maternal marmite bottle

Hidden In Plain View: Physique

First published in a slightly modified form ‘Physique’ in Business Standard, 17 November, in Deep Design, a fortnightly column by Itu Chaudhuri.

Brands place a premium on attention, firing images and words shaped into messages to inform and persuade. Indeed, we live amidst a war for our attention, an exquisitely perishable wisp that lives in the now.

But like breath, attention is a quick burning fuel that enables the flow of communication but does not add to its stock: exhale, and nothing is stored. While thieving attention can change behaviour temporarily—quick, here!—more sustainable is a stock of deep meaning. It’s a layered, mysterious lode which reduces our need to chase ever smaller amounts of attention with ever greater resources.

The focus on what brands “wear, say and do”, a popular heuristic, leaves out what the brand or product “is”, an objective, unalterable, and irreducible factual residue that outlasts the messages put out by attention-capturing armies. Provenance, for example, can be overriding: Made in Germany is ‘German’ and therefore a high-spec engineering product.

The focus on what brands “wear, say and do”, a popular heuristic, leaves out what the brand or product “is”

Deep Design’s interest is in the visual atom of this “is”, not least because it falls on designers to shape. I call it Physique: the mental imprint of a thing’s physical image, as a sensory perception (and sight trumps the other senses). The impact of physique is automatic. It precedes, escapes and even governs conscious thought. We sense it before we ‘read’ the thing, treating it as the most reliable indicator of its attributes, whether on a shelf or on a street.

The impact of physique is automatic. It precedes, escapes and even governs conscious thought. We sense it before we ‘read’ the thing

An example is race, which if experiments are believed, still shows up as racism in modern-day US: respondents consistently took a fraction of a second longer to tag faces, choosing between opposites (e.g. dangerous or harmless) when they were African American.

Physique creates stored meaning, or what we call an image, that can be exploited later. I’d wager a new Rs 2000 note that some of demonetisation’s approval ratings are because it targets cash, which is the physique of black money.

The Automobile Story

Physique isn’t simply an image stored like a photograph. It’s the attributes that it implies that stick, and can cast a long shadow on the brand. I’d speculate that Mahindra, whose roots are in steel, succeeded with jeeps and tractors, which register as industrial, rectangular, tough and boxy. SUVs, in physique terms are gentrified jeeps, and found acceptance, but in passenger cars and two wheelers, expect a long haul. Maruti’s iconic small car is burned deeply into memory; did it make the brand’s journey to larger models that much harder? The sales of Swift Dzire, a very compact sedan, overtook its little Alto to become a top seller only in 2014.

Physique need not be only visual: sound and smell can be exploited. Iodex (of old) and Dettol are two great brands whose signature smells signal their potency. Dettol retained a not identical, but clinical smell, and successfully extended into bathing soap. Iodex has sacrificed its smell (was it iodine, we wondered?), its dark, stain-prone unguent and thus its mystique; it has lost itself in a sea of similarity.

Louis Cheskin, Sensation Transference

In the 1940s, the pioneering researcher Louis Cheskin famously demonstrated in an experiment that housewives liked a meal cooked with margarine (then considered to not taste like butter), but coloured yellow, as much as one cooked in butter. Cheskin called this phenomenon ‘sensation transference’. An early proponent of the unconscious influence of form and colour, Cheskin’s elaborate empirical methods had wide success, from packaging to cars (such as predicting the failure of Ford’s Edsel on the basis of design alone).

Personal and Commercial Packaging

Naked form trumps clothes, but clothes can matter. Gandhi and Castro are two popular leaders whose clothes became part of their physique, and defined them: one pacifist, one militaristic. It helped build an aura that proved hard for detractors to attack, and seems to have given supporters the faith to ignore disconfirming evidence.

physique: gandhi-castor
(L-R) Fidel Castro, Mahatma Gandhi

The commercial form of clothes, of course, packaging. Packaging research is starting to accept that the structural shape is as important as colour (the default no 1 in packaging). Consumers rely on it to perceive hard-to-spot product attributes, more than graphics. But the influence of physique on packaging should not be understood as simple differentiation or attractiveness. This is not to discount the effect of physique on those two parameters: surely the success of Toblerone chocolate owes much to its unique physique, especially for children.

physique: marmite-toblerone
(L-R) Marmite bottle, Toblerone chocolates

Similarly, elongated packs look bigger than their more squat equivalents even when they pack the same volume of product, and consumers tend to prefer the taller ones even after they know that they aren’t getting more for their money. Natural cork stoppers on wine bottles ‘improve’ the wine, as does the correct glassware for reasons real and imaginary. Yet that’s not the true, subterranean power of physique.

Eventually, physique in packaging unlocks the clue to personality, that near-human relationship consumers can sense in the brands they love. Marmite’s round bottle tells a maternal tale more effectively than an advertisement. Its physique slips into your mind, unnoticed, to do its work.

physique in packaging unlocks the clue to personality, that near-human relationship consumers can sense in the brands they love.

The role of a brand’s ‘wear’ is to reinforce unalterable, favourable prior facts such as provenance and founding inspiration (which may have its own physique). Deep Design has discussed in an earlier column the success of Patanjali’s product line, underpinned by Baba Ramdev, who brings a unalterable, unfakeable physique to bear on his personal brand. Several consumers I talked to saw Patanjali’s gauche packaging as signalling an economical price. Others saw in it a lack of artifice, “not being an MNC” and by inference, a sort of authenticity.

physique: ramdev-patanjali
(L-R) Baba Ramdev, Patanjali product

Physique matters. Paradoxically, the more we take it for granted, or somehow look past it, the more insidious its power.

Physique matters. Paradoxically, the more we take it for granted, or somehow look past it, the more insidious its power. When we think we see it, we may talk about its attractiveness or lack thereof, rather than its primacy and the power of its imprint. We need to look deep.

2 Comments

  • Prof satyanarayan Mohapatra

    December 22, 2016

    I have been following your articles in Business Standard religiously. Had heard about you from Mr. Anup Gupta and Jyoti Thapa when I was working as an intern in Economic Times and Business Standard.

    The current article on Physique will definitely help me while teaching conceptual object and shape to mass communication students. Here I would appreciate if you can help me for some reference on Newspaper designing (for vernacular language).

    Reply
  • Mihir

    December 28, 2016

    Very well captured. I always, subliminally, suspected this but could not quite capture it the way you have.
    Will wait for the next article!

    Reply

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