What Can Album Covers Teach Us About Marketing?

This is an example of writing I’ve done for Brand-Directions.

It’s easy to take packaging for granted, until it’s gone. Album covers were so much a part of purchasing music in past decades that you almost didn’t think about them. The same way humans don’t think about air, or fish don’t think about water, album covers were just a part of the music lover’s life. There are great lessons to be learned from this gone, but not forgotten form of packaging.

The cover for Alice Cooper’s “Schools Out For Summer” was an actual desk with graffiti carved on the outside. When you opened the cover you saw the inside of the desk filled with homework and other items naughty schoolboys would need. A simple piece of cardboard will hold a record, but this packaging became a complex environment that extended the music’s story.

Packaging can sometimes become better known than the product. While a model covered in whipped cream may be tame by modern standards, the cover for Herb Alpert’s “Whipped Cream and Other Delights” caused quite a stir at the time. One could argue the cover concept made a good jazz album into an icon. The cover was so esteemed that at concerts Alpert famously remarked, “Sorry, we can’t play the cover for you!”

Of all the iconic covers we cherish there is probably nothing that compares to the art for “Abbey Road” by The Beatles. And, there may be no other album cover so often parodied. If you run an image search for Abbey Road you will find The Simpsons, Lego figures, storm troupers, mascots and random tourists recreating the classic scene. There are lots of examples of branding that helps to make a product more well know. But this image was so iconic it made the actual background of the photograph famous!

Today, physical media like vinyl records and CDs are all but forgotten, and MP3 files don’t need covers. But artwork is still closely associated with modern music and marketers do their best to channel the timeworn experience of real packaging we all miss. Browse the download section of Amazon or iTunes and you’ll find square icons for MP3s and tall rectangles for movies.

Why is there a difference in the shape of the icons when they are both just digital downloads? The answer is digital retailers are trying to mimic the packaging of older media. Artwork associated with MP3s is square because album covers were square. Movie downloads are tall rectangles because VHS tapes and DVDs were packaged that way. These obsolete forms of packaging are so ingrained in our cultural experience that they are still having an impact on the way electronic media is marketed to us today.

The future of album artwork without physical packaging is uncertain. Major record companies and online retailers are fighting over a standardized format for imbedding artwork, lyrics and other information into digital music files. Even though this extra information isn’t technically needed, consumers want all the superfluous goodies that came with real packaging. As a result, companies like Sony, Warner, Apple and Amazon have all spent millions of dollars trying to rekindle that old album cover experience.

Even if everyone agrees on a digital standard there will never be anything like holding a real record in your hands again. The age of classic album covers has sadly come to an end.

There is a great lesson in this for consumers. Don’t take packaging for granted! Packaging isn’t just glitz competing for your attention on the store shelf. Album covers show us that consumers can come to know and even love packaging. Would you be sad if some of the packaging you see every day disappeared? There is also a great lesson for manufacturers. Album covers teach us that packaging can transcend its basic function. It can become part of the consumer experience. It can create an environment and a story for your product. What does your packaging do? Does your packaging simply shelter and display a product? Or, could it be much, much more? Work with Directions Marketing to find out.