I love old tin art. I’ve concluded lately that the older a tin is, the more likely I am to like its art. Maybe it’s some nostalgic yearning for better times, or maybe it’s that I appreciate that pipe tobacco manufacturers and blenders of old took obvious pride in how their blends were packaged and presented. It shows up in those grand old tins and logos.
Why is it, as time passes, that tin art worsens and worsens? Take for example the minimalistically elegant tin designs of Marcovitch? To me, the cutter top was a better tin design than its later coin-twist version. Still, we wouldn’t see this kind of brand consistency across decades now, let alone the maintenance of production values.
For those who would reflexively tell me how expensive packaging is and how it is a waste, I would love to have that debate. The cost of packaging in the good old days was cosiderably higher proportionately than it is now. Nope. I don’t agree.
If I were in the tobacco business I hope I would do better than most of the pipe tobacco packaging we see nowadays. Most of it is worse than bad; it is appalling. Conceptual strength, messaging, and graphic design is lacking, and production is even worse. What’s especially weird is that often the better the tobacco blend is, the worse its packaging is. I just don’t get it. When was the last time you said to yourself, “I just can’t throw this current production tin away; it is just too cool. This isn’t just a tin. It’s tobacciana.” For me, the answer would be, “Uhhhh, a couple of times.”
There are some notable exceptions. Mike Butera’s Pelican and Kingfisher tins are gorgeous. Greg Pease’s Maltese Falcon and Key Largo tins were tasty (disclaimer: I was involved in those.). Some of McClelland’s tins are classy or interesting (the Frog Morton series and the Christmas Cheer and VA 22 & 25 labels), but there are many more that are not.
The pipe men I know like to think of themselves as classier and more erudite than the average cigar smoker, or at least in the same league. Have you checked out cigar packaging lately? It rocks. Design quality and production values on most cigars puts pipe tobacco packaging to shame. Honestly, I’m not sure shame is a strong enough word.
Have you seen an Opus X cigar band? There are people out there who make their living designing only cigar bands. In production, the average premium cigar band is lithography or letter-press printed, die-cut, foil-stamped, and coated. The average pipe tobacco packaging is digitally printed, barely better than color-copied. In the old days, they actually printed on the tins. Those tins that were great – like some of Dunhill’s older, large tins – were eye-popping good. Now…not so great. Good tin packaging is still out there, so we know it can be done. Peterson’s tinned tobaccos are an example of maintaining production standards, even if the art itself is stodgy and boring.
Has it occurred to anybody out there marketing in the pipe tobacco world that the cigar boom just might - maybe - result from very savvy marketing and campaigning on the part of the producers? That the Fuentes and Padrons of the cigar world are very smart merchandisers in addition to damn fine cigar producers?
While some might observe that the cigar business has a very long tradition of producing extraordinary art in packaging, so does the pipe world. The difference is that the pipe world has abandoned that tradition for the most part where the cigar world has built upon their own.
Packaging is incredibly important in the consumer product world. The marketplace has demonstrated that it rewards good packaging with increased market share and a superior bottom line. The fact is that there is a real opportunity for those who up their game to enjoy superior results. The savings that some firm might derive from minimal packaging design and production is far less than the reward that the same firm might realize from stronger product presentation.
Consumers have long opined that “I don’t buy products for the packaging. Just give me a good product.” This is one of those cases, however, where a history of case studies conclusively demonstrates that what consumers say about their behavior and how they actually behave are very different, indeed.
We all respond to better looking products and packaging. People are attracted to what’s pleasing. That is as true for pipe tobacco as it is for any other consumer product category.
Ironically, the anti-tobacco movement is very hip to the power of advertising and packaging. That’s why they are systematically trying to limit, if not gut, these efforts. If they’re not banning advertising, they’re trying to systematically mar packaging with abhorrently grotesque labels that depict the results of various cancers.
With the draconian health-warning labels required in so many countries today – especially in Europe – producers must say “Why bother?” to themselves. If I were forced to append some “Smoking Kills” label complete with the most gruesome cancer image available, I would probably feel the same way.
I suppose we can expect potato chip, cookie, soft drink, pizza and hamburger packaging to feature pictures of grotesquely obese pictures soon. Take-out pizza joints are really going to suffer. A large pie box makes for lots of real estate upon which one can depict acres of flab and cellulite. There is the off chance, however, that the average person might start objecting when their fatty-food-of-choice packaging is hijacked for some ill-conceived, do-gooder public health messaging that has all the influencing power of a short burst of flatulence in a hurricane.
I know that this post seems uncharacteristically negative; it is thus. I care about our blend producers, their viability, and their future prospects. So, while I might be taking them to task over getting lazy and cheap with their packaging solutions, it’s only because I think the product deserves better.
So do we.