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Superficial official

Packaging speaks volumes about a brand, but why is pharma increasingly eager to borrow communication codes from FMCG? Semiotics explains the science behind the art...

They say 'don't judge a book by its cover', but we do it anyway; we can't help it. Whether or not we know it's happening, weighing up and trying to categorise and understand whatever, or whoever, you're presented with is as natural and instinctive as any other human trait.

Yet, have you never been surprised by the fine intelligence, or sharp wit, of the sloth-like, scruffy oik in the office next door? What is it about Nigel Kennedy, virtuoso violinist, that says `creative and brilliant', in preference to 'uninterested and unkempt'?

It can be understood by explaining the codes of communication in the packaging, or semiotics; a visual element in branding which can help to create an impression furtively in the buyer's mind.

Semiotics investigates 'what things mean' but also, more crucially, how they achieve that meaning. It provides a way to uncover a brand's codes of communication, its competitors, its product sector and the culture surrounding it - offering new insights and ideas for a brand's future.

Semiotics can identify not only what consumers believe your product means but, more importantly, why it means what it does, by breaking down the codes of perception in a way that allows companies to be completely in control of the messaging process, whether that means your product, packaging or the advertising that surrounds it.

Market research agencies often struggle to visualise the outcome of semiotic research, when semiotics is an integral part of the research and design process; it always results in valuable insights and actionable recommendations. Semiotics can provide a springboard towards a unique way of thinking about, and developing, brands through marcomms, experience and design.

Prescription medicines
Pharmaceutical codes exist essentially to communicate authority, trust and science. These are professional, conservative and purposeful codes of `entitlement' which say 'you can trust us because we are displaying our authority and heritage in science in this area'.

Hence, pharmaceutical/medical packaging codes are some of the most stable in the marketplace, and have been for a long time. In fact, they are so recognisable that they were mimicked by artist Damien Hirst, in his series of silkscreen prints (The Last Supper, 1999).

These renditions appear to be the real thing at first glance, but look again and we see that they're ads for food, not prescription medicines. We're so used to seeing medicines packaged in this way that it's tempting and easy to treat them as such.

By substituting ideas like 'omelette' and 'meatballs' where we would normally expect to see a brand name or product description, Hirst cleverly forces us to pay attention to what's wrong with this picture. Even the curvy font on 'omelette' allows us to decode this clearly as a feminine product. How do we know that this isn't food packaging? What's going on here that says 'medicine' and not 'food', and which then leads to further questions about how we read medicine packaging and navigate our way around it?

Looking at real pharmaceutical packaging, what do we notice about the majority of it?

  • Large amounts of white space - connoting science

  • Large blocks of colour

  • Conservative colours presented generally in binary opposition to each other - blue/white, black/white, red/white, green/white (normally not more than two dominant colours)

  • Limited colour palettes

  • Quantification rhetoric - numbers and quantification connoting science

  • Specific iconography - symbols linked to each use, often graphics (eg, heartbeat)

  • Straight lines on, or suggested by, the packaging, or sometimes diagonals or curved graphic pictures.

This is nothing new - pick up almost any prescription medicine packaging and you will see the same themes. The consumer or patient identifies it immediately as proper prescription packaging; it's knowable, familiar and it says you can trust it.


borrowing pharma's codes
Stability in the communication of trust is especially evident in the pharma sphere and, as such, these codes can be borrowed, swapped, weighted and manipulated to engender desired impressions in other sectors.

It is interesting to note that pharma codes have been 'borrowed' and leveraged in this way, notably in FMCG where pre-packaged, 'health-conscious' foods have used pharma-style codes to add the rhetoric of science to their own arsenal; using them to gain credibility with the consumer.

We can see the use of large amounts of white space, straight lines, limited colour palettes, the use of medicinal green and specific icons - triangles or lozenges - to communicate `science' information (ie, `Less than 3% Fat'). The only general difference between FMCG and medicine is the inclusion on the FMCG product of a contents shot, to make the meal appeal to the consumer. The equivalent product shots on pharma packaging are rare, as medicinal contents are nearly always hidden.

Within FMCG, the point is not to suggest a wholesale adoption of pharmaceutical codes but to illustrate that elements of pharma codes can be - and are - borrowed to give the consumer an impression of a scientific approach to their dietary requirements.

trust science
Let's look more closely at how these codes work together to form a discourse of science and trust.

Brands and products generally deploy several different codes within one text or 'set of product meanings' (eg, product colour, product connotations, product forms). So the FMCG example above combines normative FMCG food connotations with elements of pharma codes.

Generally, the range of codes on a piece of packaging have to `fight it out', with one discourse remaining successfully dominant, and other themes taking on a `supporting' role, or providing other informational nuances.

Hence, while the 'count on us' packaging is easily identifiable as food owing to the product shot, the brand name reassures us that we can trust it. Using the word 'count' acts with a double meaning: `count on' (as in rely on), and 'count' (calorie counting, as a quantitative 'supporting' aid to the scientific message).

White space and specific quantification devices ('Less than 3% Fat' and '285 calories') add to the scientific message and assure the consumer that the product is measured, empirical and indeed good for them.


Trust today

So, we have identified clearly what pharma codes are and that we, as consumers, feel we can trust these codes and, thus, the products.

However, we must not ignore one of the biggest problems in the pharma industry today: trust.

Trust just isn't what it was. The days when we implicitly trusted our doctor, bank manager or local priest have passed. Class actions regarding drug effects, the ability to research medical issues on the web and awareness of the fallibility of the medical profession have all fuelled a mistrust, creating a culture shift where better informed consumers 'choose' services in a way more akin to the retail environment than ever before.

Despite consumers' modern, slightly jaundiced, view of pharma companies, the ways in which corporations attempt to communicate trust has remained stable, which consumers recognise as part of a rhetoric of science - something clinical and empirically reassuring. However, there are instances of the codes pulling in the other direction.

borrowing fmcg's codes
Companies are starting to search for other ways to convince consumers of their products' merits. Some over-the-counter (OTC) packaging illustrates this point, but OTC lives in that nefarious space between prescription and personal consumer choice.

Pictured on the right, we have a harder science example: packaging normally only seen in hospitals. If it is being done here, it is only a matter of time before the 'emergent' trend crops up elsewhere.

Despite medical codes being inherently stable, it has been noted recently that brands with large amounts of brand equity can, and do, bend these codes and borrow from other areas.

One example of this is Blue Sensor (Ambu) electrode packaging. Ambu clearly borrowed from FMCG codes for its Blue Sensor packaging (blue, gold and shiny, connoting luxury and premium) and was even confident enough to put the information that would normally reside on the front of the packaging on the back - much more FMCG than medical.

How does it create a confident brand message in the medical arena which does not rely upon pharmaceutical codes? Equally importantly, why did it move away from pharma-style codes? Even in the proliferated pharma sphere, the issues and problems of marcomms are much the same as within FMCG: how to provide brand differentiation.

Blue Sensor has changed the landscape of the category sector: gone are the white space and straight lines - shiny gold is hardly a sensible and conservative colour for medical packaging. Where is the specific iconography?

Worth noting is that Blue Sensor is the leading brand in its category and is well recognised as a quality premium product in this marketplace. It has created, what is known semiotically as, an 'emergent discourse' in its sector, while still sitting at the top of the category (the premium area). This suggests that brands with sufficient credibility can also move into this area, but brands occupying space at the lower end of this market would find it difficult to pull this off - not being premium, or as recognisable, means that they will lack the credibility to do so, and hence remain firmly in the `me too' area of generic pharma packaging.

Over time, successful emergent discourses become incorporated into the `normal' code landscape until another emergent code is created and the category shifts again. However, the need to connote trust and science is so strong in medical categories that this is unusual and bold.

Another significant observation about Ambu's packaging is that although it borrows from FMCG, gold is now mostly considered to be a 'lapsed' code for luxury in the FMCG space. Notably, Ambu also uses a shiny pack which is even more FMCG and adds to the `friendliness' of the product, saying `we're your friends, you can trust us'.

As gold has been over used in FMCG, products increasingly now use brushed tones of platinum and silver, or natural materials to connote luxury - so Ambu's choice to represent luxury in a more traditional way is also doing something familiar as far as the consumer is concerned, thereby not pushing the FMCG codes too far. This, rather cleverly, leaves space at the top of the market for it to use the more modern FMCG codes for luxury.

It can be seen that, in semiotics, the world is an ever shifting arena of codes vying for attention in certain contexts. Codes which are overused become lapsed and risk pushing the product back into `me too' areas. It is either very smart for Ambu to have left itself space, or it could prove to be an error, as others may also adopt these codes.

Swap shop
There is already a great deal of code swapping going on - not only the likes of FMCG leaning on pharmaceutical codes. As differentiation becomes evermore important in a cluttered marketplace, pharma will borrow more from FMCG to add friendly knowability into the mix and take the edge off the sometimes impersonal nature of its own codes.

In a world where our bonds of trust have been materially damaged, it is increasingly important for the pharma industry to consider alternative ways of framing trust such that it resonates with the consumer, whether that is the patient or the prescriber.

Understanding these codes allows brand communications to be unpicked and successfully leveraged to manage the perceptions of consumers.

The author
Diane Fox-Hill is a semiotician for PDD, a product innovation and design consultancy (

2nd September 2008


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