If I were a proper hard-edged punk Leftie (instead of a soft, champagne-slurping one), I’d say that a brand design agency like us makes packaging – the outer shell, the dressing up of a product which is otherwise totally ordinary; blinding consumers with ever-more swanky executions, dazzling them into filling trolleys with stuff that looks nice because it looks nice.
But about thirty years ago, it was precisely these exponents of an anti-commercial stance who mounted a more eloquent defence of packaging than any industry apologist blogger could.
Last weekend, I caught a documentary about the rise of post-punk, featuring anti-Royal pinup and butter salesman Johnny Rotten. He was about his follow-up to the burnt-out Pistols – Public Image Ltd (aka PiL). Their album smashed into territory wholly unexpected by critics and fans alike with a sound that was futuristic, layered, even – God forbid – tranquil.
But what made as much of an impression on tune-buying public was that this record came not in a cardboard sleeve with art-school upstart graphics; not in a throwaway sleeve, as had become the fashion for every punk band of the time; but in a metal canister. As if it were a film or, to use Mr. Rotten’s humble description, ‘a time capsule from the future, or the past’.
The packaging was as much the product as the product itself. PiL had twigged that the record, the physical record, was the tangible form of everything they stood for. Its effortless statement - ‘this is not just another record’.
Nor was it a one-off. One of the first albums to be put out by the central label Factory Records was the Durutti Column’s first album. Apart from being a damn fine album, the sleeve was coated in sandpaper - so that playing DC’s fierce new wave music would, figuratively and literally, ‘wipe away’ your other music. A witty embodiment of their ethos.
Bands with something to say have continued this tradition. Post-hardcore band Shellac delivered their industrial-strength guitar noise album ‘At Action Park’ in corrugated cardboard; Spiritualised’s chemically-inspired sound arrives in clinical blister packaging; and System of a Down’s CD-R mimic ‘Steal This Album!‘ simply begs to be half-inched.
Packaging can grab attention for your product in a way no other channel can – and if well done, with enough balls, it can even be more than a continuation of what your brand stands for. It can set the agenda, communicate and even amplify your values. Turns out that the anti-commercial punks twigged this before plenty of the big brands.
Ever get the feeling you’d been cheated?