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The packging is the product.

November 5, 2011

I live about 12 miles from my job, so that means it takes me at least 45 minutes to get there in morning traffic and more than an hour to get home at night. To fill the time on the road, I almost always listen to a book on CD as a way of catching up with those authors I haven’t had time to sit down with.

My latest is Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell, who also wrote Outliers, which I listened to last week.

For those like myself who haven’t caught up with this bestseller, Blink is an examination of how the mind interprets what it sees, hears, tastes or smells in, well, the blink of an eye. It’s about the firefighter who knows when the burning building is about to collapse or the analyst who can tell from certain signals which couples won’t stay coupled for long.

The section that has me the most interested, of course, is related to food, and it includes information on the popularization of margarine, a butter substitute that once had a horrible connotation. During World War II, butter was scares,  so people had to make do with margarine, which came with color packets to change the white to a more palatable yellow.

After the war, people dropped the margarine. But why? To the marketers of Imperial Margarine, packaging was everything. In studies, testers were given yellow Imperial spread on bread, next to the foil wrapping and the company logo of the crown. They were also given the same product without the yellow coloring and no packaging next to it. The overwhelming majority of people picked the one with the packaging, because it sent a message of being of higher quality. In other words, they were eating the whole concept, not just the product itself.

He goes on to recall the early 1980s, when Pepsi started beating Coke in what became known as the Pepsi Challenge. The results were so overwhelming in Pepsi’s favor that New Coke was born, and many of us remember what a marketing fiasco that was.

The interesting point that Gladwell makes of the study is that in taste tests involving a sip of each of the sodas, Pepsi won hands down. But it never made a dent in Coke’s sales, even when people rejected New Coke and swore they didn’t like the corn syrup pumped into what was dubbed Classic Coke.

It seems that Pepsi was only king for a sip, whereas Coke ruled when it came to drinking an entire can, Gladwell writes. All of a sudden, the greater sweetness of Pepsi became too much and it wasn’t as enjoyable.

People’s taste buds are also conditioned to what they prefer. A lifetime of drinking or eating one product will naturally bias you in favor of it, whether you realize it or not.

I have encountered a few examples of this on my own. I live in San Antonio, where Coke comes in two versions, not New and Classic, but American and Mexican. The Mexican version is made with sugar, the American with corn syrup. In blind taste tests here, Americans prefer the one they drink the most often, and so do Mexicans. In fact, the difference is so striking that they usually heartily dislike the other because it tastes artificial, too sweet, too processed even.

I was once in a taste test with, among other people, a Diet Coke drinker who just loathed the taste of Mexican Coke and loved the taste of American, though she was convinced that the products were the other way around. She swore her favorite was like her beloved Diet Coke only with more body. And I guess it is, making it like the difference between regular and decaffeinated coffee.

I no longer drink Coke (I try to avoid caffeine, except in dark chocolate). but during the test, I found myself drawn to the Mexican Coke because, under the sweetness, there was a pleasant bitterness that I remembered from my childhood, and it was the reason I used to love Coca-Cola. Pepsi, by comparison, was always so sweet I remember having to scrape my teeth just to get some imaginary film out of my mouth. I never drank New Coke or Classic Coke, the latter of which is now the only product on the market. So, it was a drink I was unfamiliar with, and I found it to be one-dimensional and vapid. (Another Mexican import we get here is real Fresca, also made with sugar; it reminds me of my all-time childhood favorite, Wink, but that’s another story.)

Despite wanting flavors we know from childhood, more and more people around me are switching to the Mexican Coke because of the knocks that corn syrup has been taking. But I also think package has something to do with it, too. Mexican Coke is sold in 12-ounce glass bottles that have a nostalgic air to them. Plus, it’s the perfect size for a cocktail or a single serving, as opposed to some blob of a 3-liter plastic bottle.

We can’t resist the lure of fine packaging, but what we determine to be fine does vary from culture to culture. I once spoke with a marketing executive from Freixenet, a Cava from Spain that you find on sale especially during the holidays. Americans, it seems, can’t buy enough of the classy black bottles of Brut that still sell for under $10 and yet contain a sparkling wine that is crisp, clean and refreshing.

But the Europeans won’t touch that black bottle. Forget Chanel and her notions of the eternally chic little black dress. Forget the black is beautiful sentiment. The folks across the pond prefer the Carta Nevada Brut line clear bottle with the gold label. It is must classier to them than the black label, even though the wines are largely similar. Surprisingly, the Carta Nevada Brut has a touch more residual sugar, which would be more appealing to Coke-drinking Americans in a blind taste than the Brut they generally buy.

If we say we know what we want, are we referring to the packaging or the product behind the pretty wrappings? It’s gotten to where the answer is yes to both. That makes marketing all the harder, because we also say we won’t be manipulated any more. Of course, that means we won’t be manipulated in the old ways. But we will, old ways and new.


From → #CMC11

  1. Great share John. More often than not, life comes down to perception. There are no facts, just peoples interpretations of the facts. When I was in Australia recently, several australians tried to turn me onto spreading vegemite on my toast. Have you ever tried the stuff? To them, this is a wonderful breakfast treat, but to me its a wonderful way to ruin a nice piece of toast that really just needs a little spread of butter to make it amazing. I think your perception also goes back to your native culture and what you are raised with. Like your example of mexicans preferring mexican coke and americans preferring the american version. People often go with what they know because its the safe bet. People who change the world often open themselves up past these culturally established boundaries of what is safe in order to transcend all cultures and become different.


    • I have had Vegemite. I fail to understand its appeal. But if other people like it, well, I won’t be eating up their precious supply.

  2. I brought home 5 small packets from AUS for my family to try and so far none of them have rushed to try it.

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