The Barnes Foundation, Retail Package Customization, and Reception Theory

Ever walk into a new retail store for the first time and be startled by the look of an old familiar brand in this unfamiliar context . . . your left thinking something must be different about the package . . . and your left with a new sense of intrigue and fascination for the brand!

Hasn’t happened to you . . . well perhaps it should. And lets base this discussion on Reception Theory, a concept I am just beginning to apply to design strategy, and talk about which brands might be able to successfully surprise and customize their message for each retailer, and which might not.

This sense of gleeful surprise is the experience that Peter Schjeldahl describes vividly in his New Yorker review of the new Barnes Foundation building, recently opened in downtown Philadelphia. He notes being startled by the intense blue colors of Picasso’s “The Ascetic”, a painting he had seen many times in the old galleries.

The Barnes curator explained that the painting is the same, not cleaned, not spruced up in any way. The difference is the new sunlight that permeates the marvelous new building designed by the team of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. The new space and new light simply ignites the Picasso blues in a way that the incandescent lighting in the old space never could. Apparently many early viewers of this new space, including Roberta Smith in her NY Times review, have reacted the same way . . . seeing old friends in a new light.

Admittedly Picasso is not Pepperidge Farm or Pernod Ricard, but Reception Theory suggests that we might respond to these disparate objects in similar ways. And here’s why.

Reception Theory as it relates to painting might be described as follows. (When you read this description replace the words painting and artist with brand, and the word viewer with shopper. By doing this you’ll immediately see where I’m going.)

“A basic acceptance of the meaning of a specific painting (brand) tends to occur when a group of viewers (shoppers) have a shared cultural background and interpret the painting (brand) in similar ways. It is likely that the less shared heritage a viewer (shopper) has with the artist (brand), the less he/she will be able to recognize the painting’s (brand’s) intended meaning, and it follows that if two viewers (shoppers) have vastly different cultural and personal experiences, their reading of a painting (brand) will vary greatly.”

Today our clients are often asking us to customize their packaging and brand identity solutions for their largest retail customers. Costco gets one solution, and Target gets another. It’s the same brand but optimized for their retail environment. But while most often this simply involves subtle layout changes, such as a slightly different food photograph, I have been concerned about even these small changes in the past, thinking that brands are diluting their heritage with every one of these custom retail solutions.

But based on my reading of Reception Theory, its time to lighten up and give brands more latitude. There would seem to be much more room, at least with some older iconic brands, to take retail customization a step further, and with much less risk to brand “heritage” than I have perceived in the past.

And for this, an understanding the complex relationships of Reception Theory, brand heritage, and retail context can help. Simply stated . . . brands work hard at developing a common “heritage story” that they share with us and we share with them. Some brands have been at this a long time. Coca Cola, Gillette, or Campbell’s are all brands with which we share a very strong and common heritage.

In its simplest interpretation, Reception Theory would seem to suggest that these iconic brands, which share the most “common heritage” with shoppers, would have the most flexibility to tailor their brand identity to a retail chain. But maybe this is true, maybe it isn’t . . . I’d like to find some evidence.

So in the next few weeks I will be exploring more on this combination of reception theory, brand heritage, and retail context and seeing if we can find some real examples with real brands on the shelf today.

If you are aware of brands that are tailoring their brand identity to the in-store context of each retailer, I’d like to hear about them.


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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