When R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. took a picture of a pyramid off its Camel cigarette pack in 1958, loyal Camel smokers steamed.
"They were furious. They insisted we changed the product, even though we hadn't touched it," an R. J. Reynolds spokesman said of the company's attempt to update the package. After thousands of angry complaints and a hefty drop in sales, the company restored the brown triangle and hasn't tampered with it much since.
Package design, whose importance the Winston-Salem, N.C., tobacco company learned early, has emerged only in the last decade as a primary and indispensable marketing tool for most consumer-goods producers, whether they make soft drinks, shampoos or chocolate-covered raisins. But emerge it has, growing from an industry that 20 years ago comprised a handful of firms with annual sales of several million dollars into one with more than 150 firms garnering more than $1 billion in revenue a year.
With good reason. Taste-tests show that the average person cannot tell the difference between Budweiser, Miller or Michelob once the bottle is taken away. Other tests show consumers believe that orange juice from cartons with a strong orange color tastes better than juice from paler cartons, even when the juice is identical. The results are similar with soft drinks, cigarettes, coffee and a host of other goods.
"Packaging is the product," said Hollywood-based designer Saul Bass, playing off communication theorist Marshall McLuhan's dictum, "the medium is the message."
Critics say that competition based increasingly on package image rather than content adds anywhere from a few cents to several dollars to the cost of an item. But, manufacturers respond, the trend merely reflects consumer desires; it doesn't create them.
Package design took a back seat to television and print advertising even as recently as the mid-1970s.
Since then, however, producers of consumer items have learned that an appealing label, can or box may be as crucial as a commercial in determining what goes from the shelf to the shopping cart. Companies have discovered that packaging saves money, too, by reducing the amount of advertising needed to introduce or draw attention to new or modified products.
Progressive Grocer, a trade magazine, estimates that in 1983 more than 5,109 new items hit grocery-store shelves. But as the number of new consumer goods has soared, the difference between brands has shrunk. At the same time, the nation's expanded work force has given consumers--particularly women--less time to shop.
The result is that consumers depend more and more on packaging as a convenient way to pick from the growing array of cold remedies, hand creams and salad dressings they face each time they enter a store.
"Consumer perceptions differentiate products, not the content," said Robert G. McCready, director of marketing for Landor Associates in San Francisco, which with $25 million in sales last year claims to be the largest package-design firm in the world.
Marketing tests show that while most people can't tell most brands apart, beer drinkers and other consumers are fiercely loyal to particular brands. "For the average person, it must be psychological," said Gary D. Klein, president of Klein Associates, a marketing research and consulting firm in Long Beach.
Bayer Aspirin and Ralphs generic aspirin are good examples, he said, because "they are the same except for package and price."
Pro and Con Arguments
Designers say packaging gives products value in the eye of the beholder, but only the value consumers want to see. Consumer advocates, however, say packaging is a gimmick that manipulates shoppers into seeing greater value where none exists. The issue is hotly contested among marketers and consumer protectionists such as Ralph Nader.
Why would some consumers pay more for an item they could get for less?
"Because they believe they are getting more--and they are," Klein said. "People drink expensive beer to show off--there's nothing wrong with that. The person who pays more for Michelob and says he enjoys it more really does enjoy it more, for whatever reason. That person really is getting his money's worth."
Even consumers who scorn fancy packaging have inadvertently underscored its importance: Generic brand or plain-wrap packaging is itself a specialty design that was virtually unknown a decade ago.
Can't Mask Bad Product
Marketers emphasize that no amount of slick packaging can make up for a bad product--a consumer is unlikely to give a lumpy potato mix or flat soda a second chance. They also caution that there will always be a few exceptional consumers who can smell, taste or feel the difference between essentially similar brands. But it is the average consumer who counts.