Australia: Plain packs

April 26, 2012

The government of Australia, which wants to impose the world’s first-ever ban on logos printed on cigarette packaging, has a unique marketing challenge: How to create a product package whose intent is to repel consumers.

A proposed Australian law, being watched by governments globally and challenged by companies including British American Tobacco Plc, would require cigarettes to be sold in dark olive- brown packages, with corporate logos replaced by graphic images of diseases blamed on smoking, and a uniform font previously associated with Microsoft Corp.’s (MSFT) (MSFT) Windows software. The choice of color and font was based on studies by Australian health authorities, who sought to minimize the packs’ attractiveness.

That research dovetails with decades of polling and experimentation by companies such as BAT (BATS) and Imperial Tobacco Group (IMT), who have long viewed their packages as “silent salesmen.” The Australians took all that knowledge and turned it on its head in a fit of anti-marketing. Logos on tobacco packaging are slated to be banned in the country from December, dealing a body blow to the $661 billion global industry.

“Making choices to dissuade, or prohibit the packages from standing out or drawing attention, is not the norm, but the design process is really the same,” Jeff Bellantoni, chair of the package design program at the Pratt Institute’s School of Art & Design in New York, said in an interview.
International Interest

New Zealand, Canada, Belgium, Iceland and France have all shown an interest in implementing a plain-packaging law like Australia, which accounts for 0.3 percent of global tobacco volumes, according to Euromonitor International research. The U.K. government this month called for reactions to standardize tobacco packaging, which tobacco companies claim would illegally seize their trademarks and increase sales of illicit smokes.

If Australia’s High Court upholds the law, brands such as Dunhill, made by British American, and Philip Morris International Inc.’s (PM) (PM) Marlboro would lose their iconic logos and recognizable imagery overnight. All that would remain is the brand name, written in a font known as Lucida Sans, on a pack whose color is known in the design trade as Pantone 448C.

Neither choice was random. The Australian health department hired Sydney-based research company GfK Blue Moon to come up with the most repellent packaging possible. GfK selected both the color and font to “unplug the product” from its marketing, creating a gap between the tobacco in the pack and its association with anything elegant, masculine, or exciting, according to Scott Morris, associate professor of food engineering and packaging at the University of Illinois.

Legible Font

Known mostly for being legible, Lucida was designed by the Bigelow & Holmes studio in 1985. Designers Charles Bigelow and Kris Holmes wanted to create a font that transmitted well onto laser printers. The Lucida family includes a sans-serif version, without small lines at the end of the characters. Microsoft has licensed it for use on its Windows systems.

“Lucida Sans is one of the least graceful sans-serif typefaces designed,” Tom Delaney, a senior designer with New York design and identity consultant Muts & Joy, said in an e- mail. “It’s clumsy in its line construction.”

Pantone 448C, meanwhile, isn’t a color found on most product packages, for good reason. Australia commissioned GfK to find a color that was “the least appealing” and contained cigarettes that were lowest quality, according to GfK’s 2011 report.

To aid its search, GfK could consult studies done by tobacco companies, who have come to rely on packaging more as traditional avenues of advertising, such as television and print, have been shut by regulators.

Social Visibility

Cigarette packages are different from other consumer product containers, in that smokers retain the pack until it’s finished, and frequently display it in public. Such social visibility means cigarettes are known as “badge products,” which associate the user with the brand’s image.

Most importantly, perceptions of cigarettes can be changed by altering the color or shade of color on a pack, through a process called “sensation transfer.” Lightening the tone is a common practice, as it reduces the perception of a cigarette’s strength. Red conveys a strong smoke, blue is associated with lower-tar, and white is usually the lightest smoke available.

“Consumers use things like color as an indication of risk,” said David Hammond, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo’s School of Public Health who has studied tobacco packaging. “It’s effective with tobacco as smokers are motivated to believe their brand is less harmful.”

Red or Blue?

Philip Morris, now called Altria Group Inc. (MO) (MO) in the U.S., once compared smokers’ responses to identical cigarettes packaged in separate blue and red packs. Some smokers found the cigarettes in the blue pack to be too mild, while others felt those in the red pack were too harsh.

GfK recommended eight colors for testing on smokers. Dark colors were perceived as more harmful, and dark brown was the least appealing, carrying connotations of uncleanliness. A lighter-brown color was rejected as it could be perceived by consumers as gold. An olive tint prevents the brown from looking like chocolate, which also has positive associations.

“Pantone 448C is discouragingly drab, both literally and figuratively,” Morris, the packaging professor, said in an e- mail. “You can see that there isn’t much left that connects the brand with any advertising, and it’s certainly unappealing.”

Yet by using Lucida Sans, a common font available to anyone, Australia may have provided tobacco makers with a window of opportunity, according to Jason Smith, founder of Fontsmith, a London-based font design company that has worked with companies such as Xerox Corp. (XRX) (XRX) and the British Broadcasting Corp.

“They probably should have gone for something less familiar,” Smith said in an interview. “There is absolutely nothing to stop the cigarette companies from taking Lucida Sans and using it on the side of a Formula One car, in their own brand colors.”

Source: Bloomberg (April 22, 2012)