The supermarket is a metaphor for our consumer society; it is the place we go to learn about, select, and buy food and drink, detergent, shampoo, toothpaste, cough medicine and cigarettes, magazines, sweets, and dozens of other things we don’t even really need. These are consumer products, also known in the ad business as FMCGs, or fast-moving consumer goods.

In the 1990s, one of the explanations given for the collapse of Soviet communism was the State’s inability to provide its citizens with the attractive consumer products that all people supposedly crave. While this may have been an overstatement by Westerners, it is generally true that people like to buy branded goods. Buying brands gets you a place in an idealized world and satisfies the desire aroused by brands’ advertising. Whether we like it or not, this is a fact of life.

Buying food was once a bit of a gamble; it was hard to know if what you were getting was fresh, or of the right measure. When producers grasped that a reputation for quality and honesty was the surest way to success, they began to put their names on the goods they shipped so that customers could buy with confidence. These producers became the first brands. Their names were literally burned onto packing crates. Today, the branding of FMCGs has to function not only as an identifier, but also as an advertiser and customer-service provider.

Every society has its own conventions for food packaging, based on what marketers have determined customers respond to best. This is why so many packaged goods in the same category resemble one another. The look and feel of a package is called its “trade dress,” and big brands have to expend a lot of effort in protecting the individuality of their trade dress from imitators to avoid confusing consumers.

Conventions naturally differ from one culture to another. In the US, instant coffee with a red label has caffeine, while a green label indicates decaffeinated. In Europe, it is usually the opposite. Conventions also change over time. Black used to be a forbidden color in food packaging, until someone realized that ice cream wrapped in black looks more expensive. The packaging of so-called premium foods now frequently uses black to denote luxury.

Package design for foods creates associations that give a branded product more value by telling a story, conjuring up romantic ideas about dining that the product hopes to fulfill. As Louis Cheskin (a prominent marketer, and one of the first to investigate how package design affects consumers) discovered in the 1950s, these associations, when carefully put together, enhance the brand image and increase sales.