Recession Aesthetics

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DishSoapCompositeThanks to the tanking world economy, this year I suddenly found myself confronted by a perfect storm right in my very own kitchen: I needed to obtain the vast quantities of calories required by a ravenous teenager and his younger brother without having to declare bankruptcy. The blissful era of strolling around the local food co-op with a petite handheld basket containing a single grass-fed steak at $26 and a recycled-paperboard pint of $5.99 organic raspberries was over. And so it came to pass that in January I bravely pushed a doublewide chrome shopping cart into the land of excess that is Costco. I quickly realized that shopping there isn’t just about food, the experience is an education in the subtleties of how the graphic design of brands sells products to their intended audiences.

In my life, precious little boutique-type items with exquisite labels have been shown the door, replaced by more affordable mass-market brands with package design so unappealing I felt compelled to decant the shampoo, dish soap, and the like into better-looking bottles. (I know this is ridiculous; my mother-in-law used to call me “fancy” all the time, and it wasn’t meant as a compliment.) Fortunately I noticed an alternative, not only more cost effective but graphically more pleasing: Costco’s own Kirkland label. Let’s look at a side by side comparison of package design as you descend the price ladder.

At far left is Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day Dish Soap, available at upscale markets like Whole Foods and health-food stores. Before the recession I was a devotee. The attractive retro-chic bottle is adorned with a stylish label in sophisticated muted colors, calculated to attract design-savvy consumers. Using only natural ingredients and fragrances like Snap Pea, Lavender, and Geranium, the products are biodegradable, the packaging 100% recyclable. And the bottle looks darling sitting next to the sink. It could easily pass for a beauty product, like body wash or hand lotion. The aesthetics are part of the price: $4 for 16 ounces, or .25 an ounce.

In the center we have Dawn, available in pretty much every supermarket across the nation (including Costco). At $2.69 for 12.6 ounces of double-concentrated detergent, it works out to just over $0.11/per ounce, and is meant to appeal to a much wider audience. The scents are abstract concoctions straight from a lab, named for natural things like Apple Blossom but not smelling much like them. The bottle’s shape evokes clean images of waves and water, the Day-Glo blue of the liquid itself telegraphs “clean” (imagine if it were bright red instead), and the logo’s dimensional typography with a sunburst behind it promises a new day of immaculate dishes. Perky abstract bubbles surround the logo for a final touch.  Consumers across a wide swath of demographics can understand by looking at the bottle exactly what they’re going to get, and the design communicates this concisely and effectively. To me, it’s a bore; it feels like middle of the road pop music meant to offend no one, but not very memorable either. Popular doesn’t always mean pretty, and I didn’t much want to look at this thing every time I washed the dishes.

Then you get to Costco’s own Kirkland Environmentally Friendly Liquid Dish Soap. 135 ounces costs 7.89, just under $.06/ounce. But the overall look of its package, as well as everything else sold under the Kirkland label (from hams to shampoo) doesn’t scream cheap. Rather, it communicates elegance, pairing simple, understated typography with attractive photography in an uncluttered composition. The image of leaves gently floating on water says “environmentally friendly” while the cheerful bright orange border around the label reinforces the “freshly squeezed citrus scent.” The clean white container evokes the sleek look of more expensive products without intimidating a value-conscious shopper. Even the logo is appealing, bold and direct, with a strong graphic presence. Overall, the branding effectively speaks to yours truly, who spends most of her time thinking about design, as well as to someone who just wants to wash the dishes inexpensively and doesn’t care about labels one way or the other.

The ironic twist is that even a design snob doesn’t keep 135 ounces of dish soap out on the counter, no matter how much she admires the packaging. As before, some is transferred to a smaller container and the rest is stashed under the sink. But I still have to look at it, sometimes, and at least it’s not hideous. A victory of sorts.

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