The packaging design of fireworks is at once easy and hard to ignore. As a category, it’s just loud enough to catch your eye, then dismiss as undeserving of analysis, or even a second look. The defining traits of the genre — bright colors, cartoonish illustrations, evocative names — can melt into one campy swath. But focus for a moment, and you’ll see something else: a reflection of pop culture, a barometer for the interests of the cis male population, and a surprisingly sophisticated design.
“Packaging has always been very critical to the sales of fireworks,” said Jessi Dragoui, purchasing and product development manager for importing and distribution at Phantom Fireworks, the country’s leading consumer fireworks retailer. Pyrotechnic paraphenalia certainly doesn’t fall into the try-before-you-buy camp of retail, so creating a sense of both clarity and excitement on the box it comes in is important. In this way, the packaging strategy for fireworks is not unlike that of, say, drugstore mascara. Both use names and design to create a palpable feeling for a product that a customer can’t really experience before they own it. It’s as much about selling a future experience as it is about selling a material object. The branding approach for L’Oreal’s Lash Paradise isn’t so far from Phantom Fireworks’ Sailor’s Delight.
Throughout our conversation, Dragoui casually name-dropped a few common fireworks effects like brocade breaks (which open like an umbrella), chrysanthemum breaks, (circles that expand from the center) and palm breaks (look exactly what they sound like). But she recognizes that most people only light — and shop for — fireworks once a year, so terminology like that doesn’t go very far in the last week of June. To make up for that consumer knowledge deficit in a field that’s full of options, fireworks brands rely on visual aids. Still images are common on packaging, but so are QR codes with links to videos showing the products in action. Dragoui said codes started appearing on boxes across the industry about fifteen years ago, but customers mostly ignored them until the recent uptick in QR use. Now she sees people scanning them in Phantom’s retail stores (there’s over 80 across the country) all the time.
In some ways, fireworks seem immune to the larger world of packaging trends. A minimalist box of roman candles seems absurd. But they’re definitely not removed from culture more broadly, both in terms of technology and the zeitgeist. One of Phantom’s bestsellers is a repeater crackling palm break called “Shaggadelic Mojo,” whose flower-strewn box also features a lava lamp, a beaded curtain and a disco ball. It dates back to the late nineties, when Austin Powers was cool. More recent cultural fixations have found their way into packaging as well. One of Phantom’s designers, inspired by the popularity of Marvel and DC, created an entire line of superheroes. (Phantom has a team of six in-house graphic designers who create the packaging for each product, almost all of which include detailed illustrations.)
Dragoui said its packaging is designed to appeal to the main firework consumer demographic: men between the ages of 18 to 45. The preponderance of military, cowboy, and space-themed products across the industry affirms this fact. But not all of Phantom’s branding is guided by what those customers want or expect. A lot of it is driven by designer’s personal preferences, too. So much so that Dragoui said she can identify the artist behind a box design just by looking at it. One of the designers she works with is “really into” Viking stuff. Another likes Willy Wonka-esque imagery.
Balancing all that eye candy with warning labels, barcodes, (there’s at least two on every package to expedite checkout around crunch times) and QR codes is a challenge. But it’s one that Phantom’s designers rise to again and again, keeping things interesting in a product category that’s relatively static. Design provides novelty for the ultimate novelty product. “We laugh because so many people say it when they’re in the store, ‘I feel like a kid in a candy store,’” said Dragoui.