As margins tighten, many multinational companies have attempted to cut production costs and enhance brand image by harmonising – or streamlining – the design of product ranges across national borders.
There are plenty of pitfalls in such an approach, especially when it comes to food products. Identity harmonisation may be a good thing in principle but in practice there is a real danger of ending up with a solution based on the lowest common denominator.
It is also often hard for big companies to know when local markets are rightly resistant to change – on the grounds that it will damage brand equity – and when they are simply reluctant to have new looks imposed on them by a central body.
Unilever was aware of these challenges when, in 1991, the company recognised the need to review branding and pack design for its European range of Captain Iglo frozen fish products.
The range, known only in the UK as Captain Birds Eye, includes products such as Fish Fingers, Fish Nuggets, Coated Steaks, Fish & Crock and Fish Burgers. Iglo is brand leader in coated fish fingers and, in many countries, also brand leader in all coated frozen fish.
Cogesal – Unilever in France and equivalent to Birds Eye in the UK – invited companies to pitch for the rebranding of the French market’s products, with an eye on brands in other countries. The French market is the toughest in Europe for Unilever, because rival Findus is particulary strong there.
UK brand and corporate identity design consultancy Springpoint was appointed to review Captain Iglo strategy for France and to see how applicable it was elsewhere.
Springpoint managing director Fiona Gilmore says: “We started with research which showed that Findus owned the territory of ‘childhood’ and ‘adventure’, while Iglo was seen as ‘fresh from the sea’. This suggested Iglo was seen as best at the whole process of making food, but emphasised less the end benefits. This was worrying because Iglo believed it had built up more childhood equity.”
Research showed Findus had the edge thanks to its golden cartoon fish, which was more closely linked in French consumers’ minds with childhood adventure than the avuncular Captain Iglo character.
Says Gilmore: “The Captain did appeal to kids but the fish went a stage further; Findus also involved the fish in a series of adventures in its TV ads.
We realised our main challenges were to inject more personality into the brand and develop a greater synergy with Iglo advertising.”
Reviewing the packaging, Springpoint felt that the Captain icon was just bolted onto the pack. “If you took it away Iglo became a generic brand,” says Gilmore. “We had to decide what personality we wanted to create for the brand and then to implement it wholeheartedly.”
Iglo brands fall into three broad ranges, typical of the frozen fish sector: coated fish (such as fish fingers and other breaded fish); natural (plain chunks of fish presented for the consumer to then create a dish with); and cuisine (ready-prepared “indulgence” dishes).
Traditionally Iglo differentiated these ranges using separate colour lines under the descriptors. However, the layouts showed little segmentation.
“There was no understanding that, for instance, cuisine products are for an indulgence lunch or a special dinner and have a very different emotional feel and emotional motivation for the consumer than fish fingers which are more a shopping list product,” says Gilmore.
In consequence, Springpoint’s new designs for the three ranges tried to emphasise distinctions between them and improve each pack’s particular look. The cuisine ranges became more upmarket, to reflect their positioning as special meals.
The blue colour background – used throughout the Iglo products – melts into turquoise on the cuisine packs and, on some packs, such as the French Filets Surprise, the ingredients are shown alongside the dish. The natural fish range packs became brighter and fresher. The new pack for natural frozen fillets uses ice to suggest that the product is ice fresh and achieves a more elegant overall look than before.
The coated fish ranges are mainly for children and for these Springpoint attempted to liven the packs with a treasure map theme and associated symbols.
Springpoint’s work was complicated by the knowledge that certain countries would undoubtedly resist any packaging that they felt was inappropriate or irrelevant to their markets. It saw that a basic package of inviolable design instructions, plus a range of flexible “extras” offering plenty of scope for implementing the design according to local and cultural needs should best achieve the required balance of brand harmonisation and local autonomy and responsibility.
So Springpoint devised a common background theme – the Treasure Map – which could run across all coated brands in all countries, but which came with a bank of symbols which countries could select on a local basis.
Existing Iglo designs were already closely related in some countries, though very different in others, but most European countries were subject to the new brand harmonisation.
The exceptions were Italy and the UK where the evolution of the pack designs had been very distinctive. In Britain Captain Birds Eye packaging is strongly identified by its use of yellow which makes that colour a visual equity for the brand in the UK.
The blue grid Treasure Map creative solution overcomes cultural and language barriers. It ties in with the Iglo advertising theme of “safe adventure” and the pan-European TV commercials which show the Captain and his crew of sailor-suited children looking for treasure in exotic locations and finding it in the form of fish fingers “gold ingots”.
The brand manual which Springpoint devised sets out the general guidelines and also the contexts and circumstances where local interpretation is encouraged. It details the overall framework of the Treasure Map which is common across the whole range.
This includes the particular blue used for background colour, which adds value to a potentially generic blue background, as well as product highlighting and descriptor typefaces – such as the warm yellow used for product descriptors throughout the coated fish ranges to suggest goldness of coating and create impact.
The manual also contains the range of symbols which local countries could pick from for individual products, including a whale, a ship, a cannon, three small dancing fish, palm trees on an island, a treasure chest and a mermaid.
Gilmore says: “The bank of symbols gave each brand manager in each country the chance to decide which was locally appropriate. He was free to say, ‘well I can’t use a mermaid because it’s a sex symbol here, but we’re not uptight about war symbols so a cannon will be fine’. I think this gave the local countries a real sense of involvement in the redesign.”
As the new packaging was implemented across Europe some interesting cultural differences emerged.
Some of the symbols proved more sensitive in some countries than others. For instance, in France, the use of a mermaid on the Croq’ Surprises pack was judged to be reinforcing the fun/play values of the product, but in Germany a mermaid was seen as a more adult, serious symbol and therefore inappropriate for a range of children’s food products. The whale illustration was used in France but was seen as reflecting too sensitive an environmental issue in Germany, Holland and Belgium.
But it was not just the symbols that created complications. Many other, often subtle, cultural differences had to be taken into account.
Springpoint planner Step-hane le Camus says: “In Belgium, Germany and Holland it was important to put the product on a fork. This supposedly represents it moving forwards to the consumer and makes it more appetising. In France and Spain, however, consumers prefer to see food on the plate as this emphasises the ‘meal occasion’ which is more of a tradition in those countries.”
In addition, the appearance of the fish product has to vary according to the country it is being sold in. A more pristine regular appearance to the fish is preferred in Germany where-as a more realistic, appetising appearance is preferred in France.
Between 1991 and 1995 ten countries: France, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Holland, Austria, Greece, Poland, Belgium and Mexico implemented new packaging based on the new design concept.
Qualitative research exploring reaction to this fairly complex and ambitious harmonisation programme suggested that the flexibility of the design manual had been appreciated. As one user comments: “I think it’s the best for all, rather than just a compromise.”