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FMCG design cliches: Why they suck

Let’s face it – we all know that advertisers make their big bucks by selling a fantasy. The thing is, it always seems to be the same fantasy. No matter what the product, the same clichés get trotted out – tired old tropes that have very little bearing on reality.

Consider the holiday brochure. Full of happy, smiling faces – kid’s sat on dad’s shoulders or holding mum’s hand as they skip happily along the beach. Anyone who’s actually taken their kids on holiday will know this pure fabrication. Where’s the kid eating sand? The sibling screaming as you slather on the suncream? The maddening itch of mosquito bites?

Product packaging design often falls into the same trap of both selling a fantasy and using the same old images and cliches to do it. Let’s take a look at a few, with tongue firmly in cheek, of course. After all, we’ve probably been just as guilty as the rest of you ourselves in the past.

Lazy suggestion

Consider the ready meal and the hackneyed go-to for lazy pack designers – the serving suggestion. In truth, we have come a long way. Back in the day, the photo may have gone as far as suggesting that the food should be served on a plate, possibly inspired by the swathe of first degree burns caused by the mishandling of oven-fresh Findus Crispy Pancakes in the 70s.

Even now, for some own-brands, set-dressing for a serving suggestion may be limited to a tastefully placed fork. This may be to clarify that it is supposed to be human food, rather than a dog’s dinner (We’re looking at you, Sainsbury’s Basics Minced Beef Hotpot).

Cast your eyes upwards towards the high-end ready meals and things get more salubrious. The tables may be set with crisp white linens or a glass of wine. The meal itself, rather than slopped onto the plate, will have been carefully liberated from its foil tray, placed next to a pile of steaming vegetables and garnished appropriately. This begs the question – who the hell garnishes a ready meal?

Next time you are in the soup aisle, take a look at a tin of Baxters French Onion Soup. Unsurprisingly, the label depicts a bowl of the classic brown stuff. But what’s that floating on top of it? It’s a perfectly round, golden, cheese-crusted crouton. So… in the 90 seconds it takes for the soup to ride the microwave turntable, we’re supposed to make a piece of cheese on toast (who makes just one piece of cheese on toast?), cut a two-inch disc out of the middle of it (wasting perfectly good cheese on toast), before balancing it deftly on the soup? Forget all that, just have the cheese on toast.

Instead of showing me the lifestyle fantasy (people are going to eat it on their lap in front of the TV anyway), why not show the people the ingredients that went into it? The Pizza Express cook-at-home pizza range does this well, and even gives a little window to see the offering in the flesh – that’s more like it.

Milk splash arms race

Let’s rewind from TV dinners to breakfast cereal. We’ll skip the cartoon-festooned childhood favourites and move on to the more grown-up end of the cereal aisle. It’s here you enter a strange hyper-reality where the Photoshop-jockeys have been given free reign. Here, thick arcs of milk cascade into jauntily-angled bowls, creating huge splashes that laugh in the face of the immutable laws of physics.

If you’re eating Oatibix Flakes, even your spoon holds more milk than science should allow, frozen into a little alabaster crown, as golden flakes dance down from the heavens to settle gently atop it, as if the whole thing is being choreographed off camera by Mary Poppins.

Picture the design briefing for your average cereal; “Let’s make the milk splashes EVEN BIGGER” (an obvious indicator of quality), “I want to see more plump fruit!” (the stuff in the box is freeze dried), “More ears of corn!” (like we don’t know what a plant looks like), “More blue sky!” (it’s not as if crops need rain or anything), “More NATURE!!!” (Tony the Tiger counts as wildlife – surely that’s enough nature?).

Move further along to the breakfast bars and the tropes are familiar. The bar (probably depicted larger than actual size) is surrounded by cereals, seeds, nuts and maybe even a square of chocolate (because you know, it’s a little bit naughty). Pity the poor pile of sugar lumps, which invariably sits just out of shot.

So how can we take this down a few notches for something more grown-up and understated? How about the classy Orla Kiely inspired packaging for Dorset Cereals? Once again, you can even see the product through a window in the packaging.

Hair-brained cliches

It’s not just food that falls back on tired cliches. Packaging iconography for mainstream shampoo brands falls into one of two categories – fruit and science. Oddly, what you won’t see on many of them is actual hair (although to be fair, you don’t see many depictions of bottoms on toilet paper packaging). 

Let’s start with the fruit. It will, quite literally, look good enough to eat. It may be glistening with moisture and freshness, or be tumbling through a rivulet of crystal clear water. The orange segments! The juicy berries! The pure white coconut flesh! You want all that goodness in your hair, you know you do…It doesn’t matter that washing your hair in fruit juice would leave you with a sticky, matted barnet, because by God, it would smell good.

If you prefer to entrust your locks to the wisdom of science rather than the purity of nature, prepare to pick up a bottle bedecked with swirling metallic shapes and effusions about mysterious chemical compounds. Anyone with GCSE Chemistry could call-out the bullshit, but package designers expect us to ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ at the promise of a youthful elixir. No pictures here, because quite frankly, vats of sodium laureth sulphate are not very easy on the eye.

Pantene take an approach that tries to marry science and nature. Their bottles depict a golden capsule of their secret sauce creating a splash in a pure, milky-white liquid that could have come from a cereal packet. It could be a cod liver oil tablet with ‘PRO-V’ scribbled on it in Biro, but we take it at face value because SCIENCE.

Whatever the product category, scan the supermarket shelves and you will see that real innovation is in short supply, with the same old tropes that have been kicking around for years. Next time the designers pitch an idea, have a long, hard think about whether you’ve seen it all before. The answer will probably be yes.

Instead, take a look at some of our case studies to find out how Rare has been keeping the spirit of innovation alive on supermarket shelves.


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