tooth. Since the sixties, Goldbears have been a mainstay of the German confectionery sector. The French love their “Ours d’Or“, the Spanish their “Ositos de Oro” and the Poles their “Złote Misie“. The cellophane bag looked modern and contemporary, expressing the spirit of Germany’s economic miracle era.

  • Multiple forms for Multiple functions

    Smarties are another colourful sweet treat. They were invented by British confectioner Henry Isaac Rowntree and were first produced in 1937. They, too, conquered the western European markets (and sweet teeth) during the sixties. Smarties have always stood out due to their unusual packaging: a cardboard tube printed all over with coloured chocolate drops.

    Another well-known tube is the one containing Pringles crisps that was patented in 1970. Not only is it highly original, it is also highly functional because the crisps are safely stacked inside the sturdy cardboard tube and do not get crushed. The plastic lid can also be closed again, keeping the crisps fresh longer.

    Special editions of Nutella jars cannot only be resealed, but also repurposed. Italian confectioner Michele Ferrero launched the new hazelnut and cocoa spread in 1964. The following year, he filled Nutella into a new style of jar with an unmistakable, iconic design. Over the decades, this packaging was enhanced in numerous ways. Some jar shapes, which can be re-used as drinking glasses, have gained cult status – especially those emblazoned with Asterix and Obelix or the Flintstones. Another advertising ploy is to allow customers to order personalised labels for their jars. In Italy, Ferrero sold the regular jars printed with single letters and thus made them collectors’ items.

Customers buy packaging

All of this shows that packaging is a marketing instrument. As “signature packaging“, it is a communication medium, opens a dialogue with consumers, in some cases inviting interaction. But no matter how playful or how high-quality packaging is – function comes fi rst, particularly in the food and personal hygiene industries. In addition, consumers are increasingly concerned about the material and its reusability and recyclability. These days packaging has to be “green” and sustainable to sell.

We can see two contrary trends, above all in the food sector: while convenience products continue to reflect the fast pace of our lives and require more sophisticated packaging solutions, many people feel a need to slow down. This is tied to a demand for products that have undergone as little processing and use as little packaging as possible (or even no packaging at all). Above all, very young (20-something) consumers who find green and sustainability issues important are increasingly influencing the markets.

Manufacturers will have to respond to this changing demand. Today, the main requirement in terms of packaging is: as little as possible. History has shown us that if you want to be selling a product tomorrow, you need to package it well today – a principle that is truer now than it ever was.