Look Before You Leap

Shock Value

As a rule, I prefer substance over style. I have to admit, however, that a little showmanship or packaging pizzazz can go a long way. It seems that almost anything goes these days, in fact, as long as it jolts people out of their complacency.

For more than a dozen years, I've been drawn to an exhibitor at specialty food trade shows who calls himself Uncle Dave. He dresses in Farmer John denim overalls, flannel shirts and a bright red woodsman's cap. You wouldn't give Uncle Dave a second thought if you saw him gabbing away in a general store in Vermont, which is where he hails from. But at trade shows, where vendors are usually dressed conservatively, he stands out like a maple tree in all its blazing autumnal splendor. You can't miss him if you look down the aisle.

As unusual as his appearance is, though, Uncle Dave is down-to-earth, friendly, and usually engages in a couple of conversations at the same time. I'm always eager to chat with him myself. Just like his products, Uncle Dave is all-natural, with a touch of spice. It helps, of course, that his salsas, sauces, mustards and so on are top-notch products--don't miss the horseradish sauce with shredded carrots--and that he's always coming up with something new to exhibit.

The labels on Uncle Dave's condiments feature a caricature of him, replete in overalls and red cap, reflecting his homespun personality and appearance. The jars are as successful at catching a passerby's eyes as the heavyset, bespectacled entrepreneur is in the flesh. In the end, that's more important to supermarket buyers who attend the trade shows than the way Uncle Dave appeals to them personally.

I admire the distinctive packaging for Arizona Iced Tea Co., too. The unusual size and shape of the bottles and the Southwestern motifs of the labels not only stand out on the shelf, but they also exude a sense of quality. Newer versions continue to cut through the clutter. The Indian's head on its Piña Colada label looks as if it has been silk-screened; there's a pretty, delicate print on the label for Green Tea with ginseng. These packages almost demand that you pick them up for closer inspection.

The way things are going, I wouldn't be surprised to see a Burp brand of beer with a picture of an ample-bellied couch potato on the label. And why not? If you've got it, as the saying goes, flaunt it.

From What Were They Thinking? Lessons I've Learned From Over 80,000 New Product Innovations and Idiocies, copyright© 1998 by Robert McMath and Thom Forbes. Reprinted with permission by Times Books, a division of Random House Inc.

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This article was originally published in the April 1998 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Look Before You Leap.

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