PERHAPS THE MOST successful package redesign of all time was that done for Marlboro cigarettes in 1955 by the designer Frank Gianninoto. The Marlboro cigarette had existed previously in a white pack covered with weak graphic elements and a lot of copy. It was associated with women, at a time when buyers of filter cigarettes were most likely to be women. But filters were beginning to catch on with men too, and the redesign was prompted by the desire of Philip Morris, the tobacco company, to have a filter cigarette that would appeal to all. Gianninoto's simplification was, in fact, very like the Campbell's soup can -- red on top, white on the bottom, with a coat of arms that like Campbell's gold medal, tends to disappear. The white meets the red as an arrow pointing upward, a very simple graphic device visible on even the snowiest television set.

Perhaps the most radical part of Gianninoto's design was the new physical form it gave the package. Rather than the familiar cigarette pack made of paper, with a foil liner and cellophane wrapper, Marlboro sported a cardboard box with a top that flipped open. The early advertising jingle promised "filter, flavor, flip-top box," an indication that the company thought the box would be perceived as something special. There was a certain implication that people living a rugged life in Marlboro Country needed a tougher cigarette pack in their pockets, but the advantages of this novel pack -- beyond its novelty -- were never fully explained. The English design critic Reyner Banham theorized in 1962 that the real purpose of the box was to prevent people from removing their cigarettes easily from the package.

"The last time a cigarette is even Brand-X is in the act of being extracted from the packet -- after that it is strictly Brand Zero," Banham wrote. Opening the flip top was, he went on, "a mechanical ritual to be performed each time with the pack in view." Thus, Banham argued, the package served to remind a smoker what brand he preferred, even though "the corners of the hard box when stuffed into the traditional American shirt pocket dig into the surrounding rolls of affluent flesh every time he folds himself into the driving sear of his car."

If Banham's analysis is correct, the Marlboro hard pack was certainly an innovative way of getting the customer's attention. In any event, Marlboro succeeded, like Coca-Cola and blue jeans, as a worldwide icon of American-ness. Emerging at a moment when American cars, houses and products were becoming increasingly elaborate, Marlboro has the stripped-down, one-size-fits-all quality characteristic of the most enduring American designs.

Marlboro has succeeded so well that it has become a symbol of all brand-name products. When the brand encountered price resistance in 1993 and sales fell 5.6 percent, not only did the stock price of its manufacturer, Philip Morris, fall but so did the stocks of virtually all other brand-name producers. Newspapers and magazines ran feature articles on the death of brands, shocked that consumers in the midst of a worldwide economic downturn should buy cheaper cigarettes as a way to save money.

The Financial World 1993 analysis of brand values suggested that obituaries were premature. Marlboro's value had slipped 6.3 percent, leaving it at about $39.5 billion, by far the most valuable brand name in the world. (Coca-Cola was next at $33.4 billion.) A very high percentage of this value must be ascribed to the relentless advertising and promotion of the brand throughout the world. Some much smaller share must be allocated to the cigarettes themselves. But there is little doubt that the package itself -- universally recognizable, never dated -- deserves a good deal of the credit.

It also, of course, deserves blame for helping make smoking a desirable activity and, especially outside the United States, a high-status one. If Gianninoto's design was as much a marketing triumph as it appears, it was also a public health disaster that helped induce people to smoke cigarettes who might not otherwise have done so. Everybody knows, intellectually at least, that great packages don't always hold good things. But that is a truth that the best packages try to make people forget.

From "The Total Package," by Thomas Hine, copyright $; 1995 by Thomas Hine. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown & Co.

Photos: Old Look -- Marlboro cigarettes, in a wordier white pack, were marketed largely for women in 1927. New Look -- In 1956, the bolder red and white flip-top box was pitched to the he-man. (Photographs from Little, Brown & Company)