Social Icons

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

The Enormous Importance of Packaging

I'm well aware that some of you, maybe a lot of you, don't care about how your cigarettes are packaged.  I understand why you feel that way because I know that what you're really interested in is what is inside the packaging -- the cigarettes themselves.  So an all-singing, all-dancing cigarette packet versus the tobacco control industry's plain packaging of hate and denormalisation to make you quit smoking probably means sweet FA to you.  I get that you don't care. Besides, there's always getting a cigarette case?  Yeah?

How many people care about what their plastic containers of milk look like?  If these contain milk, organic or otherwise, and if you can fit it inside your refrigerator, then that's about your level of interest in a milk carton or what have you.  Likewise for most everything you buy.  You care more about the what's in the box than the actual box.

Of course, packaging is more than just a storage container for whatever product you desire. Packaging is also used for branding. And it's this branding and the design of the packaging that a) helps you recognise what brand you're buying, and b) the packaging gives vital clues as to the quality of the product, whether you are aware of it consciously or subconsciously.

If you look over to the left of your screen, you'll see that there are now 64 posts tagged with the label "Plain Packs."  You might be wondering why I write about plain packaging so often when I know that some of you, perhaps many, don't care.  This is because, unlike anybody who works in tobacco control, I do have extensive experience with packaging.

And I do care very much.

I worked for over 10 years in design engineering, where I not only designed cool, new stuff for people to spend their money on, but I helped design the packaging that held that cool stuff.  I couldn't design the packaging all by myself, though. I relied on printers and packaging manufacturers to help me.  They knew their machines inside and out, and what was capable.  What I did was design a rough blueprint of what we wanted for the packaging, and I provided the technical specifications that the packaging needed to meet.  For example, the packaging needed to protect the product, to keep it in intact with no movement or damage after a fall from five feet or so.  I spent untold hours continuously dropping boxes from a five-foot height to test the packaging. Or stepping on them, if they were blister packs (those dreadful plastic things that are purposefully designed so that nobody can open them without a chainsaw).

But it didn't stop there at a functional test. The packaging had to look nice. I also worked with the marketing department throughout the entire design process of the product, including the design of the packaging.  We would mock up samples of the product and the boxes and send them off to Marketing for review once per week. They would then do whatever consumer survey mojo that was needed and then come back to me with roughly five billion design changes.  I would disregard 4.99 billion of them and do my best to incorporate the rest per Marketing's suggestions.  Marketing people are funny creatures. They don't care how a product gets built, they just want to be able to sell it.  And they have ideas about what sells and what doesn't. They even know who they want to sell stuff to down to the smallest demographic.  That guy, who works in the stockroom at Tesco -- yeah, they got him covered.  The ladies who carry small dogs in their handbags -- yep, got them covered, too. Marketers, the good ones anyway, know more about you than you do.  They are also evil, as Bill Hicks once said, but I suppose that cannot be helped.

So the packaging functions, and it looks nice -- it's got this on it, and that on it here.  But it's not done yet.  Because what the packaging really needs is the brand name, maybe a catchy slogan on it, and of course your company logo somewhere on there.  And that's where the legal department comes in and the design engineers run away for cover.

Well, I didn't run away.  After my career as a design engineer, I stumbled into intellectual property. I say stumbled, because most people stumble into it if they aren't recruited for IP whilst still at Uni.  Almost no child ever thinks, "You know what, I want to be a patent attorney or maybe a trade mark attorney when I grow up. Yeah. That would be life-affirming and fulfil my every desire."  If there is a child who thought that, I'd worry about that child a great deal.  But I digress.

Now it's the Marketing guys' jobs to come up with all sorts of bizarre slogans and product names.  And if you left them to it, they would put almost anything on a box of something to sell it to you.  It's the legal department's job to squash the hopes and dreams of every marketer in the world.  Not because the legal people want to do that, but because they must do it to keep the company from being sued for a variety of things.

So the first thing the legal department does is tell Marketing to give you only five or maybe ten potential brand names and slogans for use, because otherwise Marketing would give you roughly one million or so to check.

(Quick true fact: marketers dream about slogans and brand names every night and think about them all day long no matter what they're doing -- they come up with more dumbass slogans per day than there are atoms in the universe.)

The means for choosing these select five ("three, sir") brand names and slogans is done in a secret, underground battle arena that only professional Marketers can enter. I'm told there is a brain scanning device at the entrance, and if a combatant is not thinking about at least 500 slogans at the moment of being scanned, the device knows this and that combatant is excluded from combat.  The battles are bloody, and they can rage for weeks, sometimes months.  This is also an excellent time for every other department in a company to get some actual work done.  When the battle is over, there can be only five ("three, sir") victors.  Usually, there is only one victor with five different slogans hanging around his or her neck. And that Marketer will race to the legal department to display the spoils of victory.

The legal department takes this blood-stained list of brand names and slogans and does an initial sanity check on them. Is there anything deceptive or illegal?  Do these things violate any company guidelines and standards?  You can tell when the legal department is doing this kind of work by the howls of laughter echoing throughout the building.  Depending on the size of a company, usually about ten different people pore over every detail of these brand names and slogans.  Every brand name and every slogan  is checked to see if it already exists somewhere in the markets where you are going to sell the product.

(Another quick true fact:  Marketers always know who they want to sell a product to. They just don't know where they want to sell it, like, importantly, which country. This lack of foresight by Marketing presents a host of problems much later that are not worth mentioning in this blog post. Also, Marketing will often change its mind over what it wants to call the product. This can happen up to 5000 times per day.)

Right. Checking these the slogans (that Marketing is just going to abandon in a week's time) takes an extraordinary amount of effort and time.  It takes forever because the legal system wants it to take forever, otherwise attorneys would have little to do but think up ways to for the office to be more efficient -- and trust me, if the attorneys have time to think about stuff that isn't of a legal nature, it's bad for everyone.  There will be a great deal of tears. The legal process is also pedantical, petty, exacting, and annoying. When you think of all the horrible things that humans are capable of inventing, few compare to trade mark and patent laws, with the obvious exception of Dick Puddlecote's transport company's daily insanity.  A single typo on just one form can lead to thousands of hours of work years later, all because some guy working at the patent office in Macau doesn't like your accidental typo (because his boss doesn't like your typo, because that guy's boss misread the actual legal statute and decided that typos were akin to saying bad words to his mother).  I could go on, but I won't, suffice to say that one typo on a lone form may cause all of your other 300 forms you sent along with it to be rejected as a matter of course.  My point is that it takes a very special kind of person to want to do intellectual property law as a career and, more important, to survive it.

I survived. Barely.  I was very good at what I did when I worked in trade marks.  But I didn't like the work that I did, and I definitely didn't like that jerk in Macau. Not that I ever made that dreaded typo, but some of my predecessors had, and I spent years of my life trying to repair someone else's mistakes.  I am not special enough for intellectual property law in this regard.

Eventually, a winning brand name is chosen.  It's the legal department's job to get it registered as a trade mark, everywhere in the world.  Secondarily, if your all-singing, all-dancing packaging is very special, i.e. has some new novel feature that nobody has ever seen before, you might apply for a patent.  You'll likely apply for a patent for the product itself. Thirdly, you want to protect the product's overall design, and this includes the product's packaging design, too.  So, for instance within the EU, you will attempt to register a Community Design.  These are pretty easy to get, to be fair, as long as you aren't deliberately trying to register somebody else's famous design, you're pretty much assured of at least getting a Community Design. Not always though.  Sometimes, on a rainy day in Alicante, Spain, the men and women at OHIM decide that your accidental typo is a little too much for their liking and they'll reject your entire application, which you actually needed to be registered three months earlier.  But that's the legal system for you.

Now we have a finished product that is functional, looks nice, got someone's brilliant idea of a slogan on it, a brand name, too, and everything is either protected legally through patents, trade marks and designs, or in the process of being protected -- it can take a decade or longer in some cases to get all of the legal stuff sorted. By the time it is completed you aren't even selling that old piece of crap any more, and you don't need protection for it any longer, but you keep the legal certificates and protection anyway, because Marketing has a tendency to bring back the old stuff for the sake of nostalgia -- or perhaps there was no clear winner at the battle arena. Either case is likely.

I'm telling you all of this because 99.9999999% of all of the people working in public health or any of the control industries do not know any of this stuff. How could they? They have no experience with it.

So the question is, what makes these people think they're an expert on packaging?  They are not experts. What they do is hire consultants, because some consultants-for-hire will gladly tell you anything you want to hear, under the caveat that you don't sue later them if they're wrong.  I've met quite a few consultants over my years, and most of them are really nice guys. I wouldn't trust most of them, though. Especially the ones who have never done anything but consulting (often consultants hail from an accounting background, which makes it even worse).  You almost always need real-world experience, actually doing something, to fully appreciate and understand the impact of what something is and does, and how it came to be, and who it is most likely to affect.  And there is nobody in public health that has any experience in packaging.  Nobody.

But I do have experience. I've got dusty books on packaging design somewhere... More important, the guys who make make packaging for a living do as well; good men and women who depend on the marketers in companies all over the world to come up with the craziest stuff, and depend on the design engineers to create the crazy, and depend on legal departments to say it's all good. (I'm not even going to touch the Accounting department...) Start up the machines. Let's cut some cardboard. Let's blister some plastic. Let's splash some ink on it, too. 

(Final quick fact:  If you know nothing about artwork design, specifically Pantone colours, or the various equivalents for the packaging industry, consider yourself blessed. Marketers have Pantone colour charts, which contain thousands of thousands of shades of colours, embedded right into the meaty flesh of their forearms. For quick reference, you see. It's absolutely true.  And for marketers, there just aren't enough colours in the world to go round. It's not good enough that you have 8000 colours to choose from. No, what marketers need to do is invent a completely new colour by mixing any of these 8000 colours together. This usually happens after you've run the first 10,000 units or so off the production line.)

Anyway, the public health nutters at the Department of Health know nothing about packaging. As is evident in the freedom of information release dated 17 May 2013. 

If you read the entire release, you'll see that there are real jobs at stake. People -- real people, honest and hard-working -- are going to lose their packaging jobs to others overseas.  In this economy, and especially in Ireland, who are now saying they're going to draft legislation for standard packaging, can we ever afford to destroy a legitimate industry for the sake of some small-minded prohibitionists who hate smokers?

I'm just going to post up a small bit of it here, without further comment except to say that everything I have highlighted in this image is of enormous importance and this is why you need to fight against plain packs:

Click to enlargify