running words around
design education and visual communication
authored by chris m hughes

Corporate Non-Identity

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Every brief is based around a problem of visual communication, and designers are the problem solvers. So what if the problem is that the visual communication itself must be removed, effectively making all brands indistinguishable?

This is exactly what may be about to happen to the tobacco industry.

Australia plans to have plain-packaged cigarettes on shop shelves by July 2012, and earlier this week the UK government announced that they are considering forcing all cigarette packaging to be plain brown or grey, with no logos or visual branding allowed.

Unpalatable as it sounds, cigarette packaging represents an important source of social, cultural and marketing history, and has produced some of the most memorable logos and branding campaigns of the twentieth century. It's also just about the only form of visual communication left to the tobacco companies.

The evolution of cigarette packet design shows both changes in marketing technique and period graphic style. The packet itself has always had a definite form, shape and size – probably to some extent because the point-of-sale displays have a definite dimension and capacity and cigarette dispensing machines are designed for packets of a specific dimension. This has stifled design change and created a reliance on colour, typography and finish.

But the results have been hugely effective - cigarette packaging promotes the highest degree of brand loyalty in any modern product.

Agencies are already familiar with the heavily-regulated brand guidelines. The law may take away the logos, the colours, the visual devices, the packet shape, the copy style. But the material, texture and shape will be the brand - designers will customise the card, the foil, the cellophane, even the seaming. Marlboro, the biggest brand, have already tested the waters with the F1 Ferrari barcode design -

Marlboro Barcoding

Government Ministers and pressure groups can be quoted, statistics can be highlighted, but the tobacco industry will survive.

The tobacco lawyers will be at the ready, and somewhere, a designer is sitting down with their sketchbook trying to figure out how many ways they can make a brown paper bag say exactly what the client wants it to say.