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Deceptive Branding

Branding involves the art of making something as attractive as possible, and packaging is key. But it can quickly stray into a Twilight Zone where lure meets deception. Lately, the FDA has felt the need to step in over disingenuous packaging that is plain dangerous.

Disguise can be devilishly subtle, such as retailers’ habit of either repackaging household-name brands as their own, like Trader Joe’s, or offering phantom brands to give the illusion of choice. Other brands insinuate they are from a different source. Research shows consumers are misidentifying the country of brand origin nearly half the time for local brands, and as high as 88% for overseas brands. Of course, design and branding needs to flex for different cultures and tastes. In South Africa, red is the color of mourning, but in China it symbolizes good fortune.

Sometimes, brand disguise is purely playful, like this humidifier that looks like a coffee mug. But other times, the motives are darker, for example when slapping a new name and logo on a company is an attempt to move on from and even evade a painful past (we’re talking about you, Cambridge Analytica and Blackwater).

Some claimed Alcopops were really designed to appeal to underage, illegal drinkers. Recent accusations of irresponsible packaging include the Tide Pod “Challenge”, which raised the question: Why make laundry detergent look like candy? Or package tobacco like breath mints, or nicotine gel as candy? Or sell knives that look like beauty products?

Disguise is a tricky thing, and backfires when consumers feel they’ve been subjected to a bait’n’switch move. Still, look at the enduring élan Häagen-Dazs has managed to achieve with a Danish-sounding name for its Bronx-based product.

As the famous saying goes: “Oh what a tangled web we weave/When first we practice to deceive.” And there’s a great example of one brand getting muddled with another unintentionally. Although commonly attributed to Shakespeare, the line actually belongs to Sir Walter Scott, from his 1808 poem Marmion.


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