'Ello there, treacle. You're looking peachy today. Must be all that fruit 'n' veg you're eating! Fancy topping your quota up with a big bag of me, your best mate, spinach? We have such fun together, don't we?
When I first moved to England from the US, I couldn't understand why my food wanted to talk to me. It was so chatty. A sandwich invited me to, "enjoy it with crisps, why not?" My bottled water reminded me it was "best when chilled—as indeed we all are." My takeaway coffee cups flirted with me—"I'm hot," they said. My food was bossy, too, barking, "Keep me in the fridge!" in bold font. It was goofy—"you nutty Cola nut"—and in the case of items like my Lindt chocolate bar that said, "Take me, taste me, love me," food became the occasional complete and utter sex pest.
Pizza Hut texted me once.
At first I presumed it was just a few companies, part of that weird, twee side of London that hosts parties with tight rope walkers, pop up cupcake shops, and small batch gin drinks named after dead female poets. But soon I noticed it was everywhere—on television, radio, and in print, companies (the food kind in particular) wanted to chat with me so badly it was, frankly, embarrassing. Comforting older women, spirited gal pals, and unstoppably cheeky chappies wanted to know how my day was going, wondering if it might be better with a fun sarnie. Only good ingredients, mind! We don't mess about with preservatives.
Where did this, "I'm a cool mom, not like the other moms" vibe begin? How has it swollen so wildly out of proportion? The general consensus seems to be that "wackaging" started with Innocent, the Cambridge-based startup that first wrote their own, over-friendly copy for their smoothies in 1999. They used factoids and anecdotes to fill label space and people seemed to like it, so they got weirder and quippier until it really, truly, got out of control. As you have likely seen, the smoothies now sometimes wear tiny wooly hats, like tiny strawberry and banana people with cold heads.
Innocent appears to have—quite honestly—come by this chummy marketing technique and their full-time copywriter, Lucie Bright, thinks what appeals to consumers is their simplicity. "At Innocent, we try to keep things simple. We don't use long words where short words will do, but at the same time, assume that our readers are intelligent. We write the same way we speak to our friends and family. We're real people, and we've never pretended to be anything else," she said, brightly.
"Well, apart from that time we dressed Clare up in a banana suit."
Where do they get their ideas without the likes of Clare (who sounds like an absolute hoot)? "We listen to a lot of Neil Young, so largely from that." OK. What else? "The usual places—looking up, listening to people, thinking about things." Do they get great feedback from Innocent fans? "Yes, we hear great stuff from the people who drink our drinks—they can be a great source of ideas. We change our packaging all the time, too, so we can go with something a bit weird on our smoothie cartons, for example, because we know that we'll be changing them again in a few months."
"Wackaging comes off like the creepy guy in the office who wants to give you a massage and constantly reminds you that he's "a lot of fun."
However relaxed (and actually quite sweet) Innocent seem about their marketing techniques, the ripple effect of their chumminess has been enormous. In fact, copywriters now refer to the practice of writing cheeky, familiar copy as, "doing an Innocent." Innocent didn't ask for this, though. They were, it seems, simply trying something different, adopting a colloquial tone that stood out in a sea of otherwise staid product labeling. Cut to 2014, and they're now just one of the many overly enthusiastic kids on the playground begging you to share your snack with them at recess.
Steve Lodge, managing director of Oxygen Agency, says the UK in particular got into wackaging (the term was originally coined by this excellent Tumblr) after becoming disenfranchised with traditional, sneakier methods of advertising. "The UK has an intelligent audience that has been exposed to quality advertising for many years. People now see through ads; they know we're advertising to them. And over the years people have responded well to a more 'personal' approach to promotion that sound less third person and less like advertising." We move from food onto vacuum cleaners. "Take James Dyson, for example," he says. "We like to hear what he has to say about his own Hoovers… sorry, vacuum cleaners. The power of brands like Ella's Kitchen, too, along with Innocent shows that wackaging works when you want people to see the benefits of a product without feeling like there's something to hide."
Lodge also suggests that wackaging as a concept is only the beginning. Soon our food won't just be quippy, it will be—shudder—genuinely conversational. "The future will be interactive," he warns. "Soon you'll be able to ask your cornflakes why they're good for you before you buy them." Jesus. "Think about extensions of augmented reality," he says, "so you can scan packets and get the retailer's message. The key trend, though, is for a third party to assess a product—much like you get with Tripadvisor. The weight of consumer opinion and the power of social media will come to bear!"
This is, I think, the rub. Brands have been trying to "engage" with consumers via social media for years and it's pretty ineffective. While wackaging in its uniquely British form hasn't quite made it across the pond, North America is heavily steeped in the jarringly intimate world of corporate social media accounts, which trawl Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest etc., for any mention of their brand, jumping on it to provide assistance, feedback, or most often, completely banal replies.
Brands can't talk to consumers friend-to-friend simply because they're not one. Attempts to do come off like a fun uncle at best and deeply condescending at worst. Tyrrell crisps' vintage-y black and white photography, for instance, imply a sort of scrapbooked, home-cooked history for the multi-million pound corporation. Does their CEO really think their salt and vinegar crisps are "perfect with a pork pie hat at a rakish angle?" Does he wear one himself? Pret A Manger turns over £380 million a year from their 265 branches across the globe and are owned by McDonald's, but insist on espousing the tone of voice of a corner fish 'n' chips fryer.
The problem with wackaging and the "we're all friends here"-style Twitter presences that are out there is that it is exactly what copywriters and companies have been told to do: Start a conversation, engage consumers on a one-to-one level, talk like a person, not a brand. A contemporary loss of interest in (and, I think, respect for) 'business', coupled with an increased focus on and admiration of the individual, seems to have left large companies at a loss. How to engage with a demographic that privileges their own experiences and impressions over what they're told by a brand?
A return to the quieter, more formal labels of yore is unlikely. Rather, brands and companies might make themselves less grating by simply acknowledging the truth of their interactions with us: They are trying to sell something. It would be much more refreshing to me to drink a quiet water ("best enjoyed still"?), one whose bottle was aware that not everyone picking it up was an enthusiastic fan ready for a little chat.
Sometimes, the consumer is just thirsty. Communicating with a friend is different than communicating with a customer. Instead of seeming fun and authentic, wackaging comes off like the creepy guy in the office who wants to give you a massage and constantly reminds you that he's "a lot of fun."
No one likes that guy.