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Packaging – visual

Packaging has always told stories, whether through special editions, promotional items, novelty shapes, or depictions of regional landscapes and historic monuments. With its omnipresence, it inspires and evokes a personality, an attitude and a set of beliefs, going beyond an economic selling point or the simple requisite to preserve a foodstuff.

The symbolism of packaging: What does it evoke? What does it feel like?

Of all the various types of packaging (bags, trays), the box seems the most representative of the emotional role design has to play. The symbolic meaning of the box itself is universal. It is found in myths, where it generally conceals secrets, as with Pandora’s box, the reliquary box and the gift box. Packaging has become more than just a simple labelled container, as nowadays it evokes an entire personality, an attitude to life or a set of beliefs (Hine, 1995). It carries meaning and has gently and imperceptibly entered into our daily lives to participate in the constitution of collective memory. The shape of the Coca Cola bottle, inspired by that of the cocoa pod, makes it immediately recognisable, more ergonomic and easier to handle than standard bottles. However, it also evokes feminine curves, earning it nicknames such as the ‘Mae West’ or the ‘hobble skirt’. The more precious the packaging seems, the more we value its content. We tend to keep such boxes once their original contents have been consumed and turn them into trinket boxes. Huntley & Palmer, a biscuit-maker in Victorian England, was one of the first companies to use lavishly decorated boxes. At the turn of the 20th century, novelty food boxes made their appearance, such as boxes resembling miniature furniture, a row of books bound and held together by a leather strap, a pile of imitation porcelain plates, or teapots. The First World War put an end to such vivacious inventions, and the subsequent interwar period was heavily influenced by a more streamlined aesthetic derived from Art Deco, in fashion at the time.

Building loyalty: Regional depictions and ‘Trojan horses’

Regional decorations also have promotional value, especially for food products. They underline the distinctive features, authenticity and originality of the product. In Victorian England, boxes were adorned with depictions of landscapes inspired by 18th-century art or moral or educational scenes, reminiscent of the works of William Hogarth, an English painter and satirist. In Switzerland, during the same period, the Kohler brand took inspiration from Art Nouveau and turned the four sides of its tins into windows overlooking Swiss landmarks, such as the Matterhorn, Lake Geneva with the La Vaudoise boat, and the Château de Chillon. Not only do these depictions tend to reinforce the national stereotype, they also anchor the product’s identity: Although cocoa was originally an exotic foodstuff, it has been domesticated to become a ‘typically’ Swiss product, a food ‘landmark’ in its own right. The ‘Trojan horse’ is another strategy used to build consumer loyalty within the intimacy of their private sphere. Customers can collect tokens from packaging to receive a gift, which is a promotional item for the brand. It could be a pen, diary or toy, something functional and not especially valuable, yet it becomes a part of the consumer’s daily life beyond the kitchen. The special edition, commemorative or celebratory gift box brings new relevance to a known product, gives it added value and itself becomes an object for sharing and giving.