The Package, convergence theory or contagion theory

This time of year there are crowds everywhere, and psychology has had two classic theories on the way they act. So are contemporary marketers most successful taking advantage of convergence theory or contagion theory?

We seem to be moving from a world of contagion where crowds rule, to a world of convergence, where like-minded individuals congregate to form crowds. Lets take a look.

Al Ries had a piece in Ad earlier this week talking about the Apple iPad as an example of divergent thinking. He says,

“The tablet computer of 2002 was a convergence product. It combined the functions of a pen computer with the functions of a standard laptop computer. The tablet computer of 2010 is a divergence product. It’s as if Apple took a laptop computer and cut off the keyboard and threw it away, then put a handful of the laptop’s more important components into the screen itself.”

I know some may argue with his premise, but it got me wondering. Is the retail package a divergent or convergent medium?

Using Mr. Reis’s definition I suppose most packages would be convergent media. Increasingly adding features and functionality . . . even going as far most recently as adopting various forms of live interactivity. Typically they are not divergent, stripping things away and in the process becoming something entirely new.

But it gets more intriguing when you think of a package, or a brand, not just in terms of where it sits on the technology adoption scale, but rather in its ability to really influence change.

And that’s where you begin to think about convergence theory itself (with apologies to the art and science of psychology for a gross simplification), which typically suggests that crowd behavior is not a product of the crowd itself, but is carried into the crowd by particular individuals, and that people who act in certain ways tend to come together in crowds.

Wow! . . . doesn’t convergence theory sound like it describes what is going on in an Apple store this time of year, or what! A bunch of like-minded individuals coming together at the Genius Bar . . . classic convergence theory!

The most successful contemporary marketers get this. They understand that the mass-market tools for building big crowds, and perfected throughout the 20th century, no longer apply. They understand that the brands that can best identify with convergent individuals, then bring them together into crowds, stand the best chance of being today’s winners. And the package is one kind of very powerful media that can support this convergence at retail.

Historically most brands have subscribed to contagion theory, which holds that crowds themselves cause individuals to act in certain ways. As I said this has been the approach for most mass-market brands throughout the 20th century. Build a big crowd . . . influence its motion . . . and hope that individuals start running with it.

But the landscape is changing. Individuals, not the crowd, are increasingly seen as the focus of new media. As I said, we are moving from a world of contagion where crowds rule, to a world of convergence, where like-minded individuals congregate to form crowds.

In this environment the package will continue to act as the totem for crowds to gather around.


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 Package, convergence theory or contagion theory

  1. Package design and development are often thought of as an integral part of the new product development process. Alternatively, development of a package (or component) can be a separate process, but must be linked closely with the product to be packaged. Package design starts with the identification of all the requirements: structural design, marketing, shelf life, quality assurance, logistics, legal, regulatory, graphic design, end-use, environmental, etc.

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