Rolling in the aisles

As a rule, the weekly grocery shop is not an occasion of great hilarity – but, as ad budgets come under increasing pressure, a few brands are trying to change all that by injecting some humour into their packaging. By David Benady

It may have seemed funny at the time, but the directors of United Biscuits have decided that the joke was on them. They have ordered that a radical pack redesign for UB’s McVitie’s Jaffa Cakes brand should be axed after just six months on the shelves. The design, introduced in March, replaced the brand’s logo with one of a series of witty comments such as “Keep your hands off”, “I never share” and “One for you, three for me”, written in large letters, while the logo was shrunk down to the size of a sticker.

The packs, designed by agency Williams Murray Hamm (WMH), have led to a 14 per cent increase in sales, though UB declines to discuss this, or the reason for scrapping the design.

UB says the new design was specifically for 2004, and will be used until this Christmas, when a Yard of Jaffa Cakes will be launched including statements such as “I”m dreaming of an Orange Christmas” and “While shepherds ate a box a night”.

It has been suggested that the brand owner decided that a pack with no logo risked hitting the valuation of the Jaffa Cakes brand should UB be sold off.

There is also a risk that the packaging could have given the impression that Jaffa Cakes is a children’s brand, or that it seemed to trivialise its brand identity. And at a time when the Government is clamping down on marketing that encourages excessive consumption of snack foods, the packs seemed like an invitation to greed and could have caused controversy.

Jaffa Cakes is the latest in a long line of brands that has flirted with humour on its packaging as a way of boosting its profile on the shelves and forging a more “human” relationship with shoppers.

Advertising budgets for grocery brands have been slashed in recent years as sales growth has flattened, and inflated television ad rates mean the cash doesn’t go very far anyway. As a result, packaging has had to work harder in communicating brand values. Many of the tricks used by advertisers to “humanise” brands have moved on to the packaging and humour is also being translated from ad to pack. One advantage of this may be that, while television and print advertising are strictly regulated by Ofcom and the Advertising Standards Authority, controls over packaging copy are weaker.

If you can’t beat ’em

Grocery brands have also faced a sustained mauling from retailers, which have squeezed their margins and targeted them with copycat products. Some believe brands are indeed taking their lead from supermarket own-label products in their adoption of witty packaging.

WMH director Richard Murray says that while humorous packaging has been around since before the launch of the Jif Lemon, it really came to the fore in the Eighties and Nineties as retailers launched own-label products. “Boots, Safeway, Asda and Superdrug wised up to using creative work in their packaging in place of the brand credentials they didn’t have, so they tried to get under the guard of the consumer and make them warm to them through the use of humour,” he says. Boots’ own-label wart remover featured a picture of a witch on a broomstick, while Asda’s tissues carried pictures of onions or the words “sad story” on the packs to denote crying. Superdrug has produced a pregnancy-testing kit where the “P” in pregnancy is replaced by a question mark.

Selling with silliness

Humour is spreading across pack designs. Ben & Jerry’s, Innocent Drinks and Tango all use light-hearted packaging in order to give a warmth to their brands. Harvey Nichols has used humour to coax people into its food halls: a child covered with chocolate on the drinking chocolate packaging, and a buxom diva on the pasta packs, have brought a smile to purchasers without damaging the quality or premium nature of the brand. Yorkie relaunched itself two years ago as a “man’s” chocolate bar, with the tagline “Not for girls”, and carried the joke into all areas of its marketing. Packs were redesigned, with the “O” in Yorkie turned into a street-sign image of a woman with a red line across her. And some brands have used black humour: Death Cigarettes carried a skull and crossbones on its packaging and made light of Government health warnings.

As the Jaffa Cakes case demonstrates, there is still resistance among brand owners to adopting and maintaining radical packaging strategies. Allison Miguel, creative director of design agency Ziggurat, says: “It is hard to get the bigger players to be brave. The role of packaging is changing as ad budgets are cut, and companies need to get personality across in the brands. That is why we are seeing a lot of limited editions, which is a safer way of doing it.” She points to Walkers Crisps’ forays into humour, with limited editions such as Salt ‘N’ Lineker crisps. The limited editions can have a lifting effect on the whole brand without overpowering its carefully built-up brand identity.

Ziggurat has worked on packaging design for premium crisp brand Jonathan Crisps, which jokes to consumers that its product is for crisp snobs. As most of the other brands in the premium crisps area, such as Walkers Sensations and Kettle Chips, play it straight and boast about their premium positioning, Miguel believes this leaves space for one brand to introduce humour into the packaging.

A typical technique for injecting humour into packaging is lampooning the “category language” that is commonly used in different product areas. People have become inured to traditional branding tactics and find much marketing pompous, outdated and irrelevant. By satirising marketing itself, brands are telling consumers they understand their concerns and are somehow different from their competitors.

“Consumers are aware of category language: they know that a shiny logo means you are in toiletries or detergents. Humour can be unleashed by subverting those symbols,” says Futurebrand client director Adrian Goldthorpe. He points to Superdrug’s aromatherapy range for men, which uses “words” such as “Ahh!” on the packaging. He says the humour has to be derived from a “truth” about the product – in this case it is men’s wish to know about the effects of aromatherapy, compared with women’s desire to have greater information about the story behind the ingredients.

Taken by surprise

There is also an element of “the shock of the new” with radical pack designs. Lampooning traditional packaging can take shoppers by surprise and make them warm to brands that have taken the trouble to be different – although as more brands pile into the great packaging laugh-in, there is a danger of staleness creeping in.

As with any humour, subtlety is all-important and getting it wrong can have adverse effects. Jonathan Ford, creative partner at brand consultant Pearlfisher, says: “The intelligent consumer needs a little more mental engagement if brands want to stay desirable. Brands sometimes forget that they have a very subtle relationship with their elusive consumer.” He believes consumers do not want a “preachy, brash” approach, and compares packaging with a chat-up line. “It’s the way you say it that’s important. We need to remember not to confuse a joke with the power and longevity of genuine wit and humour,” he says.

Beer belly-laughs

There are products and categories where humour is not generally considered appropriate for packaging – for instance, where the advertising for the brand already tries to raise a laugh. Stella Artois uses amusing pastiches of French films in its ads, but the effect might be dissipated if the humour were carried through to its packaging. And in areas such as pharmaceuticals and medicinal products, humour is hardly appropriate.

Some observers feel that trying to inject humour into packaging can detract from what the packs are really there to do, which is to give information about the contents and encourage people to buy them. As Robert Bean, a director of ad agency Banc, says: “The unfortunate burden that packaging has to carry is information and clarity. At that point of the buying cycle, the consumer is looking for detailed information. It doesn’t allow for a great deal of humour.” He points to the likes of the Hovis packs, which were relaunched in 2001 with pictures of baked beans and cucumbers on them as an example of how to get it right. “It is not exactly humour to wrap it in baked beans,” says Bean, “But there is definitely a knowingness which operates in some way as humour – two or more people share a common observation that’s deemed to be funny.”

Limited editions are the usual route taken by brands when they want to make wisecracks, since few jokes bear constant retelling – and packs that try too hard can soon become irritating. Packaging rarely gets shoppers rolling in the aisles, but a knowing nod from a brand can provoke a smirk and make people like it a little bit more.

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