The Museum of Brands, Packaging & Advertising

Last week we visited the Museum of Brands, Packaging & Advertising in its splendid new home in Ladbroke Grove. The Museum is based on the unique collection of consumer historian Robert Opie, which he started in 1963. In 1975 he held his first exhibition, The Pack Age: A Century of Wrapping It Up at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. From 1984-2001 The Museum of Packaging and Advertising was open to the public in Gloucester. In 2002the Museum became a registered charity and in 2005 the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising opened in London with the help of pi Global. Past Master Alderman Sir Paul Judge has been Chairman since 2002 and Freeman Chris Griffin, founder of pi Global, has been CEO.

The museum showcases consumer goods packaging in all its forms. It has a time tunnel with early Victorian examples of packaging and advertising through to the present day. There are several topical themes and today it has exhibits of the two World Wars, the Royal family and the punk fashion. There are several exhibits of single brands showing their design evolution. The museum appeals to marketing and design professionals, students of all ages and the general public. It is a celebration of some of the best of British consumer goods marketing.

The previous museum was the victim of its own success as it became severely overcrowded. It used to attract 50,000 visitors a year and ranked in the top 3% of all London attractions on Trip Advisor. The new museum is closer to Ladbroke Grove tube station and has over twice the exhibition space. In addition it has several rooms for receptions etc. and a small garden. The building used to be the site of the Terrence Higgins Trust and the money for this was raised through donations, grants, loans and sponsorship.  After a special appeal the Marketors’ Trust gave a donation towards the cost of fit out for which loans were not available.

I first visited the museum soon after it opened in 2005 and later helped in a small way with a market segmentation exercise. My daughter also worked there for a while as part of her training in cultural heritage in which she has a Master’s degree from UCL. She has also worked at the Queen’s Gallery, Kensington Palace, the National Portrait Gallery and the Cartoon Museum. I have therefore always had a soft spot for the museum and wanted to bring a party of Marketors and their guests not only to see it but also to encourage them to bring others, their families, friends and clients. It really is for everybody.

Robert Opie kindly agreed to give a lecture and he demonstrated his lifelong passion for collecting these examples of everyday consumption. It helped that he came from a family of collectors so not only were his parents tolerant of his hobby but they also positively encouraged him and taught him the disciplines of collecting.

He needed to be tenacious in his search for pieces, particularly those of previous eras. But it was surprising how he might come across examples of apparently lost packaging that had been left forgotten at the back of a larder.  He tracks 500 major brands and tries to get every example of packaging variant of these. With some brands this can be particularly challenging as they bring out frequent range extensions. His holy grail would be to find an original tin of Heinz Baked Beans launched in the UK in 1901.

These single brand exhibits are for my professional eye one of the most interesting features of the museum. They show almost at a glance how well some companies have preserved the key architectural features of a design but gradually and almost imperceptibly kept it up to date. These features might be the logo, the colour scheme, the typeface, the illustrations or a combination of all of them. Robertson’s Golden Shred marmalade is a fine example of a brand that has not changed its label at all but the type of its packaging has changed radically from porcelain to glass jars.

Robert does not have a favourite piece in the museum. They are all his favourites.  But he does have a favourite category, that of breakfast cereals. Most families will put the packet on the table and leave it there while they have their breakfast. Consequently brand managers try to make the packet as interesting as possible knowing  that consumers may well want to read it while eating. Thus some cereal packets feature games or competitions or other forms of diversion.

But the exhibition is not confined to food and drink, or even grocery products. There are toys and games, posters and record covers, newspapers and magazines. There are fascinating historical artefacts such as a TV from the 1930s, ration books and other mementoes from war time. It is an excellent exhibition of social history.

As an underage smoker (fortunately I gave up in my 20s) I used to be fascinated by the different brands of cigarettes and collected the different packets, hiding them in my bedroom. Don’t tell me that advertising does not attract children to smoke. It certainly did for me.

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