The package is a “slow culture” medium

Slow culture and fast culture exist within the personality of all brands.  And the most successful brands have identified how to use both slow culture media and fast culture media to support their marketing efforts.

For a consumer brand the package is the anchor, the essence, the primary manifestation of its personality .  .  .  at retail, at home, and in all forms of media. And I have been arguing for some time that it should only change in measured ways that support the brand’s long-term vision.

I think Grant McCracken would call this a slow culture medium.

While attending his Chief Culture Officer boot camp on Saturday I was reminded of the distinction he identifies between slow culture and fast culture. In fact in his newest book, Chief Culture Officer, he has a chapter titled Culture Fast and Slow, where he cites the difference. He uses home interior design as an example,

“Homeyness is slow culture. It consists in a set of rules. It specifies our choice of colors, materials, furniture, decorative objects, arrangement, interior design, and exterior characteristics. It is an enduring, deep-seated aspect of our culture.”

To me this sounds exactly like the package design characteristics of some of the most enduring brands like Coca Cola, Johnson & Johnson, or Chanel. Each is an “enduring, deep-seated aspect of our culture”. They have each identified a set of “slow culture” rules for their packaging, and support this with some very “fast culture” tactical work in a variety of other media.

Let me repeat my assumption. The package is not a fast culture medium.

Fast culture is about the latest trends in fashion, music, food, or architecture. As Grant says in his book, “Fast culture is alarming  .  .  It must overwhelm us with choice. It must confuse and conflict us.”

Yet, in the last year there have been some glaring examples of brands that don’t get this critical distinction between slow and fast. As a result they have gotten themselves into serious trouble by confusing the role of the package with say a seasonal promotion, or web strategy (probably both fast culture media).

Tropicana and Minute Maid are two obvious examples of different routes taken in the last year. And we know the results! Tropicana thought its package was fast media, Minute Maid knew that it was not.

Another recent example is Quaker and Kellogg’s, two enduring brands in breakfast cereal.

With its new True Delights package, Quaker has decided to take the oldest trademark in breakfast cereal, registered in 1877, and reduce its importance to roughly 3% of the front panel, and surround it with design elements that can be politely called generic. And certainly not based on anything inherently “Quaker”. My sense is that this will be seen by the consumer as a fast culture mistake.

The recent trend toward reintroducing retro packaging could also be seen as a realization by marketers that package design is a slow culture medium. Kellogg’s, and Pepsi with their recent throwback cans, have both decided to take advantage of their heritage by introducing retro versions of their packaging for certain markets. This may not support long-term brand evolution, but at least it recognizes the role of a package in communicating the brand.

The illustration is by Milo Winter from the 1919 anthology, The Aesop for Children


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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