02 July 2010

...hands that do dishes

Washing up the dishes the other day, I was pondering the Fairy Liquid bottle in front of me on the windowsill. It's one of those limited edition affairs, with retro packaging to celebrate the brand's 50th anniversary, reverting to the original design a lot of British households, detergent fans and bubble enthusiasts will be familiar with: White and cylindrical with flexo-printed dark green graphics. Vintage. A design classic.  Up there, I'd say, with Marmite, Colman's Mustard, Lyle's Golden Syrup and Tunnock's Caramel Wafers. That's the reason I bought it, really. It's just so NICE. So very nice, in fact, it let me in on a few truths about the power of marketing over function and vice-versa.

The design of this promotional pack has been rewound several decades (somewhere between way-back-when and yesteryear). It looks all very true to the period and yet there are some modern elements they've left in; two opposing indentations for grip, and the de rigueur non-drip cap. It's a sensible decision by the manufacturer to keep these attributes, as they don't detract from the overall authentic appearance and would, more importantly, be a detrimental omission for the consumer who has come to appreciate and expect these useful features. But in the process, look at what it tells us. The bottle is pared down to its most basic, usable form: Liquid to wash dishes; bottle to hold liquid; grip to hold bottle; cap to contain liquid. And that's it. That's all you need. After all these years and advances in production, all we've gained is a smart cap, a couple of dents and some nostalgia. So why is the modern bottle so different to its great grandfather?

Looking at both modern and classic bottles, comparatively they couldn't be more different. Firstly, the modern bottle is colourful and (armchair psychologists unite), we can all agree how humans warmly - or coldly - respond to hues and shades we come into contact with. A powerful device which drives sales (think Blueberry iMac). Secondly, the shape of the modern bottle is flat, wide and at first glance appears ergonomic, to help us hold the thing, making it easier to handle. And yet from a user's perspective, the classic bottle, with it's grippy-dents, proves otherwise. We have just been sold into the modern bottle.

Of course, there is also an evolution of a product to consider - the different 'flavours' (scents, anti-bacterial properties, hypoallergenic and mild formulations etc.), subtle shape changes of the packaging as each relaunch demands a little 'refresh', and advances in labelling technology which allows superior quality printing on more unusual substrates (such as plastics). But I'd say the shape has a lot more to do with making the product as physically wide as possible to aid brand visibility at point of sale and to stick the pretty label on. At a pinch, you may get more into a container for transit and storage, in turn lowering unit costs, but ultimately it's the marketing which sells the item, and a 'vanilla' white opaque bottle, just wouldn't sell in a modern market. Which brings us full circle. Because what would normally be a hindrance in shifting washing up liquid - a bottle that doesn't look the part or invoke feelings of confidence in what's inside - has instead become its USP and invokes feelings of warmth for a product which we're being reminded in this marketing push, is a brand leader we have trusted for for 50 years. Even the iconic baby on the bottle is flipped around, semiotically telling us a precious infant is happy to take that step backwards, so goodness gracious, why aren't YOU already? So hooray! Let's celebrate!

And that's exactly what I did in buying this retro Fairy Liquid. Now I'm making crazy bubbles, the bottle isn't slipping from my grip, and the last drip isn't running down the side. That's some usability testing right there, and the results are in. Boo to the modern bottle.