Tuesday, February 08, 2005

The world through a tube of toothpaste

Design critic Sara Barrett considers market segmentation on the shelves of her local pharmacy.

There were Colgates and Crests in the conventional horizontal tube, the newer upright tube, the pump dispensers, and the sporty asymmetrical squeezable bottles. Cartons glittered with hologram-like swirls; boxes boasted scratch-and-sniff labels. One toothpaste, Colgate’s Fresh Confidence, had a label seemingly inspired by the legendary Russian Constructivist Alexander Rodchenko, with type angling out of a disembodied mouth.

She's reminded of John Naisbitt, author of Megatrends (first published in 1982):

The most resonant “megatrend” for me was the “the vinegar aisle.” In a chapter about the transition from an “either/or” society to one with “multiple options,” Naisbitt remarked on the burgeoning varieties of mustard, coffee, and yogurt. He predicted an explosion in tofu sales (bingo!), and in the passage I remember best—perhaps because at the time I regarded it with the most contempt—he wrote, “There is now tarragon vinegar, along with raspberry white-wine vinegar, blueberry vinegar, peppercorn red-wine vinegar, Oriental rice vinegar, and strawberry, black currant and cherry vinegar, among others.”

Right on on the vinegar. But he was assuming, Barrett points out, multiple manufacturers. The toothpaste aisle tells a different story.

What has actually happened in recent years is that the two leading brands have retooled their packaging to better dominate the store shelves; smaller manufacturers are squeezed out as the market leaders introduce more flavors, colors, and eye-catching graphics. Colgate packages are redder; Crest packages are bluer. In between is a modest patch of mint green, belonging to Aquafresh. But despite the appearance of kaleidoscopic variety, we are actually a red toothpaste/blue toothpaste nation with, yes, a red toothpaste incumbent.

What explains this "addiction to novelty" that the shrinking universe of product manufacturers seems to be responding to, and where will it lead? Here Barrett shifts from Naisbitt's "Fruitopia" to Alvin Toffler's dystopic predictions: "'When diversity . . . converges with transience and novelty, we rocket the society toward an historical crisis of adaptation,' he wrote back in 1970. 'We create an environment so ephemeral, unfamiliar, and complex as to threaten millions with adaptive breakdown.'" But if in the end we only have a handful of brand names, maybe we'll all feel OK.

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