Design: No Laughing Matter

Humour is hard to bottle

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Tyrrells potato chips pack design adds some ironical images (in the basic line), some illustrations similar to the ones shown in botanical catalogues (in the natural line)
Tyrrells potato chips pack design adds some ironical images (in the basic line), some illustrations similar to the ones shown in botanical catalogues (in the natural line)

Picture this: Acquaintances from across the road drop in suddenly. You offer them hospitality; in true Indian tradition they say, “Kuch Nahi” (nothing, please). This is your cue. You dip into the cabinet and pull out, what else, but a bottle of excellently brewed Kuch Nahi. The contents of the bottle would be immaterial. The packaging label will steal the moment. This is just what an enterprising Sikh in UK has done by creating a bottle of Kuch Nahi. An excellent example of witty packaging designed to cross shelf positioning barriers. In the conventional hierarchy of brands placed on shelves according to their quality, price and pecking orders a product packaged in humour will easily find a special
place in anyone’s mind.

Marketers have always known in their guts that customers have an emotional response
(feeling) much before they make rational decisions (think) towards a product purchase decision. In branding terms this emotional appeal is called engagement or ‘connecting.’ In a social context it is the equivalent of a shared smile, a witty exchange or more intimately, a giggle. The use of humour as an advertising tool is quite familiar to most of us and is increasingly visible. Who can forget the ‘Merawala Pink’ campaign of Asian Paints or the more recent campaigns for Bingo Chips (‘no confusion’), Polo (‘the mint with a hole’), Chlormint (‘hum Chlormint kyon khaate hain?’) Red Bull, or Maggi Ketchup’s ‘Pichkoo.’ It is believed that making people laugh elevates people’s mood and thereby generates positive feelings towards a product. In addition to capturing attention and cutting through media clutter, humour gives a feeling of happiness that settles gently into the mind and soul of a customer.

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But why is it that most products with humorous advertising have such boring pack designs?

“Humour is hard to bottle,” says an experienced product manager of a popular FMCG
brand. “On packaging you’ve got just three seconds to connect as against 30 seconds
in a TV spot. A joke has to be spot-on across consumer categories and it has to have the
timelessness to live-on over a longer period of the product lifecycle. Intended humour
which is obscure, intellectually complicated, or likely to offend some segments may
boomerang on the brand.”

Being funny, it is often said, is the toughest act to follow. Is this the reason most of the packaging on our shelves is so formal and solemn? When was the last time something made you chuckle in-store? Where has the Laughing Matter gone?

Studies in the UK (by Coolbrands) have shown an increasing incidence of ‘playful
brands.’ In India, on the other hand, even the so-called ‘cool’ or ‘hep’ products, intended
for younger, more playful audiences, are packaged in formality. However, a notable
exception seen recently could be Parle’s range of Hippo Chips. The pack features bright
colour backgrounds with the light hearted graphic of a hippo’s head. The product is described as ‘Munchies – Not Fried, only Baked.’ The copy at the back is equally jolly, like
the mood of the graphics: ‘Hello, me Hippo. Hippo feel bad you work, work, work and not
eat on time. Hippo care for you. Hippo says, don’t go hungry.’ This is just the look and
language to catch the attention of young college goers – who appear to have taken to the
product like a hippo takes to water. Does this fresh approach to packaging youth oriented
products like chips, chocolates, biscuits, candy or colas represent a new trend for
others to follow – only time will tell. However it appears clear that Hippo, by its offbeat
presentation, has got the chuckles it seeks.

Hippo - food snack pack by Parle Agro has differentiated itself from the crowd by different packaging
Hippo – food snack pack by Parle Agro has differentiated itself from the crowd by different packaging

More examples of just how far humorous graphics can be a significant ingredient in
a product’s marketing mix are seen on the internet, in some recent work by Studio Spotlight, UK. (www.thedieline.com). Packs of Chicken Snacks, Cheese Rings or Cheese
Snacks show the product being used in a playful way. On the other hand packaging for
Caramel Bites, Whirly Bite and others featured are combined with cartoon characters
and graffiti like descriptions. Undoubtedly such packs would be the rage in any college
canteen across the world. Their emotive appeal appears to be cross cultural. The Laughing
Matter cannot be missed.

Have the heavy duty costs of modern marketing made it too risky to experiment with laughing matter? Was humour on packaging seen more often in the ‘old days’?

Few of us who have spent their childhood in India would fail to remember those colourful matchbox sized packs printed with a clown’s face. When you slid open the pack, the clown’s mouth would open and small pieces of sugar candy would appear. The candy was transitory. The pack was forever.

The same could be said about the ever popular Phantom Sweet Cigarettes, by Ravalgaon.
Generations of kids have grown up swaggering around with these imitation cigarettes.
They are made of sugar and corn flour and come complete with an orange tip which ‘glows’ brighter when licked. The packaging, in just one colour printing, features a comic book Phantom with a mind-teaser game at the back. For just INR 3 for a pack of 10 Phantoms, what could be more fun?

It appears that while dealing with packaging aimed largely at children, brands are more willing to experiment with Laughing Matter. But even here while the brand name and copy used may be playful the product imagery used is realistic and down-to-earth. Priyagold, for example, offers Don Glucose biscuits. They bring you the ‘real power of glucose and milk to make you stronger from within….they will charge you (up) to fight for your rights.’ The brand and the copy are undeniably funny, but the packaging – dead serious. In a similar way look at the packs of cream biscuits made to resemble smiley faces, and see if you can spot any sign of the playfulness of the product on the pack.

“Most companies merely talk to themselves,” says Dan Miller in an article in Sensory
Logic. “They think the offer is the hero — quite forgetting their target market in the
process.”

The FMCG product manager adds, “The high cost of packaging development today does not easily allow us to experiment with humour which may, or may not work. It’s safer to keep the packaging neutral and sprinkle humour in the communication. Back in the old days, markets were small and costs were lower . . . a lot more could be tried out.”

Is all Laughing Matter artificial? Can Laughing Matter on packs exist in its natural state?

Underlying most humour – or Laughing Matter – is the setting up of a surprise or a series
of surprises for an audience. The surprises leading to humour as a fundamental human
behavioural reflex are described as an ‘incongruity theory.’ Incongruities occur when one cognitive frame of reference in any form of communication is suddenly pulled away to reveal another cognitive reference which reframes the original content. In other words, a sudden, un-anticipated shift of meaning in a communication releases emotional responses which we commonly recognize as smiles, amusement or laughter. The key point here is that an underlying surprise communication surfaces. This communication may be the result of a careful arrangement or, in many cases, simply the result of an unintentional gaffe.

Sample some of the commonly seen ‘instructions’ on packaging labels to see just
how funny unintentional Laughing Matter can get:
– On a bag of Chips: ‘You could be a winner! No purchase necessary. Details inside.’
(Evidently, this is the shoplifter special.)
– On a bar of Soap: ‘Directions: Use like regular soap.’ (And that would be how. . . ?)
– On a bottle of Dishwashing liquid: ‘Do not use on food.’ (Hey, Mom, we’re out of syrup!
It’s OK honey just grab the Dishwashing liquid.)

In a diverse market like India, natural state Laughing Matter is perhaps far more prevalent than intended humour. Examples that come to mind immediately are the range of macho underwear brands like Rupa Frontline, Dollar Maccho and Amul. These brands are aimed at a mass market fed on common Bollywood fare and likewise the communication, even though it may provide unintentional humour to the ‘reading classes.’

Sometimes a product previously considered serious but playful suddenly becomes funny. Consider the familiar Calcium Sandoz pack with the long-eared puppy dog shaped bottle. The brand diversified into a ‘woman’s calcium’ variant and celebrated the launch with a bottle shaped like a woman’s head. However the shape of the woman’s pack is so clumsily created that it’s funny and appears ironic that women prescribed calcium are forced to display such a ridiculous portrayal in their homes. Brands attempting Laughing Matter must be wary of the thin lines between what is intentionally funny and what is just naturally funny.

Does Laughing Matter really work all the time?

As mentioned earlier in this article, Laughing Matter is a design tool that must be wielded with great care in order to derive results. For example on the one end there is the Canned Kangaroo (featured in PSA: November-December 2009) which offers a playful and hilarious take on the national animal of Australia. On the other end, however, it doesn’t take much for Laughing Matter to become Dark Matter when it is seen used for Premium Bottled Beer. Though the company packing premium beer in this manner claims that it uses only the corpses of ‘road kill’ animals, the manner of presentation of these animal skin packs could be enough to wipe the grin of most Laughing Matter pack enthusiasts.

Deepak Manchanda is Consultant, Packaging Design & Technology. He has over 30 years experience in the packaging industry, from the Central Design Services of Metal Box to Packaging Development in Ranbaxy, Dabur and Oriflame India. Currently, with Autumn Design Consultants, he offers packaging design solutions to a wide range of clients in varied industry sectors. deepak.thepackagingconsortium@gmail.com (The article was first published in the November December 2010 issue of Packaging South Asia.)

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Deepak Manchanda
An engineering graduate from BITS, Pilani and a Post-Graduate Diploma from Milan, Italy in Human Factors Engineering. Over 40 years of work experience in branding, packaging design & development. Worked as Head of Packaging at Oriflame – Silver Oak; Dabur India and Ranbaxy Laboratories. Currently - an Associate with The Packaging Consortium – a packaging development consultancy. Worked closely with Jindal Polymer Films for Application Development of Specialty Films for flexible packaging. Now a packaging consultant for some reputed companies. He is also an Associate Director with Firstouch Solutions – a design company providing services in Brand Comm, Packaging, Exhibitions and Branded Retail Environments. He is closely associated with the Indian Institute of Packaging as a Member of the Northern Regional Committee. He is also active as a contributor to Packaging South Asia magazine and other journals and at forums and conferences. Has been writing articles on packaging design and marketing for Packaging South Asia since 2007.

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