Cracking the Code

Whether you realize it or not, you know the code. The code of packaging. It's the code that tells you that chips that come to you in a muted-color bag are healthier than those in a bright one. That Milano cookies are a perfectly respectable snack to serve to adults. That Target's generic shampoo is exactly like Head & Shoulders, only cheaper.

Tropicana recently had to abort their latest packaging redesign when their sales plummeted. The reason? They were off code. Looking at it now, I can't imagine what they were thinking.

Tell me that doesn't look like a generic store brand: low cost, low quality (at least in consumer perception). Tropicana didn't look like a premium brand anymore. And the sales reflected it.

The code, of course, isn't limited to the grocery store. It ranges far and wide, touching everything we shop for.

Like, say, books.

Walk into any section of the bookstore, and you'll find a wealth of cover styles, each designed to attract the fans of different sub-genres. Take, say, the mystery section. Cozies have bright colors, cartoonish pictures, and punny titles. Historicals have muted colors.Serial killer thrillers love red, black, shadows, and serious-looking fonts. And femjep tends to stick to a dusky, wistful palette. (That's "female-in-jeopardy", y'all.)

One shelf over, in Romance, we see the same kind of division.

And we'd see it in Sci-Fi, YA, Literature, and Self-Help as well. I imagine it must be a constant challenge for cover designers to turn out something that is both eye catching and on code.

Code is a double-edged sword. It attracts readers who are predisposed to like your work, but it also has a way of limiting you. That cozy cover, for example, says, "Hey, girls, lots of laughs!" but also, "Men, keep walking."

This is why you'll see some writers with really excellent word of mouth go around naked (code-wise, that is). They've already attracted a huge fan base; the best the cover artists can do is avoid turning anyone away. Janet Evanovich gets codeless covers. So does Sue Grafton, though that wasn't the case when I first read Grafton back in the 90's. (That frame and font, by the way, are 80's-90's code for cozy.)

All this isn't really something for me to worry about. I won't be designing my cover, and my input might be minimal. But I think it's an interesting look into the world of branding and marketing. So the next time you pick up a bag of chips, ask yourself:

"Are these really healthy, or do they just look like they are?"


Becky said...

Really interesting post! I love this kind of stuff. And finding about about "femjep" was worth the price of admission.

I disagree about the OJ though. I think they were trying to go for a higher-end look, with the cleaner packaging that a lot of "luxury" brands have--that trend started in personal products/toiletries. (Think of how high-end makeup looks all plain and medical now.) I think it's a good-looking container. But they were going for that and missed, because their customers still want the jug to have a tap-dancing orange on it.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes I have to push myself past the cover. Sometimes the book looks trendy and that is not a good sign, but it might be great read.

Interesting post. The cover must be a very exciting thing for authors to see!