In 2005 P&G coined the term “first moment of truth” to describe the importance of packaging in their marketing model. Faris Yakob looks to the humble package and its discontents.

Recently over dinner a friend of mine in London asked if I knew about the Lyle’s Golden Syrup logo. I did not and was surprised to find out it was a dead lion with a swarm of bees emerging from its carcass. I went on to discover that it was based on a Biblical story called Samson’s Riddle, that most people had never noticed what it was [friends, Twitter and various news articles validated this] and that, in 2006, Guinness World Records had declared it Britain’s oldest brand. Beneath the decomposing feline is the tagline “out of the strong came forth sweetness”, which is an old saying derived from the aforementioned story.

I was reminded of this today in a French supermarket. I adore exploring foreign grocers as an alien anthropologist might: to understand why the layouts are as they are, what brands are the same or different. There is always at least one nugget of insight, one moment where the strange suddenly becomes familiar, or vice versa. This time Rosie pointed out some interesting looking beer packaging, all colorful cartoons with names like “Wood will fall down”, “Stick a finger in the soil”, and “Hair in the mailbox.” I snapped a photo and fired off a Tweet musing out loud what it might mean and almost immediately was informed that they were all Danish expressions and that Mikkeller made good beer.

Beer packaging seems to have undergone something of a renaissance in the wake of the craft beer explosion. Whatever you think about the Beavertown, the eye-catching illustration style is a key part of their brand [and signaling] value, which Heineken recently bought into for £40 million. The heightened focus on more distinctive and aesthetic packaging makes sense since innumerable unknown brands are hoping to grab the attention of a hipster influenced audience on an increasingly crowded shelf. This is, of course, where we get our modern conception of branding.

Provenance marks on products only became necessary when mass production and transportation enabled producers to sell across the entire country. Before that, local stores dished out local produce from vats to local people who knew the retailer. This provided the trust necessary when you are buying food and cleaning products. If you get sick, you take it up with shopkeep. Branding replaced that relationship with a promise from a distant producer that you could do the same. 

Mass advertising following in the wake of the mass production. This allowed manufacturers to build familiarity and thus hopefully favorability before the potential customer entered a store.

Richard Gertsman, former Chairman of Interbrand used to say “packaging is branding” but advertising is a core part of building that brand. The key became making sure that the packing ‘paid off’ the advertising, which is to say that the customer saw the product and then consciously or subconsciously recalled the advertising, leading to an increased propensity to purchase. The two became enmeshed and as shelf space in supermarkets began to heave under the weight of new brands and variants, manufacturers began to consider that relationship more seriously.

In 2005 P&G coined the term “first moment of truth” to describe the importance of packaging in their marketing model. The first point of contact is encountering an advertisement, the second is when they take an action towards the brand such as visiting a store or searching the web, the third is when they find it. Then all prior brand communication comes to bear on a single moment: the three to five seconds when the consumer stands in front of the shelf and decides what to buy. Interesting and innovative packing can make up for lower media weights, as with craft beers or companies like Method soap that focused on making their bottle something people would be proud to display in their homes.

All this packaging came with unintended consequences. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that packaging makes up 23 percent of landfill waste and plastic pollution is now strangling life out of the ocean. Last year, consumers all over the world were eschewing straws to save the turtles, even though straws make up less than half of one percent of the waste in our waters.

Increasingly, all consumer goods packaging has come to remind customers of ecological disaster, not just tins with animal corpses on the front - a different kind of moment of truth. As the buying habits of customers begin to move, so do advertisers.

P&G recently announced the first recyclable shampoo bottle made from up to 25% recycled beach plastic, but such innovation is tokenistic at best. The marketer has also partnered with a start-up called Loop which launched in April in NYC. Loop delivers products in a variety of customized, brand-specific packaging that is collected, cleaned, refilled and reused.

Ultimately, the best solution may be going back to the beginning. Zero waste stores have started popping up in the USA, South Africa and Hong Kong. Shopping at packaging free supermarkets requires a significant shift in behavior but it can work. Unpackaged originally opened as a store in London in 2006 but now operates as an in-store service at Planet Organic and many independent health stores. Should the trend take off further packaging could become a toxic channel and marketers will have to dramatically reconsider their moments of truth.