My parents moved my sister and I from Pittsburgh to Mechanicsburg in 1989. I was five years old. I vaguely remember riding in the car with my Grandma on I-81 N and her missing the exit, having to get off and turn around in Enola. Upon arriving at our new home, my Aunt Linda was sitting on the stoop out front eating a bag of Martin’s Kettle-Cook’d Potato Chips.
“Hey Timmy, you have to try these chips out. They’re so good!” My Aunt said to my Dad. Eventually, I got my hand in the bag when the adults weren’t looking and grabbed a handful of the delicious pale golden crinkled chips. In an instant, I knew they were different; that definitive crunch with the salty coating was so different from anything I ever had before. They were simple white bag with yellow and red lettering and small simmering red cauldron on the front.
Fast forward to this past weekend. I’m sitting at home with my girlfriend watching Chicago PD on a lazy Sunday morning with our puppy and I bought a bag of Martin’s Kettle-Cook’d Jalapeno Chips (a favorite of mine since high school) and I am looking at the bag thinking about, of all things, good memories with the chips. Now, I am not spokesperson for Martin’s Potato Chips. I live in Central PA, probably one of the biggest potato chip capitals in the world (Middleswarth, Herr’s, Gibble’s, Utz, Dieffenbachs, Snyders, Hartleys) and I sure as hell have options. Call me a sentimentalist, but I find appreciation in things and remember the situations in which turned into good memories. Now, Martin’s Kettle-Cook’d is renowned in this area. You can’t go anywhere in Central PA without driving by a Martin’s Truck or seeing a vendor stocking the shelves at a Sheetz, Rutters, or big store like Walmart with Martin’s. They are iconic. That little red simmering cauldron on the bag with the old school lettering on a white bag; instantly recognizable.
Here’s the question: is it bad design?
One can certainly say the bag design didn’t take much consideration. On the other hand, though, doesn’t the bag tell you exactly what you need to know? In which case, the design is doing exactly what it needs to do? Between last weekend and when I was 5 years old, the bag design of Martin’s has never changed, only having been updated with two bits of information; The gluten free label on the front (a move they did way before celiac disease came to mainstream attention) and the addition of a web address on the back of the back in the contact area. That’s it. Every once in a great while, there will be a small promotional call out where the gluten free label is located, but the packaging design has never had a major overhaul. The introduction of new flavors of chips has been slow and a deliberate because unlike many big brand chip companies, Martin’s prefers to continuously improve on its product quality. That focus on quality is evident with the ingredients they use (all natural with little preservatives for shelf life). Local potato farmer’s work with Martin’s to create that iconic crinkly chip.
Because of their accessibility, unique taste, and commitment (intentional or not) to the using the same basic bag design they have become established themselves as a recognizable brand. So if an amateurishly designed package survives the trials of initial market offering and winning a market, without ever falling into fads…is the design really poor or just simple enough to be effective and meaningful. I mentioned earlier that I had fond memories with the chips. I always had Martin’s chips when I played Dungeons and Dragons all through middle and high school with my friends. Many of the parties I spent with the bands on the road on Warped Tour I had Martin’s chips (fun fact, Fat Mike of NOFX is a big fan of the Jalapeno flavor). Every camping trip I have ever been had Martin’s and even now with my new studio setup, I have several bags of Martin’s on top of the the beer fridge. In my head, I always thought “Man, this is boring looking bag…but damn these chips are good.”
So this past weekend, I thought maybe it’s not a “boring looking bag.” Maybe it’s a smart design; simple in its approach, no frills and just letting the chip speak for itself. When I framed it this way, I thought of other chip companies and what they do. The Kettle Cooked variety of chips have really caught in the last decade. Herr’s makes a Kettle Cooked variety that is more of a traditional integrated branding approach. Utz, on the other hand, went retro with their bag making their kettle cooked chips branding them as Grandma Utz Kettle Cooked Chips with a brown paper bag look and more interesting type choices. Kettle Brands, a new brand, has come out with very stark bags of a single color with a well-designed logo identity and utilizes modern type treatments and simple illustrations for their packaging design. When you look around on the shelves in the chip aisle, you are awash in a sea of bold colors, chip renderings, and clear plastic cutaways. But right there on the shelf is the plain white bag of Martin’s. Brilliant way of standing out by not trying to outdo the competition; just stay focused on a quality product.
Martin’s is like many cult products. Butterscotch Krimpets, another Pennsylvania cult product, has the same status. Krispy Kreme was a cult product before it saw mainstream success and became available outside of North Carolina, and is now a household name across the US. Martin’s is quintessentially a brand of Central Pennsylvania and enjoys that cult status across the country as people have moved and still yearn for that unique taste. Looking at them from a brand perspective, I would say they have done a successful job at building a following and staying committed to their ideals in a market saturated with change. From a design standpoint, could things be improved? Do they need to be?