The packaging conundrum of Dr Bronner’s
By Dr. R. Andrew Hurley
I’ve discovered this fantastic soap. Well, “discovered” is the wrong word, since it’s been around for more than 70 years. But we’ve started using it in my household for basically everything—in the bathroom, the kitchen, the laundry room, and even for washing the dog… My whole house smells like a stick of peppermint gum and I love it. But how did I make this groundbreaking switch? Was it word-of-mouth persuasion? Or an amazing advertising campaign? No. It was thanks to the weirdest, least attractive, and most disruptive label on the retail shelf today.
The entire story of the history of Dr Bronner’s soap (and the good doctor himself) is fascinating, but for now we’ll stick to the label. In the 1940’s, Dr Bronner was touring the U.S., lecturing on what he called the “moral ABCs” and selling bars of his family recipe of all-natural soap to attendees. He soon discovered that people were showing up for the sudsy swag–and not staying for the morality message. So, he decided to print his message of peace and unity on his soap packaging; a 3,000-word new-age soapbox on every bottle. Again, that’s THREE THOUSAND words on EVERY bottle.
In the world of packaging and design, there seem to be hundreds of “rules” and “theories” and those regarding typography are especially concerning for new designers. Every semester I field questions from my students about the best font, type size, line length, characters per line, etc. I too questioned these things and long ago, my first graduate student, Joanna Fischer, and I, took a full year to study one of the million theories on typography and turn it into a rule–determining the ideal mathematical proportions around type. Abstract below:
With our work in mind, these magical soap packages have been defying logic and the “rules” of typography since Day One. Is it simple and legible? Absolutely not. Although the messaging has been refined (read: shortened) over the last several iterations, opening up a little more negative space in the type, it’s really negligible. You’ll still need a magnifying glass to read the entire Dr Bronner’s philosophy, but the newest label has switched back to a serif font to help out a bit. In researching this article, I learned that they redesigned their logo a few years back, and my immediate thought was, “There’s a LOGO??”
By flouting the rules of weight, type placement and ratio of type to blank space on the package, Dr. Bronner’s designers have pulled off a feat of typographic craftsmanship that harkens back to classic apothecary labels. Cramming 3,000 words into such a tight space, they’ve created, essentially, a “graphic” of type. No one reads the full copy while they are out shopping, unless they’re bored or unusually curious and have some time on their hands. Yet, the products are instantly recognizable. If you’ve bought any of the products before, you know how to find every product they make: dark blue is peppermint, lavender is, of course, lavender, and orange is tea tree. For every product in the entire line.
As you navigate your own paths in branding, packaging, and product identity, consider the research done at Clemson and take it as a real study on our human perception of aesthetic, proportion, and communication on packaging. The study was real, we had a sound process and very clear results; our learnings were also absolutely real, and if you work through the annex of the paper to review our example packages, my bet is you’ll agree 10/12ths is your preferred ratio for each and every package presented. But always consider the reality outside of rules, like Dr. Bronner’s–the space where innovation in style, approach, and content will create its own standard, and perhaps even a new standard in design rules. Make no mistake, this takes full commitment and perseverance to execute, but it’s absolutely possible. And Dr. Bronner’s is example Number 1 with 70 years of success on shelf!
About the author:
Dr. R. Andrew Hurley is an Assistant Professor of Packaging Science at Clemson University, where he directs the design, prototyping, and consumer experience test lab, CUshop™. In 2014, Dr. Hurley co-founded Package InSight, a full-service eye-tracking, packaging design and consumer experience company in Greenville, SC. He is also a co-founder of The Packaging School, offering the 12-course Certificate of Packaging, a state-of-the-art online curriculum teaching packaging essentials to working professionals.