Tag Archives: packaging

It’s (im)material: Packaging, Social Media and Iconic Brands in the New Russia

Graham H. Roberts, Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense,




The aim of this contribution is to contribute to the growing literature on material culture and nostalgia in Russia and Eastern Europe.  In particular, I should like to take up the central themes of two articles published recently on Material World by Makarenko and Borgerson (2009) and Glass (2012). I wish to build on these studies in two ways, however.  First, I intend to look at alcohol, at how certain post-Soviet Russian alcohol brands use packaging to appeal to consumers’ patriotism.  Second, I wish to draw parallels between the material culture of packaging on the one hand, and the immaterial culture of social media networks on the other.

It could be argued, of course, that packaging is not ‘material culture’ in the usual sense of the word.  In some sense it is a hybrid phenomenon, neither immaterial (like the brand), nor material (like the product: see Manning 2010). Torn between the ‘semiotic’ world of brand and the ‘functional’ world of the product (Manning, private comment), it is the crucial ‘commercial interface’ between brand and consumer (Heilbrunn and Barré 2012, 10).

On the contrary, we would maintain that packaging is indeed part of material culture in the sense described by Woodward: ‘In its popular scholarly usage, the term “material culture” is generally taken to refer to any material object (e.g. shoes, cup, pen) or network of material objects (e.g. house, car, shopping mall) that people perceive, touch, use, handle, carry out social activities within, use or contemplate’ (2007: 14).  Packages are indeed objects, since they are handled, and – especially in the cases which I shall be looking at – they are aesthetic objects designed to be contemplated (see for example Borgerson and Schroeder 2008).

Packaging in Russia has almost always been ideologically and politically loaded.  In her excellent book on Russian retailing from 1880 to 1930, Marjorie Hilton (2012) mentions the fact that in the late Imperial era, many Russian companies displayed the Romanov eagle on their labels. Later, in the 1920s, Rodchenko and Mayakovsky designed sweet wrappers around such themes as industrialisation or the Red Army. The politicisation of chocolate wrappers continued throughout the Soviet era with, for example, the ‘New Moscow’ range of the 1960s (examples of Soviet and post-Soviet packaging design can be found here: www.moscowdesignmuseum.ru/en/exhibitions/2035/).  The product category where the Great Russian Past is most prominently displayed is not chocolate, however, but vodka (for a more detailed discussion of this phenomenon, see Roberts 2013).  This is perhaps to be expected.  First, for Russians, vodka is not just ‘a pervasive mediator and sign of relations of sociability of all kinds’, as in neighbouring Georgia (Manning 2012, 183); it is the national drink par excellence.  Second, Kravets (2012, 363) makes the important observation that ‘the official ban on mass advertising [of vodka in today’s Russia] makes other techniques of branding, such as naming, labelling, and packaging, a primary mode of promotion for the industry.’ Third, vodka is an alcoholic beverage which tends to be relatively uniform in colour, smell and taste. To quote Hine (1995, 4), ‘it is no accident that vodka, the most characterless of spirits, has the highest profile packages’.  With over six hundred different vodkas on the Russian market, eye-catching Russian-oriented design can help a brand both establish legitimacy and differentiate itself from the competition. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that so many Russian vodka brands exploit iconographic Russian images in an attempt to sell themselves.

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It should be pointed out that politically charged references were generally rare on vodka labels produced during the Soviet period.  In the post-Soviet era, however, there are countless examples of ideologically loaded vodka labels, bottles and boxes.  When it comes to vodka packaging design in Russia today, there are few examples more impressive than ‘Legenda Kremlya’ (‘Legend of the Kremlin’).  This vodka is marketed as a premium brand, or rather as an ‘élite’ vodka, as the label itself tells us. Its long-necked bottle comes in a hollow black and gold box designed to resemble an imposing medieval manuscript (www.klimov-design.ru/vodka/legenda/upakovka_e.shtml).  When one opens the ‘manuscript’, the first thing one sees is the portrait of ‘Monk Isidore’ above the date ‘1430’, written in an ancient calligraphic style. As one leafs further through the pages of the ‘manuscript’, one learns all about how Isidore stumbled across the recipe for the first Russian vodka one night working alone in his cell in the monastery that once stood on the site of the modern-day Kremlin in Moscow – the ‘legend’ to which the vodka’s name refers. There is a reproduction of an ancient map of the Kremlin, as well as a story about the bottle itself, purportedly designed by an ‘unknown craftsman’ in the late eighteenth century. Last but not least, there is a brief account of how the makers of ‘Legend of the Kremlin’ vodka ‘miraculously’ stumbled across Isidore’s centuries-old recipe, and were thus able to revive this great tradition. In sum, the story behind this brand (con)fuses the origin of vodka and the centre of Russian political power; mythologizing the brand and sacralizing the State go hand in hand in Russia.

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Music for Gracious Living: Learning about Lifestyle from LPs

Janet Borgerson and Jonathan Schroeder, Rochester Institute of Technology



This project finds us concerned with how home is conceptualized, enacted, and consumed. We are interested in exploring how the US home became an entertainment zone – and an alternative to ‘going out’ – in postwar popular culture. In the West, notions historically linked to home include domesticity, intimacy, and privacy; austerity, efficiency, and comfort; and nostalgia and style (Rybczynski 1987). The shifts away from public, feudal households to “the private, family home” with its increasing domestic intimacy “affected not only our physical surroundings, but our consciousness as well” (Rybczynski, 1987, 49). Rybczynski points out that home interiors in the seventeenth century began to demonstrate what Mario Praz identified as Stimmung, “a characteristic of interiors that has less to do with functionality than with the way that the room conveys the character of its owner–the way it mirrors his soul” (43).

We take a historical approach to understanding the contribution of material artifacts, in this case, the LP (long player) record album, to the imagination of modern identity and style in the home. LP album covers from an important era in the development of the American home, when the marketing of hi-fi sets, backyard barbeques, and dinner parties combined to create a vision of the good life, offer images for a case study on the intersection of identity and complex consumer objects. These LP’s combine visual instruction and a music genre specifically marketed for creating an ideal home. We examine examples from our large vinyl archive, selecting an illustrative sample from the 1950s and 1960s. This was the era in which the LP record emerged as a dominant format for music distribution, postwar affluence contributed to leisurely lifestyles, and notions of cosmopolitan cachet were promoted via air travel, home decorating, and entertaining.

Record albums occupied a space evoking identity and group membership in many homes during the postwar period as recording technology emerged and developed, bringing sounds, sights and specially designed furniture into the home. Apart from music, vinyl records included several genres aimed at developing “taste” and achieving a “modern” lifestyle, such as dance instruction records, travel guide records, and home entertaining records. These albums re-circulate today as nostalgic classics, precursors of cooking, decoration and makeover television shows, and collected for their value as windows into a bygone era (e.g., Adinolfi 2008). Moreover, as the LP record – surprisingly – has gained in popularity in recent years, these vinyl artifacts enjoy new life as retro icons (Felton 2012).

In this analysis, we focus on a subgenre of “dinner, dancing, and entertaining at home”, in other words, the home entertaining record, and in particular, a series put out by RCA Victor Records called Music for Dinner at Home, which included French, German, Italian and Chinese versions – nations with which the United States had various tensions during war years. We also attend to a series called Music for Gracious Living from Columbia Records, which included such gems as “Barbeque,” “Buffet” and “Do-it-Yourself”; and, finally, Music for Hi-Fi Living, a twelve volume complete guide for modern lifestyles. Drawing upon notions of materiality and agency in the constitution of consuming subjects (Borgerson 2005) and critical visual analysis (Schroeder 2006) our theoretical approach offers compelling visions of home from an era that brought the home more fully into modern consumer culture, and still resonates today. For example, the 1955 “Barbecue” album from Columbia Records’ Music for Gracious Living series states “in the evening, what better living than a barbeque in your own backyard, or on your patio, porch or terrace, surrounded by family and friends, and by music, especially selected for your out-door living!” This record includes advice for “patio planting” and “cool patio drinks,” and offers such tunes as “Summer Evening in Santa Cruz” and “Live, Laugh, Love.”

A key insight from the study is that the more people stayed at home, the more they needed objects, artifacts, and practices that linked them to affiliated groups, real or imagined, beyond the walls, doors and windows of home – in other words, those people, groups, and environments with whom they were not present, because they were at home instead. This may prove an interesting entré for understanding more fully the social media linkages now at play in the blurring between home and the world “out there.”

As media theorist Jacob Smith reminds us: “From the 1940s to the 1970s, the phonograph industry experienced phenomenal growth in sales and cultural influence, producing recordings that were meant to serve a multitude of functions in the American home above and beyond the reproduction of popular music” (Smith 2011, 1). Smith writes that, in the postwar period “phonograph records frequently provided a ‘segment-making’ home media alternative to the dominant ‘society-making’ media of network broadcasting. […] Records convened audiences around shared interests that were often underrepresented in the broadcast media, making them a powerful vehicle for the formation of group identity during the postwar decades” (Smith 2011, 202-203). “Educational” records, such as the examples discussed here, are among the LP records to which Smith refers.

Not only did album cover images provide a clue to an album’s musical style, or values, but such visual representations offered lessons for achieving an often aspirational lifestyle. The small print that filled the LP’s back cover communicated visions of the recording within, and also produced historical knowledge not just of the featured music, but also the related cultural contexts deemed relevant to the consumer’s enjoyment. This phenomenon of commentary beyond the recording per se was particularly common on albums of unfamiliar musical styles, for example, Music for a Chinese Dinner at Home (Borgerson and Schroeder 2003; Reagan 2011). In attempting to make the unfamiliar more palatable and the culturally sophisticated more accessible, album notes often became pedagogical opportunities to teach consumers about musical traditions, foreign lands, home entertainment and lifestyle choices aimed at communicating a more cultured and modern American home (e.g., Borgerson and Schroeder 2006).

 Selected References

Adinolfi, Francesco (2008), Mondo Exotica: Sounds, Visions, Obsessions of the Cocktail Generation, Karen Pinkus, trans., Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Borgerson, Janet L. (2005), “Materiality, Agency, and the Constitution of Consuming Subjects: Insights for Consumer Research” Advances in Consumer Research, 32, 439-443.

Borgerson, Janet L. and Jonathan E. Schroeder (2003), “The Lure of Paradise: Marketing the Retro-escape of Hawaii,” in Stephen Brown and John F. Sherry, Jr. (eds.), Time, Space and the Market: Retroscapes Rising, New York: M. E. Sharpe, 219-237.

——— (2006), “The Pleasures of the Used Text: Revealing Traces of Consumption,” in Stephen Brown, (ed), Consuming Books: The Marketing and Consumption of Literature, London: Routledge, 46-59.

Cohan, Steven (1996). “So Functional for its Purposes: Rock Hudson’s Bachelor Apartment in Pillow Talk,” in Joel Sanders (ed.), Stud: Architecture of Masculinity, Princeton, NJ: Princeton Architectural Press, 28-41.

Felton, Eric (2012), “It’s Alive! Vinyl Makes a Comeback,” Wall Street Journal, January 27, D8.

Reagan, Kevin (2010), Alex Steinweiss: The Inventor of the Modern Album Cover, Cologne: Taschen.

Rybczynski, Witold (1987), Home: A Short History of an Idea, New York: Penguin.

Schroeder, Jonathan (2006), “Critical Visual Analysis,” inRussell Belk (ed.) Handbook of Qualitative Methods in Marketing, Aldershot, UK: Edward Elgar, 303-321.

Smith, Jacob (2011), Spoken Word: Postwar American Phonograph Culture, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Valentine, G. (1999), “Eating in: Home, Consumption and Identity,” The Sociological Review, 47(3), 491-524.