I love things that aren’t what they seem. Or something intriguing that compels you to discover more or to go places you would have never gone before. This occurred to me about two years ago when an Argentinean friend of mine, Pablito, offered me my first mate (pronounced mah-teh). At first it tasted like an ashtray covered in discarded horse feed but the joy I saw on Pablo’s face heartened me to endure. From there it became my key to understanding and interacting with Argentinean culture.
Mate is essentially a tea drunk in a communal setting originating from the north-eastern region of Argentina. There are three elements to drinking a mate, dried and millened yerba leaves, the gourd (traditionally pumpkin) that holds the beverage and a filtered straw that you drink through. Aside from the wizened-old-man-pipe look mate gave me, it was the social act of passing the mate around a group of friends or strangers that hooked me. My alcohol intake plummeted and conversational Spanish skyrocketed.
While all this was the hook, what emerged was not just beverage culture but also a visual treasure that I never expected. So here are some gems from the trove of alternative South American teas. To many, mate seems a bit ridiculous, but aren’t dainty British colonial tea bags (as brilliant as they are) also a bit funny to the uninitiated? The product itself is, in the most part, a half kilo brick of milled, slightly charred and dried leaves wrapped in plastic. Visually they are a postmodern mash-up of depression era flour rations and 1970s cereal boxes. Also something to keep in mind is that mate is drunk by almost everyone in Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay and the sight of a homeless man sitting on the sidewalk enjoying his mate is commonplace, as well as being awesome. This means that mate is cheap and needs to appeal to a broad socio-economic cross-section.
Let’s have a look at how three distinct cultures and countries wrap and sell their mate.
There is constant disagreement between materos (people who drink mate) about which country is the home of mate. At least for me (and 40 million others) it’s Argentina. The image of the gauchos (Argentinean cowboys) drinking mate while herding cows along the plains of Patagonia is a much beloved cultural image. Today of course it is drunk by bankers in Buenos Aires, students in Cordoba along with the Gauchos in distant Jujuy. The affluent of Buenos Aires are often mocked about their use of sugar while drinking mate, as they are seen to have strayed from the bitter taste that the Gauchos preferred at the turn of the last century.
Playadito defines itself by it’s colour. In this way it conforms to the trend of bright colourful mate packaging. A strong canary yellow is a smart brand personality because if even it drops out of fashion at the time, it isn’t fixed by a style movement or time period. Colour is timeless. Playadito proudly displays the location of where it is grown and processed as a stamp of authenticity and quality. This is small town Colonia Liebig. It has bright yellow factories that celebrate the Co-operative of growers who band together to create a community product.
The Romance packaging has always been ‘curious’ for me. A source of mirth for a good week though it was, it’s just not how I would approach the design. The old European world toasting action is something that you wouldn’t be caught dead doing drinking mate in Argentina, The brand certainly has its own personality. It’s well entrenched in the mate cultural psyche and its distinctive logotype is strong in isolation as well on the 2D front panel. Maybe this is why it works even with the weak white wrapper? Though the white might go against the grain of the multi-coloured mate shelf, it still doesn’t have the body it could.
Palermo is an Argentinian word with stylistic connotations. It’s a large neighbourhood in the affluent north of Buenos Aires where today, third generation surgeons or psychiatrists rub shoulders with MacBook wielding Swiss-German long-term exchange students. Palermo recalls the Art Deco heyday of this ritzy place with a fun modern typeset logo; the lowercase ‘m’ cheekily sits between the high contrast caps to create a unique brand personality. As you’ll see, the vast majority of yerba mate packaging comes in brick-like bags. Palermo uses racing stripes and the pill-like rounded rectangle to break the space and create negative space for it’s supporting elements: official stamp of approval and patriotic waving flag.
The curious nature of Brazilian mate is, that whilst it’s grown in Brazil, its biggest consumer is Uruguay. Uruguayans have a famous love for mate and it’s a constant daily companion whether you’re walking along the beach or riding your scooter. The sight of a steel thermos wedged under the arm is commonplace. Laranjeiras needs to have cross-cultural appeal. It splashes onto the packet with the distinctive look of an overflowing pumpkin gourd mate that is plump simplicity. The forested yerba leaf border crowds the rural western inspired typeset logo and creates a nice space for the white mate to sit. It is a bold concept that says a lot with a three colour palette.
Bailanta is a wild Brazilian voodoo jungle party brand. It has such a distinctive personality that broaches territory that none other does, but succeeds with smart modern design skill. What is immediately recognisable is the Indiana Jones logotype that could, as easily be cover art for a best of Afro-Brazilian funk album. The yellow diagonal lines reinforce the receding lines of the logo and are a different solution to the usual single colour on other packets. The mate gourd uses the reds of the surrounding shapes to blend in well. The attention to detail is seen in the vertical sunset gradient lines at the top of the packet.
Sabadin’s branding team were given an usual mate packaging brief and started with a mate illustration but then lost the brief and improvised. Forging their own path created a unique photographic branding/packaging tool. The gold foil border supports the green solid colours in a patriotic message that conveniently reinforces the natural product they are promoting. The strong S, complete with cutout hugging mate shape, has great personality. Middle Eastern influences also resonate in the supporting seif logotype.
Pajarito is an iconic Paraguayan brand. It positions itself as a refined international brand with presence. The patriotism doesn’t stop there as the strong red, white and blue of the national flag are diagonally cut across the packet. The distinctive branding sings with colours that invoke the markets, jungles and personalities of such a beautiful country. The illustration pops and adds depth of personality to create easy consumption. Something you smile at before you drop it into your basket and take off the shelf at home. Who wouldn’t want it in their kitchen?
Marketing and branding can be a peek into societal values. In Latin American culture, using nicknames based on race or offensive generalities is commonplace. La Rubia (blonde girl) pictured left, reflects these values, as does the Brazilian packaging for La Mulata (black girl) pictured right. Blondes, as I know first hand, are exotic in landlocked tropical Paraguay. The packaging yearns to 16th century pirate beauty with her portrait figuratively illustrated inside a classic oval portraiture frame. The glistening toothpaste logotype script also has nautical inspiration for the complete exotic Paraguayan brand.