The dark matter of brands

cosmosLets start with an interesting observation about the cosmos. Contemporary physics suggests that only about 4% of the total energy density in the universe can be seen directly. About 96% is thought to be composed of dark matter or dark energy.

I think this is true for package design as well. Much of what a consumer reacts to on a package is not obvious, and perhaps not even visible.

The mind wanders. Ideas interact in strange ways, and what we know (or can see) has many different forms, some visible and obvious, some not. This is certainly true for package design and brand equity. And I would suggest that physicists and designers share more than they might imagine. Both are searching for ways of observing and measuring this dark matter.

Tom Guarriello has an interesting post on his truetalk blog titled Living and Knowing. In it he discusses the difference between tacit and explicit knowledge. He begins the post by saying,

“We don’t know most of what we know.

That’s because the kind of “knowing” that forms the basis for most of our daily lives—most of what we “know”—is not the kind of knowing that we can easily articulate.

Not to mention, measure.

So we go about our day-to-day lives, knowing lots of things—how to determine where to walk on the sidewalk, how to tell if someone is going to cut in front of us on the highway, if our boss is telling us the truth when she says we’re doing a good job—without the foggiest idea of how we came to that knowledge.

We just know.

This kind of knowledge, what psychologists call implicit, or “tacit knowledge,” is crucial to everyday life.”

By contrast, “explicit knowledge”—the capital of Arkansas, the number of feet in a mile, Derek Jeter’s batting average—is most often what we mean when we say we “know” something.”

I would suggest this is also true with what we think we know about the visual equity of brands, as Tom says  .  .  we don’t know most of what we know.

All packages, new and old, present a certain amount of implicit knowledge on a front panel, the brand name, a photo of the product, perhaps a list of product functions and benefits all contribute to what a consumer knows they know about the brand. Its obvious, visible and right in front of them.

But there would seem to be a huge difference in the amount of dark matter, or explicit knowledge that a consumer “knows” about a brand depending on the amount of exposure they have had to a brand. Any number of things contribute to this including,

  1. Whether that brand is new or old
  2. How much visual equity the brand has retained on its package over time
  3. How long a brand has been in a specific market
  4. Whether a consumer has been exposed to the brand in the past
  5. What personal experiences the consumer may have had with the brand
  6. Is the brand supported by advertising or other consumer brand building programs
  7. Is the consumer shopping the category for the first time

Coca Cola, and most well managed older brands, are masters at both the implicit and explicit messages. They do this using a finely crafted combination of the obvious, and the implied. Yes we can see by the graphics that this is Coke Classic, the bottle shape, coke script, red color but the design also includes a mysterious combination of unseen elements of brand heritage.

Think of the last time you saw a Coke package, and ask yourself what percentage of your reaction was based on what you saw, and what percentage was based on what you felt, yet couldn’t see, and was influenced by your lifelong personal experiences with the brand. This is the dark matter that is so hard to measure for brand marketers, and so hard to apply for package designers.

And it strikes me that most package design research is aimed at simply confirming the obvious, what is clearly visible to the consumer on a package, and not so good at learning about the implicit, unseen elements of brand heritage. It may be the research tools they are using are not powerful enough.

At CERN, using this most powerful of research tools, physicists are looking for dark matter in the universe because they think it holds the key to their understanding of the birth, life and death of the cosmos.

The dark matter of brands. We know its there, but we can’t see it, yet marketers increasingly think it holds many of the secrets of a brand’s life. Our quest is a bit more modest, we are simply trying to learn more about what we know and don’t know about brands, but our tools may need to be just as state of the art.


About Richard Shear

designer, husband, teacher, blogger, father, athlete, author, historian Richard has over 25 years of brand identity and package design experience, with a wide range of clients such as Ahold, Coca-Cola, Hasbro, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Pernod Ricard and Procter & Gamble. He began his career working with the legendary advertising art director, and AIGA Medalist, George Lois and the British design manager Clive Chajet. In his next design management position at Lippincott & Margulies, he worked with Walter Margulies learning the complex skills of global corporate identity. He then became Creative Director and Partner at Peterson & Blyth, one of the premier brand identity and package design firms of the time. He is a founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding Program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He publishes the blog The Package Unseen, and has been a guest lecturer at colleges including FIT, Trinity College and Tyler School of Art. He is a graduate of the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. Richard is a Board member of the AIGA MetroNorth Chapter, past President of AIGA‘s Brand Design Association, President of the Package Design Council and a member of its Board of Directors. He is a member of USA Cycling and US Rowing, a nationally ranked masters bicycle racer, and a member of The Saugatuck Rowing Club, the 2010 Masters Club National Champion.
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One Response to The dark matter of brands

  1. First, good to see you at the Dead Brands Halloween party Friday night. Fun evening.

    Second, yes, this idea of unseen, implicit, “dark matter” is at the core of the course I’ll be teaching at the SVA MPS in Branding next fall. There are a lot of apt metaphors and yours certainly fits well.

    Freud’s first dictum was: “where there is id, let ego be,” which (liberally) might be taken to mean: try to learn the things you know that you don’t know you know. The language of this unknown, unseen, dark matter is imagery and metaphor, the perfect vocabulary for the smart designer to use to communicate with our deeper selves.

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