A throwaway history? Museum of Brands founder Robert Opie on learning from the past

As the Museum of Brands turns 30, The Drum takes a trip to Notting Hill to catch up with curator Robert Opie, who has spent most of his life meticulously documenting the evolution of some of our best loved brands.

Brands have changed immeasurably over the last 30 years. From the way products are packaged and advertised to our relationship with them, culture has been shaped and at times defined by consumerism.

Robert Opie, founder and director of the Museum of Brands, has been at the forefront of observing this relationship, witnessing over the years consumers’ continued attachment to brands, and the defining qualities that allow one brand to shine above the rest in the battle for supremacy.

Photography by Julian Hanford

The museum, which celebrated its 30-year anniversary at the end of last month, actually began life 50 years ago when Opie began gathering evidence of what he calls “the consumer revolution” – collecting each and every brand and piece of packaging produced in a gargantuan attempt to document our consumer history in its entirety. 12,000 items are displayed in the Notting Hill museum – just a fraction of Opie’s full collection – while a three year effort has recently culminated in a feature length documentary entitled ‘In Search of our Throwaway History’, exploring our relationship with brands.

The treasure trove of brands, packaging and advertising dates back to the 1800s and Opie’s work continues to this day. Indeed, when The Drum visits the museum, it has just had a delivery of a number of boxes that he will wade through later in order to document each item.

An unenviable task, perhaps, but 50 years of methodically collecting the evidence of our consumer history has given Opie a unique vantage point from which to observe shifts in preference, taste and trends in branding and design.

Looking back over the history of the museum itself, Opie admits it’s difficult to know where to begin when assessing the biggest changes in branding and packaging over the last 30 years, but one change that comes to mind is the emergence and acceleration of plastic as a packaging material.

“Plastic translated into the traditional role that glass or tin has held for generations. In cosmetics packaging, plastic was seen as the new wonder material of the 1950s. In the 1970s Johnson’s baby powder moved from a tin container into the perception of hygienic plastic.”

Though many brands have now created squeezable tubes since the arrival of Sqezy washing up liquid in 1957, Opie remembers feeling “horrified” when in 1985 Rose’s lime juice was released in a squared plastic bottle, having been in an elegant embossed bottle for almost 100 years before – such is our connection to brands and how used consumers become to enduring characteristics such as glass bottles.

Brand extensions have also pervaded every category, says Opie. “Just look at Galaxy’s move into cakes, chocolate drinks and a wide variety of other treats. Or there is Special K, which once was just a straightforward brand – now there are a dozen different varieties. And such is the way with hundreds of other strong brand names that have extended their franchise.”

Sustainability, according to Opie, should remain front of mind for FMCG brands, as there has been a “major shift in consumer understanding of environmental issues.”

“This complex subject has a long way to go before all the correct adjustments have been made, and I am constantly trying to encourage brand owners to communicate the progress on their packs, so that the public are increasingly aware of the efforts being made. Indeed, 70 years ago during the austerity years of wartime Britain, much of the packaging repeated the message ‘save this carton for waste paper collection’ – a message that is still relevant today,” he adds.

Amongst the changes in consumer preference Opie has observed, the continual rise in understanding healthy options, like the five-a-day campaign, has been “dramatic”.

“Alongside this, and because of society’s increased disposable income, the range of children’s ready meal portions has expanded, as well as other child-responsible products. Of course, since the 1980s the whole area of microwaveable meals has gone mad, but this is due to our endless need for convenience.”

Yet preference is often shifted by the industry rather than consumers themselves, according to Opie, who has observed many advertisers over the years watching out for success stories and then simply “jumping on the bandwagon”. He cites the “rise and fall of the alcopop bonanza” as one such example. Indeed, change may be the last thing consumers actually want, he suggests.

“Marketing people sometimes forget that as a society we don’t always want change, and that we like consistency and routine. Indeed some brands trade on their heritage and maintain an unchanging image: look at Marmite, Lyle’s golden syrup and Golden Shred marmalade.

“Most brands maintain their identifiable logos: look at Kellogg’s, Heinz and Coca Cola. And then in packaging there are many categories that keep to their traditional cardboard boxes – but will plastic bags envelop breakfast cereals? Is Rolo the last major bastion of chocolate count lines to be wrapped in silver foil?

“Brands that have survived from the pre WWII era have had to keep their product relevant and contemporary, but without alienating their customer base by over changing. Obviously, the most important criteria is simply a good product plus an associated strong image.”

Yet we all know change is the only constant in today’s cluttered landscape. So what can advertisers and agencies gain from looking back? In Opie’s view the museum highlights, crucially, where mistakes have been made and enables companies to understand the context of present day branding.

“Most companies want to think of themselves as ‘forward looking’. That’s fine, but only if they also understand how the present has come about.

“The other aspect of learning from the past is that it inspires. Many brand owners and agencies visit to gain that insight, where seeing something in another way helps the creative mind. We often forget that, whatever we are looking at, that item was once the cutting edge of design or innovation. We can now gain from the benefit of hindsight.”

More information on the Museum of Brands and Robert Opie’s film ‘In Search of our Throwaway History’ can be found at museumofbrands.com.

Photography by Julian Hanford.

This feature was first published in The Drum’s 17 September issue.

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