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Joined up thinking

The story that follows is an old one that I’ve retold many times, I apologise to the people involved at the time, especially if they remember what went down differently.

A long time ago, as a much younger designer, I was tasked by Mars to use packaging design to get consumers to “re-evaluate the Uncle Ben’s brand”. This was in an era when advertising agencies were viewed as the clever/creative thought leaders, marketing strategists were something shiny and new, and we designers were expected stay in the basement and draw what they are told to draw: Think of the Mad Men TV series or the way designers are unrealistically represented now on The Apprentice… you can picture the status dynamic.

The commercial objective was to transform their familiar household name into a “24hr a day food brand” from the (then) perception of “Uncle Ben’s = white rice”. A very sensible ambition as at the time family mealtimes were in decline, lunch breaks ‘al desko’ were on the rise, post 80’s ambition made people work longer, harder, faster to realise their dreams… a fast paced, junk food fuelled world.

The Product Development team had really delivered on their brief: They had come up with Rice Bowls (a healthy alternative to frozen pizzas that you could warm in the office microwave), microwavable rice pouches in a variety of flavours - healthier than the ready meals of the day and even Rispinos (thin, sweet and savoury, small rice cakes that were a great fat-free alternative to the Walker’s crisps grab bag or bag of sweets).

Answering the design brief was not difficult for me - remove the usual 90’s clutter from the packaging (irrelevant messages and imagery), play up the brand’s assets and a tweak to pack format - job done!

I’ve always been a bit disruptive and I wasn’t satisfied in these meetings. I was often clearly frustrated and dogged by questions like: “when the consumer re-evaluates, what thoughts do we want them to have brand, what relationship do we want with them?”. I still stand by my suggestion at the time which was that we make Ben a modern hero, championing better choices to our poor western diet choices.

I asked our talented visualiser (Malcolm and his magic markers) to illustrate Ben in a boxing ring with his blue gloves & orange shorts, having knocked out Ronald McDonald and Colonel Sanders, surrounded by empty pizza boxes and crisp & sweet packets as litter, victorious in his campaign against poor diet. This wasn’t intended as an advert, merely a strategic direction. When I presented this to the client I was met with eye rolls, a less than subtle way of being told to ‘get back in my lane’, by way of appeasement I was invited to the ad agency’s creative pitch.

The ad agency’s presentation centred on women with balloons, walking in an urban environment to highlight how “light” Rispinos were, I was thoroughly un-appeased. To the credit of my client the ad agency was promptly fired, but my strategic suggestions were not followed. I can’t remember how the brand manoeuvre was finally advertised, which is probably a testament to its potency.

When the 're-evaluation' packaging design hit the shelves sales plummeted. In my view, without the void being filled, people thought subconsciously: “my white rice has changed, why have we been buying rice from America?”. I think that the French were most vehement in their march toward competitor brands.

I often wonder to this day if Uncle Ben would’ve been removed as a reaction to the recent Black Lives Matter movement if we’d made him a cultural hero back in the 90’s. Who knows?

The whole experience probably contributed to me leaving the corporate juggernauts behind and choosing to be a pirate long before the term ‘challenger brand’ had been coined.

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