Choices and Brands

cig packsI have often wondered about the power of packaging. OK, so I accept that having consistent brand and image associated with a product is important for recognition and identity, and that often people buy into a brand more than the product they are consuming, but do looks really affect sales?

I was thus amazed when, early in the new year, I came face to face with a pack of cigarettes. For people reading this from outside Australia, I should explain that in December Australia became the first country in the world to ban branding on cigarette packs. Now all packs look the same. They are on a bland, olive coloured base with a photo and warning of a health issue regarding smoking and the brand name in plain small type beneath. I have never been a regular smoker, although years ago I had cigarettes in the pub and at clubs. I would not say I ever ‘had a brand I smoked,’ I just stole my friends’. Nevertheless, my reaction to the plain pack was completely different to the reaction I had had to the normal packs. Where before there had been some kind of (unrecognised) emotional ‘zing’ from the packaging, now there was nothing. There was no nostalgia or excitement, neither was there disgust or revulsion, just plain nothing. I recognised the box as a pack of cigarettes through logical deduction, but no longer through subconscious recognition. It was dull, boring and uninteresting. At that point I realised the power that brand packaging has on our subconscious response to a product.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I filled my car up with petrol. Walking into the shop to pay I was struck by the colour, the lighting, and the products. Everywhere there was sugar. Slurpees, Sweets, Chocolates, the whole shop, except for a small stand next to the door with newspapers and magazines, was a swathe of bright colours enticing me to buy the sweet, sweet joys within their plastic wraps.

photo(1)“Was it always like this?” I wondered. I remember the stack of sweets by the counter from when I was younger, but somewhere along the line the whole shop has been taken over by temptation to make an unhealthy choice.

There are different schools of thought as to whether this is an issue or if people should be left to make choices for themselves. Up until recently I have always stood more to the ‘personal choice after education’ side of the scale with respect to how unhealthy choices should be regulated, if at all. But now I am not so sure. Removal of the brand from cigarettes illustrated to me how much of the ‘choice’ to make a purchase is made as a subconscious attraction to the branding rather than a desire to consume the actual product. And seeing the petrol station made me stop and see how easy access to unhealthy ‘choices’ is pushing steadily more and more into the course of a normal day.

Last week’s British Medical Journal discussed the issue of sugar and how bad it really is. (The articles are all behind a paywall, but there is a good summary and discussion at this blog post.) There is no doubt that easy-access energy, such as glucose and fructose, contributes significantly to ill health. It seems that sugary drinks contribute disproportionately, as they do not cause a feeling of fullness, so more energy gets consumed.

It’s an interesting question as to how much this should be regulated. If we are being influenced by the subconscious power of the brand, should we be protected from making decisions that will worsen our lives in the long term like Mayor Bloomberg has done in New York by banning the sale of enormous cups of soft drinks? And should other things be regulated too? How about banning branding on medication?

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