Iconic Food Packaging: How Can We Know the Package from the Product?

Iconic Food Packaging: How Can We Know the Package from the Product?

Sometimes a product comes along and strikes so deeply within us that it transcends the “good for now” and embeds itself as a tradition. Of all the iconic American “things” we’ve come to know and love, I think nothing pulls at our nostalgic heart-and-soul strings the way food does. But it’s not just the product: it’s the brand, the package, the whole experience.

In an ever-evolving consumer landscape, here are four simple seriously iconic packaged foods that have stood the test of time and continue to succeed as symbols of quality, reliability, and all things all-American:

The Quaker Oats “Can”

The original Quaker Oats Container, as illustrated on quakeroats.com

Ok, it’s not technically a can. It’s a “round box” – or, as I’d see it, a precision-cut section of a large paper tube – but I’m sure you knew *exactly* what I meant when I said it in the first place! That “man in Quaker garb” has been a registered trademark since 1877 when original owners Henry Seymour and William Heston chose the Quaker Man as a symbol of “good quality and honest value.” Not only did the then-called Quaker Mill give us the first Trademark ever registered on a breakfast cereal, it also gave us the first cereal magazine ads, the first trial size samples, and some of the first cereal boxes even before the “round box” debuted in 1915.Being the first brand of oats to be offered in a package smaller than a 180-lb barrel, you might say Quaker Oats were also the first CPG packaged with convenience in mind. Over the years, the “round box” design has become so popular that competing and private labels have used the design as well – though none feature the smiling Quaker we’ve all come to know and trust.

Campbell’s Soup Cans


A 1931 Campbell’s ad features the reknowned label and such time-honored classic flavors as Clam Chowder, Tomato, and … Ox Tail? 🙂

Campbell’s Condensed Soups are similar to Quaker Oats in that the label is as important to the provenance of the package as the container itself.

The “soup mom used to make” had made its place in our hearts long before its reincarnation as a pop-culture phenomenon (Thank you, Mr Warhol). It was The Campbell’s Company’s own John Dorrance who invented a way to condense soup, cutting the cost of a can in half and paving an affordable way to nutritious heat-and-serve meals for everyone.

In 1898, Campbell’s introduced the red white and gold label. The color scheme itself had been inspired by the Cornell football team’s new uniforms, and the gold seal was added after the company received the Gold Medallion for Excellence at the 1900 Paris Exposition.

That trademark design would remain largely unchanged for 110 years. In the past couple years, Campbell’s has introduced some labeling changes to some of the condensed soups, but the classics – like tomato and chicken noodle – still retain that same look we all know by rote.

The Heinz Ketchup Glass Bottle

Responding to consumer demand, Heinz announced a limited retail run of glass bottled ketchup for the Spring/Summer 2011

They say it’s one of the most widely recognized packages on the planet. That, if you strip the bottle of its label, top, and contents, people will still know what it is.

Introduced in 1887 , this octagonal glass gem of high-visibility packaging was designed to showcase the quality product contained within. 130 years later, we still relate to and recognize the “glass bottle ketchup” as well as the world did long before modern comforts like bioplastics and squeezable packaging ever existed.

In fact, Heinz recently announced a limited time retail offering of Glass Bottle Heinz Ketchup for the Summer of 2011. According to Heinz Brands’ VP Noel Geoffroy, the offering is a direct response to “consumers [who] still associate Heinz Ketchup with our iconic glass bottle and routinely ask where they can find them” – for the past decade the glass bottle has been reserved for restaurant purchasers only.

Of course, I still wonder when in the past century we figured out the secret to the perfect pour by holding the bottle at a 45-degree angle and thumping the “57” with the ball of your hand.

The Coca-Cola Contour Bottle

Earl Dean’s 1915 sketch of Coke’s original “hobbleskirt” contour bottle.

People know Heinz Ketchup bottles even without their labels, and they know Coca-Cola bottles in the dark. All-American and, arguably, the most famous piece of packaging ever conceived, Coca-Cola’s “hobbleskirt bottle” was patented in November of 1915 and released to the public the following year. It was designed to set Coke apart from other “more generic looking” soda bottles. It was so successful as a branding tool that it was granted trademark status in 1960. Indeed, it is one of the few package designs to ever have been awarded a trademark.

The original glass contour bottle has survived the advent of cans in the 50s, plastic bottles in the 70s, and PlantBottles today – earning its place amid its more modern cousins as a nostalgic staple of true Americana. As much as packaging evolves to changing tastes, environmental concerns, and ever-advancing technology – it seems that there’s nothing quite like a Coke from that iconic contour bottle (which, by the way, is as recyclable as ever!)

It seems no matter how far we get with technological advancements, leaner thinking, and greener processes, we can’t help but find ourselves stuck to a handful of iconic products that, no matter what, we wouldn’t change for a thing. Omnipresent packages that are as American and necessary to us as baseball and apple pie (or Twitter and craft beer, if you please). Products so synonymous with their own packaging it is, indeed “the whole package” that soothe the body, the soul, and invite us to wax nostalgic in one flood of smiling reverie.

Here’s to another hundred plus years of quality manufacturing, standing behind your brand, and finding your place in America’s collective heart.

I wonder what products we’ll find on our list in another hundred years…