Hugh Pearman: Creamed off by Europe

Once upon a time, Britain was a distinct market with its own relevant branding, but, says Hugh Pearman, the European Union has put paid to our individuality

“The name has changed, but the unique creamy formula is as good as ever – a deep-down clean to bring your surfaces back to life.”

What do we have here, friends? We have a substance that is henceforth to be known as Cif. As it says on both front and back labels, Cif is the new name for Jif. Apparently the Queen uses it. Or at any rate, there is a very tiny “by appointment” crest on the back of the yellow bottle, indicating Her Majesty’s gracious acceptance of Lever Brothers products.

Now it is possible that some of you out there in the design world might not know or care what this fluid is. You may not have dead surfaces that need, Lazarus-like, to be brought back to life by the daily miracle of Jif. Or Cif, as we must learn to call it. And if you do crave that deepdown clean, there are at least a dozen other branded and non-branded household cleaning products that combine anionic surfactants, non-ionic surfactants, soap and preservative in much the same way, to much the same effect.

Like you, I am not very interested in the stuff inside the bottle, beyond wishing it did not act on my hands like paint stripper. I do have a faint desire to find out what a surfactant is, or how it is modified by being either anionic or non-ionic. But I suppress that desire. No: what fascinates me is the label.

I have noticed a tendency in the business to sneer at those who merely design labels for consumer products. “They design jam pot labels,” you are told, and it means: frankly, they’re not up to much. The implication is that they should set their sights higher, get to design art books or corporate identities or vacuum cleaners or airline interiors. I disagree. The designers of labels on packaging are purveyors of social history. What they do tells posterity much more about the society we live in than any investigative newspaper report, any novel, any work of art, any scientific breakthrough. As any archaeologist will tell you, our ephemera defines us.

We’re all savvy to it. In any TV or film period drama, the one thing it’s vital to get right is the detail of the minutiae of everyday life. That’s why large profitable companies exist solely to provide producers with such props as the correct tin of custard or corned beef or soap powder. When they get it slightly wrong, it glares out at you, spoils the illusion.

So the props people of the future, when designing a period domestic drama set at the turn of the second and third millennia, will have to be on the alert. They will need to know precisely when Jif changed to Cif. It will be important to get the right bottle. Because the replacement of that one letter has enormous social and political implications.

How do you pronounce Cif, if you speak English? Is that like Kif, or like Sif? Neither sounds too convincing as a memorable product name. Presumably, then, it is meant to be a more Mediterranean pronunciation, something like Chif. Then again, the label says Cif Cream. If this really is a pan-European bit of branding, then how to explain the Cream bit? The potential for confusion would appear to be enormous. People might try to eat this stuff. It does look quite like a mayonnaise bottle.

But we know how that’s sorted, because confectionery companies did it first. The Cif will remain constant across Europe, or possibly even the world, as an international brand. The one-word description below will vary according to the market. All the TV production designer needs to be aware of is that Jif was British, and Cif is European. That there was a time when Britain was a distinct market, requiring its own branding, but that by 2001, that had changed.

“Jif” meant “quickly”, as in that rather 1950s expression “In a jiff”, itself shortened from “jiffy”. The name had a demotic meaning, however tenuous. Now, the name means nothing. But, assuming UK sales of the product remain steady, the acceptance of Cif tells you that we are ready for Europe. It’s part of the same general trading shift which has Nissan buying components for its Sunderland-built cars in Euros, or all the privatised and diversifying utility companies giving themselves vague names associated with no particular nation state.

So: will Britain join the Euro? What a dumb question, and not one you should ask any politician. There are plenty of people who know, and a surprising number of them are in the business of designing labels that go on bottles. Unregarded, even scorned, they are the true prophets of our time.

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