Cruel father that I am, a couple of months ago I acquired two foods that are quite popular around here, but instead of putting them into general circulation in the family cupboard, I kept them on my desk. After an interminable 2-month consumption-embargo, I finally got around to photographing them this weekend.
One of these foods was Fox’s U-bet Original Chocolate Flavor Syrup. Popular, because you can use it to make chocolate egg creams, but what is there to say about its package? There were other chocolate (flavored) syrups on the shelf, that doubtless would make fine egg creams. Why was this the brand I purchased? Clunky and typographically awkward. Some unidentified Shirley Temple-ish child featured in the logo—(the Wendy of her day?)
There would seem to be little here for a contemporary package designer to love. Why would I—why would any consumer buy a package like that?
In groping towards a working theory to explain its apparent sales success, I asked myself, “if a product has packaging that looks like it hasn’t been changed in 50 years and is still being produced and sold, what does that say about the product?”
Maybe it says: this product is very good and—despite the packaging—there are a great many loyal customers who know it.
I think that may come close to it. A graphically unsophisticated package will sometimes be given not just the benefit of the doubt, but an assumption of quality and ‘authenticity’, not generally afforded to the slicker, more mainstream corporate packaging efforts. Am I over-thinking it?
There’s a Flickr group devoted to hand painted “folk typography.” Is the u-bet bottle folk packaging? The DIY ethos of an earlier era—Mom & Pop cottage industry packaging? Or Is it merely kitsch packaging?
In a post on BoingBoing—(See: Hyperbolic Bronnerianism in Graphic Design)—Xeni Jardin focused on the typographic overkill of certain packages: “… crazy mushed up text with LOTS OF ALL CAPS! BOLD! I-T-A-L-I-C ! Nnnnnooooo negative space! on product labels.”
“Hyperbolic Bronnerianism” might be a subset of the category I’m attempting to describe, but not all of my examples would be so overblown. U-bet may be typographically unsophisticated, but it’s certainly not the cacophony of styles that Jardin is talking about.
Perhaps it’s naïve packaging? There’s a book out called Naive: Modernism and Folklore in Contemporary Graphic Design. The examples contained are charming and vintage, but, to my eye, not unsophisticated.
Regarding vintage graphic design and “naïveté” Michael Bierut writes,
It is tempting to call designs of this era naïve. But I don’t think so. Not these designs. It would be, I think, incorrect to call Paul Rand’s Bab-o cleanser container naïve. It had a kind of knowing beatnik look… The main differences between those old packages and the one we have today is style… Technology is style.
via: The Package Unseen
Sometimes, it’s the small regional products that have this “u-bet” characteristic. I know it may sound culturally arrogant, perhaps imperialistic, but, here in the U.S.A., if I stroll with my cart down the “international aisle” of my super market, I can usually find quite few packages with that u-bet je ne se qua.
Says Durban-based photographer/graphic designer, Garth Walker (about the orange bag of Nyala Super Maize Meal, on right):
This remains the best example of South African packaging that I’ve yet seen and it should be enshrined in bronze above every designer’s Mac. It falls into that “lost” category of local graphic design in which, like so many local brands we love and adore, the designer is unknown. Probably a “lowly designer” (in the days of Magic Markers and Letraset) working in the studio of one of our über packaging or printing companies. “Creative” was probably not mentioned in the brief nor in the presentation to client. However, it’s truly local, relevant, striking, unique and long-lived—a lesson to all of us trying to be “local is lekker” and build a brand through packaging. Oh, and I do have it on permanent display in our studio.
via: Design Indaba
At first, I was thinking of u-bet’s bottle as a sort of “outsider” packaging. Like outsider art: the work of some untrained packaging genius who follows none of the established design principles, but somehow gets it right, anyway. Perhaps done many years ago by the company’s founder (or an unschooled relative) and then left unchanged. Benign neglect packaging?
The thing is, while I don’t really know how long the U-bet Chocolate Syrup label has looked like this, I do know that it didn’t come in this type of bottle when it first came out in 1942.
(See the earlier U-bet bottle, after the fold…)
A fox-shaped bottle. That right: Package as Metaphor (Part 6). The package is a little animal that we identify with. (Or at least you did if you were U-bet’s founding owner, Herman Fox.)
Beach Packaging Design