The Typographic Hub

Powerful packaging

If you are over a certain age, you may remember the lines: “High o’er the fence leaps Sunny Jim, Force is the food that raises him”.

It is one of advertising’s earliest slogans and it promoted Force, the UK’s first ready-made, ready-to-eat breakfast cereal. This year the manufacturer celebrates a centenary of supplying whole-wheat flakes to the Great British breakfast table.

The Force Food Company, Buffalo, originally produced it in 1901; it was introduced in to Britain in 1902. In 1910 Force Food’s London office was closed, but one of its employees, Mr A C Fincken, bought the Sole Agency and continued to bring the product over from North America. In 1939 imports of Force stopped, but A C Fincken leased a factory in Watford to produce the cereal albeit using inferior wartime ingredients. After the war there was no prospect of importing Force and little hope of getting the ingredients to make it to the original formula in England. The American owners wanted it withdrawn from the UK market. However, by 1954, all the original ingredients were available again and the trademark owners licensed its manufacture under royalty agreement. The trademark was purchased outright in 1965. In 1985 A C Fincken was taken over by Rank Hovis McDougall and in 1990 Cereal Partners Worldwide purchased A C Fincken, as part of R H M Breakfast Cereals. Nestlé and General Mills now jointly own Cereal Partners Worldwide, and Force continues to be produced at Watford to the original recipe.

 Force was initially promoted as “the food that is all food”. By “scientifically” combining malted and toasted whole-wheat flakes with sugar and salt, it gave consumers all the oomph they needed: hence the name Force. The manufacturers intended it to be eaten at any time of the day, but the public saw Force as an ideal, quick breakfast dish. Its introduction caused a revolution in peoples eating habits.

Force had its hey-day in the 1930s selling about 9,000,000 packets per annum. Its post-war peak was in 1977 when 1,779,000 packets were sold but it lost ground in the 1980s due to poor distribution and increased competition. Today an estimated 500,000 boxes are sold annually to selected Tesco, Waitrose, Sainsbury, Co-Op and health food stores in the UK. 

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Advertising and breakfast cereals developed together at the start of the twentieth century; both relied on mass marketing and mass production. The packaging design for Force serves as a record of changing popular taste and the pictures, typography and general form of the packets clearly and convincingly show a developing style. They also demonstrate changes in printing and packaging technology.

Pictures on packets are part of the English tradition. But 1900s packaging often carried illustrations unrelated to the products. Some manufacturers put images of themselves or their factories on their packs; others used pictures of the monarch. Realistic illustrations of the product had no place in early packaging because realism requires the clear reproduction of fine detail, which was not possible while packaging materials were coarse paper and low-grade board. When carton boards became better quality it was possible to print directly on to the package instead of using adhesive labels. In 1907, Tillotsons, Bolton was the first UK printer to reproduce a photograph on a carton using a fine-screen half tone. But it was not the norm.

The original American Force packet was typical of early twentieth century packaging: the product name was set in a nineteenth century, three-dimensional, in-line, shadow wood letter; and a drawing of two muscular men wrestling with an anvil was on the front of the pack. There was no illustration to show what the packet contained.

Force needed a brand image and Minnie Maud Hanff, a writer of newspaper slogans in New York, was approached for ideas. Hanff created Jim Dumps, a miserable character who, after eating a bowl of Force, started to smile and was renamed Sunny Jim. Sunny Jim was brought to life through the illustrations of Dorothy Ficken who created a peculiar 18th century figure in white drainpipe trousers, a red frock coat, a stand-up collar and a monocle. His hair was twisted into a pigtail and he carried a walking stick whilst leaping in the air. Sunny Jim was a naïve but effective brand character that has appeared on Force packets since 1908 and is still associated with the product today. He is one of the oldest brand personalities still in use and is a design classic.

From 1902 until the mid-1930s the British Force packet was based on the American design. Geoffrey Higham, an A C Fincken employee, designed the Force packaging from the mid- to late-1930s. Smith advertising agency, London, was responsible for Force from the 1920s until the 1960s. The post-war cartons were produced to the pre-war design and printed by photogravure at Hunt Partners, Thatcham. Because cylinders were expensive there were few design changes, and a year’s supply of cartons would be ordered at one time. In 1970 the Jenks agency took over responsibility for the carton design that was printed offset litho at Boxfoldia, Birmingham, and Chapmans, Wellingborough. In 1988 the Green House Design Consultancy, Harrow-on-the-Hill, rejuvenated the packaging. There are now two or three design changes to Force each year, which is printed by Fine Colour Packaging, Nottingham, who produce 125,000 flat-pack cartons every 13 weeks for the Watford factory.

Throughout the decades, Force packaging has retained the same fundamental characteristics: the product typeface has remained fairly constant; Sunny Jim usually appears on the box; the basic colour scheme of a yellow background and blue and red, or black and red lettering has continued. Branding is particularly important for parity products like cereals where there are few major differences in features. The products can be indistinguishable in the market place, but consumers tell them apart through brand image. Brand characters are important in positioning a product and developing an image. Sunny Jim helps the consumer develop a familiarity with Force because he gives the product personality and provides it with recognizable human characteristics such as friendliness and trustworthiness. Sunny Jim is integral to how the Force brand is perceived. In the past he has been brought to life in the form of a doll in order to promote sales, and today the Sunny Jim doll is once again available as an on-pack promotion.

Visual familiarity and continuity is important for the product, but the way in which these visual features are used has changed over time to reflect current trends. The lettering has been both enlarged and reduced with time; it is sometimes upright, sometimes italic. Its position on the pack varies from horizontal at the head or foot, to being slashed diagonally across the box, creating a dynamic, restrained, classical or brash image depending on current retail advertising thought. The visual status of Sunny Jim on the pack has also changed with time from a dominant to supportive role depending on the brand’s desire to play on its tradition or align itself with the current.

In 1988 Force packaging was re-designed. It still used the nineteenth century type but Sunny Jim was given a subtle face-lift, his monocle dropped, and a rather bouncier looking stride creating a new image without fundamentally altering his character. The design used a photograph of cereal in a bowl together with an illustration of sunny wheat fields. This showed what the cereal was like and gave the product a healthy feel. In 1995 the pack was increased from 250g to 375g due to increased demand for larger packs in the breakfast cereal sector. The present packaging is designed to appeal to younger consumers, it combines type, illustrations and photographs and is flexible enough to give space for frequently changing promotions for events such as the World Cup. A specially designed centenary pack will be available during the summer 2002.

It is a mixed media approach that they could never have achieved at the turn of the century.