White labels, debranding, mavericks, and summertime rambles

Still being foolish enough to smoke, it occurred to me that the impending white label packaging legislation might actually have an impact the tobacco industry here in the UK.

Tobacco brands are preparing for this debadging, but will they still be able to retain and gain marketshare without their elaborate pack branding? In the UK at least, most tobacco packaging is currently covered in slightly hilarious visual depictions of the dangers of the product – droopy cigarettes, scary mustachios, steaks etc. whilst the packs bear every latest slick design and production technique.

Major tobacco brands are already increasing their visibility across Europe by creating branded experience environments. ‘VIP lounges’, ’Smoker bars’ are popping up all over the place – subterfuge benefactors, catering for smokers and no-smokers alike. It will be interesting to see what happens. They employ great creative agencies (no names here ; ) to sort this out for them, but everyone’s chasing the golden tail right?

You might think this is a pop at the tobacco industry. It’s not.

It’s also not intended to be a pop at current packaging trends per se.

This is about the role of conventional branding.
Could branding, in the conventional sense of the term, become defunct? Is it even appropriate anymore? Has the time come to rethink the whole concept of brand and branding? We all established a while ago that mostly what brand says is bullshit. We now watch what brand does – and that’s mostly bullshit too. So is the whole ideal, purpose and meaning of brand in our world today, up for a radical rethink?

There is an article related to this on FastCo. – The Future of Branding is Debranding. Meaningful and relevant indeed. What resonated with me was the idea that perhaps, we might be able to purchase goods in environments uncluttered by shouty marketing messaging, branding and even packaging. A great thing yes? Imagine buying a product, rice for example, from a dispenser (even a branded one) and filling your own container with as much as you want, rather than buying an elaborately designed packaged portion that you can’t even see the contents of – perhaps not understanding how much you are really buying either. Wouldn’t that be great? We’ve surely all noticed too, that most product packaging has increasingly become quite deceitful – the pack remains the same size, the contents are largely reduced. The overly elaborate packaging then hits the recycle bin. Or not – as it is ‘not yet recyclable’.

A great, and sadly late branding maverick, Wally Olins actually questioned whether branding was a good or bad thing. He suggested that what’s really needed is the mobilisation of consumer power. Surely that time is now. Over the last decade or so, people (let’s say consumers) have become quite brand savvy. Most of us see the tricks, and understand the sales function but, with the ever compression of our space/time, we accept and purchase anyway. Add to this another trait of human nature – we buy ideas that are deliberately targeted to our sense of development, we gather what we can afford, and we strive to identify ourselves as individuals. An industrial scale of perspicuity that our genetic nodes force us to follow. One of our primal Darwinian drivers for sure, but if we really do know all this, why do we still let it direct our life choices?

We surely know these truths. Should we not mobilise ourselves as a species, and pay more attention to some of the bigger issues we face.

Lovingly, viscerally crafted
A commonly used term is that we ‘live in the age of experience’. Didn’t we ever? Did this happen after the age of Innocent, and before the age of the lovingly personally handcrafted? Starbucks just released a new dress code for its baristas – the aim I guess is to encourage their staff to express their individuality through their attire. So uniforms are old school?

Sadly another crafted ruse to part us with our bucks and make us feel like we belong. What was the old CocaCola mantra? ‘Think global, act local’. Well sure, we all live that now. Unless you consider the real state of global. Is there a way of debadging and debranding that is honest? There is always going to be a way of making a buck or two, without being duplicitous.

White label packaging of tobacco products won’t be white anyway.

The packs will be very red and pink in tone, and depict visceral photorealistic imagery of the impending risks. It’s quite a thing to imagine that this kind of imagery might in the future, adorn the totem signage at gas stations. Though that might still be a few decades away.


And here’s a footnote

I discovered the source of my current profession many years ago – the origin of branding, and maverick. Probably invented by a marketing agency, but I like the story very much.

‘When a client gave Samuel A. Maverick 400 cattle to settle a $1,200 debt, the 19th-century south Texas lawyer had no use for them, so he left the cattle unbranded and allowed them to roam freely (supposedly under the supervision of one of his employees). Neighbouring stockmen recognised their opportunity and seized it, branding and herding the stray cattle as their own. Maverick eventually recognised the folly of the situation and sold what was left of his depleted herd, but not before his name became synonymous with such unbranded livestock. By the end of the 19th century, the term maverick was being used to refer to individuals who prefer to blaze their own trails.’

Go figure : )
Credit to Alistair Hall for the image.