One of the great – though cynical – goals of marketing is to encourage consumers to waste stuff. Not in the enviro-friendly sense of extra packaging – the brands put that shit on their products when it was fashionable and they’ll take it off as soon as consumers start fussing enough, no problem. No, the idea is to do two things:

A: get consumers to buy more than they need.

B: make sure they don’t save the stuff they don’t use.

Tick both these boxes and riches will be yours. The classic example is mustard – Mr Colman (and his fellow condimenteers) made their profits from the stuff that gets left on the side of the plate, not the stuff that gets eaten. Soft drinks companies would much rather you bought a single-serve bottle of diet coke a day and left it unfinished than put it back in your fridge for tomorrow – and since hardly anybody does put it back in their fridge they’ve obviously got the positioning right. But with these products you know on some level you’re wasting part of it, and certainly you don’t feel any better for it. Imagine a brand which incorporated waste as part of the appeal, and which encouraged you to waste more and more, and which in fact made the flagrant level of wastage a BADGE OF PRIDE for the buyer.

Welcome to the world of Panini stickers.

Panini stickers are collectables, but collectables with a difference. With most collectables the act of collecting and hunting for missing items is fairly low key, because when you make a purchase you know what you’re getting. It might be hard to find a particular ceramic owl, or scarce variant comic or limited edition single, but you know what it looks like, and you certainly wouldn’t be induced to buy, say, a sealed box of ceramic beasts, which might or might not even be owls and even if they are may well be species you have three times already. But this element of mystery is what Panini thrives on.

The essential genius of Panini as a brand can be summed up in one fact: at a certain point in the collecting process it is more exciting to buy a packet with two stickers you need than it was to buy one with five. If you can’t relate to this then congratulations – this is not the brand for you.

Panini collecting brings free market capitalism into the playground. Not only in the sense that an exchange rate for ‘rare’ swaps, shiny stickers, etc. develops – but in the sense that every collector finds themselves ‘playing’ the Panini game. There is a minimum level of money a collector actually needs to spend: (n/s)*p where n=total number of stickers, s=number in packet and p=price of a packet. This is assuming very unlikely market conditions: 1-for-1 trades and transparent and complete information on who has what swaps. (It’s also assuming free postage.)

There is also a level of money spent by a single collector, assuming no swaps, where probability would suggest that you would be able to complete the collection on your own. I have no idea what this second number is but it’s likely to be really high.

If everybody did trade perfectly, sticker-for-sticker, I would guess Panini might actually lose money. But of course they don’t – as well as all sorts of unfair deals, collectors invest a lot more than they are likely to get returns on. There’s a third number in the Panini equation – the level of stickers remaining at which an individual gives up buying new stickers and relies on trades to complete the collection. This figure varies from person to person, but obviously the lower it is the more money Panini is going to make. And the more stickers you’re going to end up with. But the lower this level is, the more you probably love the Panini experience. Now that is branding.