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A Branding & Advertising Evolution: 5 in a Series of Musings Sparked by “The 100 Greatest Advertisements,” Julian Lewis Watkins, Dover Books, 1959

Had lunch with Ted Regan again Friday, this time to return his generously loaned books on Ayer and on the 100 Greatest Advertisements. Next time we get together, I’m bringing my notepad and planning to grill him on his days pitching, winning, and retaining the U.S. Army account. He has shared lots of tantalizing details, but it is an amazing and important story that deserves a full treatment.

I told Ted I was good for one more blog post  in the 100 Greatest Advertisements series and that it was going to be about packaging and retail. There were two examples in particular that sparked some sharp contrasts. And not surprisingly, one of them is another Ayer story.

For everyone who has eaten at a Cracker Barrel restaurant, did you know the origins of the name? That country stores and early groceries, at turn of the century (pre-FDA) America, used to sell crackers, as well as just about every other item, out of wooden barrels or open boxes? A.W. Green, Chairman of the Board of the National Biscuit Company, is credited with pushing for a concept that was likely the forerunner of the packaged food business in the United States — selling branded crackers in neat, sanitary, exact quantity packages. Crackers that would always be clean and fresh and protected from moisture, dust, germs, odors, and whatever else that could find its way into an open barrel. Incredibly, Green’s board did not share his vision, did not want to disturb grocers or their barrels, thought the idea would fail, and did not get behind it.



Fortunately, one of N.W. Ayer’s top execs, H.N. McKinney, saw Green’s vision and raised it with a brand, a plan, and a campaign to entice the public via newspaper and magazine ads, streetcar cards, and posters/signage. And so, UNEEDA Biscuits in boxes were born and promoted by a little boy in a rain slicker (the art director’s nephew).  U-Need-A-Biscuit may be a corny name, but it worked. All of it worked. Together (integrated marketing communications anyone?). It all worked so well that National Biscuit had to build additional bakeries in different parts of the country in order to supply the huge demand that the Ayer campaign and the Green packaging concept created. You can bet that a lot of copycat packaging followed on and that little by little groceries and retail stores, and packaged goods companies, scrambled to entice customers with bright packaging, from folding cartons, to tins, to labeled bottles, cans, and tubes.

The irony is that today, the drive is in the other direction, toward less packaging and a more sustainable future. There are a lot of positive stories, but also mindless zealotry. Packagers keep trying to source reduce to lowest possible but sometimes absurd levels. I’ve had water bottles spring leaks because they have been rendered so weak and flimsy. I have found toilet paper now being marketed as eco-friendly because the cardboard roll in the middle is gone. Many landfills are at a point where they are actually looking for more trash in order to feed trash-to-energy projects.

The Catalog Side of Sears, Circa 1949.

The Catalog Side of Sears, Circa 1949.

The drive is also in the other direction on many retail fronts. I was struck by a couple of things on this page from the 100 Greatest Advertisements, which featured the cover of the Spring/Summer 1949 Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog (where have all the Roebucks gone?). First, the cover didn’t obviously feature merchandise, unless worn by kids and teacher in the classroom setting depicted. Second, in that classroom setting, circa 1949, the emphasis was on Safety with a capital S.  There is a never-ending quest these days to make this the safest of all possible worlds (and that’s a blog for another day), but few people associate 1949 as a safety-focused year. Third, Sears’ message on the front cover talks candidly about higher prices being the norm, then casually delivers good news that many prices inside are lower than the prior fall.  Finally, the catalog came by way of Roosevelt Boulevard (I can still picture one of the Great Northeast’s classic landmarks).

Just as video killed the radio star, e-commerce has been making life very difficult in the retail bricks and mortar world. Sears is still there (but with a lot fewer stores), as are Macy’s, J C Penney’s, WalMart, and a host of others, especially individual specialty stores. While Amazon seems to be online’s 800 lb gorilla, the most successful retailers today are those who successfully bridge physical stores, great shopping experience web sites, and well-targeted catalogs. Know thy customers and reward their loyalty with many options, stellar customer service, and promos, discounts, and freebies. No one said marketing, sales, and advertising are easy.

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Rethinking Packaging

In a drive for a more sustainable future, some otherwise thoughtful people are ready to toss away current packaging.

Some big thinkers are at work to save the world from one of its greatest threats — packaging. I happened upon this thought piece by Maria Popova via Google FastFlip, which means that it has already been seen by a lot of eyeballs. And it appears in Big Think, which has attracted sponsorship from Intel, a company whose chips are inside many products that rely on packaging. Here is the opening:

Product packaging is one of consumerism’s most toxic byproducts — transient, temporary, and lacking the vaguely utilitarian excuse for existence that the product it contains can claim. It requires energy to make, adds to shipping weight, and is often made of polymers that linger in landfills for thousands of years. Now, designers are turning to innovative materials and engineering to revolutionize the environmental impact of packaging.

Wow. In one short paragraph, packaging has been relegated to the trash heap of history. The products that consumers purchase are vaguely utilitarian? The packages that protect and display them (and in the case of food and beverages help to preserve and to serve them) serve no purpose?

We are way down a slippery slope here. Packaging is a vital global industry. It uses materials as diverse as paper, plastic, glass, metals, and adhesives to deliver the myriad of products we buy and use. Each package, primary and secondary, is a marvel of structural and graphic design. What the world needs now is NOT more vivisections of the economy and companies and people’s livelihoods. This approach is so far beyond ideas for sustainability through source reduction and recycling that it should be setting off alarms with a good many thoughtful people, including editors at Wired UK and the Huffington Post, who publish Ms. Popova. But it’s worse because her article features two examples of this new thinking by industrial designers.

Clever Little Bag for Puma

Clever Little Bag for Puma

One is a “clever little bag” created for Puma as way to do away with traditional shoe boxes and scheduled to rollout in 2011. The design is clever, but let’s see where Puma’s sales go in relation to Nike and Addidas as a result of the diminished opportunities for enhanced branding and marketing that traditional shoe boxes provide.

Universal Packaging System

Universal Packaging System

The second is something called a Universal Packaging System that can be used for just about any product that can be wrapped. It may provide a certain level of protection, but it either creates the element of surprise as to what is inside or gives every product the look of being sold by fishmongers.

This thinking might be okay for everyone who wants to move to a commune, where economic scale is small and equality and good intentions matter more than end results.

Here’s another thought: Long live packaging. Long live the many people in the packaging industry who make our lives better on a daily basis.

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