debbie millman

Saturday, May 02, 2009

No Gloating

Today is my 14th anniversary working at Sterling Brands. A lot has changed since my first day on the job, but one consistent thread has been my fascination with the mysterious connection that exists between consumers and the brands they buy. I love that the discipline of design I work on requires understanding those consumers—those people—and includes analyzing how they think and how they choose the brands they buy. Most of all, I am captivated by the science of how they see, and how the brands they choose signal their affiliations or define their beliefs about who they are and what they want to project to the world.

One of my favorite places to frequent is the supermarket. I love going down the aisles and seeing all the things we’ve lived with all our lives, seeing the new things, seeing what people place in their shopping carts. I wonder WHY they buy the things they buy, and I speculate whether it is habit or taste or price or trust or safety or security. Inasmuch as I find this endlessly interesting, it has become harder to speak of my passion without considering how much this work may contribute to the increasing carbon footprint of our planet. I question how much of what I work on is necessary and I find myself asking my clients exactly WHY they need to redesign their brands and what specifically they hope to accomplish. Nevertheless, I still get a thrill when I see something in the marketplace that I have worked on, and whenever I see a package I have helped create get redesigned by someone else, I can’t help but feel jealous and defensive and a little bit disappointed.

This was most apparent in the recent redesign of Tropicana Orange Juice. I worked on the previous design, the one that featured the red and white striped straw in the orange. As everyone in the design business now knows, after several weeks of intense consumer dissatisfaction and endless Twitter and Facebook protests about the new packaging, Tropicana decided to abandon the dramatic new look and go back to the original design that consumers seemed to have such an affinity for.

I was shocked by the onslaught of resentment towards the new design and though I was pleased that our package would once again grace the supermarket, I couldn’t help but wonder how this happened. What was it about this brand that inspired such loyalty and intense emotion?

Some people attributed the response to the absence of trust the new look inspired; some people believed that the brand’s vernacular was as much a part of the ritual of our daily lives as baseball and apple pie. Others talked of the security that the brand evoked; that the original design harkened back to safer, more innocent, less turbulent times. Some people worried that the backlash would discourage other marketers from attempting to make revolutionary change to their stalwart, established products. And yet another group thought that any juice packaging hysteria was proof, once and for all, that civilization was indeed doomed.

My favorite reaction came from my 21-year-old brother Jake, who likes to drink his OJ straight from the carton and, for the most part, is loyal to the brands his mother and father and older sister have introduced him to over the years. When the redesigned Tropicana hit the shelves he called and asked if I had worked on the new look. He seemed relieved when I told him no, and when I asked him why, I expected that he would reply that he didn’t like it. Instead, he surprised me by stating that some kid in his dorm room was twittering about it and he didn’t want anyone talking shit about something his sister had worked on.

Yesterday, while shopping for dinner, I saw the original Tropicana package back on the shelves. A part of me felt comforted to see it again, and part of me felt sad. I considered all the effort that had been wasted, and I couldn’t help but feel discouraged that my beloved discipline of package design had somehow failed. I purchased the few things I needed, and wistfully left the store. As I walked out, I passed a sidewalk garbage can overflowing with plastic bottles, old newspapers and balled up scraps of tin foil. And there, amidst the trash, poking up through a broken umbrella, a blue-ish green half-eaten sandwich and Wednesday’s New York Post, was a dented, slightly dirty, empty carton of orange juice. Of course, it was Tropicana.


Blogger Peter said...

Congrats on 14 years at Sterling.

The original Troipcana package is a cultural icon

5/03/2009 11:10:00 PM  
Anonymous polly said...

just curious: are the links to the right for the design matters broadcasts permanently down? i like to have my students listen in!

5/05/2009 05:17:00 PM  

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