Shelf life

The closer a product comes to being perceived as a commodity, it seems the more difficult it is to market it in an exciting way. Consumers become less aware of brands, tending to think more in terms of product type. So if there is no brand loyalty to reinforce, why invest at all?

It is easy for brand owners to come to this conclusion. The result can be entire supermarket aisles of tired, bland package design gravitating towards common category language, where the shelf-edge price label may be all that catches the consumer’s eye.

But at the same time, marketing departments are under increasing pressure from brand owners and supermarkets to innovate. And in fact, the wisdom which sees low margins as precluding investment in new design can be turned on its head. Differentiation can create new niches and corresponding price points, even while the product itself may have changed little, if at all.

Mainline Partners, part of the Omnipack group, is currently working on a package design for burgers. “This is a very buoyant sector, with own label in there alongside the brands,” explains managing director John Watts. “But all the brand owners treat it with a high degree of blandness.”

Watts says Mainline is ignoring the accepted category language and is taking the product back to its US origins. Appetite appeal is also vital, he adds, and can be successfully generated no matter what the food product.

Lack of imagination with this type of category begins with the client, says Watts. “People often prefer to take the easy path rather than risks,” he notes. In his experience, marketing personnel stay in one job for only a few months, allowing them little opportunity to understand a particular category.

“Above all, nobody wants to rock the boat or think outside the box,” adds Watts. “Consultancies will often go along with that, only delivering what they know the client wants.”

Designers tend to associate smaller brands and those linked to more mundane products, so limiting freedom to innovate, adds Watts. In fact, it is not always the biggest names which give the greatest scope for creativity.

The consultancy side of the equation is often no less negative than the client’s, he says. “Unfortunately we are a load of luvvies in this business, and there are many who don’t want to work on sardines or own brand. We have to come down from that pedestal.

“Yes, there may be problems if you are working on tight margins, but we are supposed to be problem solvers, after all,” says Watts.

For anyone with experience in the different food and drink sectors, it is clear that no two categories perform in the same way when it comes to a balance between brands and own label. Blind tasting would probably confirm block chocolate as essentially a commodity product in the UK, and yet own-label ranges account for under five per cent of sales. Conversely, about 70 per cent of supermarket cheese in the UK is own label.

“The idea of certain product categories being non-innovative is really a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Andy Knowles, partner in brand design agency jones knowles ritchie (jkr).

“You do meet people working in categories where the share of own-label is very high, and where they have almost given up fighting. But if you are a manufacturer, your destiny is in your own hands.”

Knowles cautions that marketing departments tend to look for a single solution from pack design or research and development, which alone will boost brand profile and sales. But he believes success is down to the overall marketing mix, and above all, having a proposition which is finely attuned to consumer needs.

Before the arrival of the widget, canned beer was a fairly sterile category, says Knowles. Around eight years ago, jkr helped to develop the combination of the yellow can and widget for Boddingtons. Several canned beer brands, including John Smith’s, then followed with similar innovations.

Nor is success purely a reflection of the amount of cash manufacturers are willing to throw at a brand. Consumer awareness of beers such as Boddingtons draught-in-a-can in the off-trade, and Caffrey’s in the on-trade, began through word of mouth. When a high proportion of sales are then ploughed back into advertising, it is further evidence of the manufacturers’ faith in its product, says Knowles.

A classic example of a brand which has held its own, despite cut-throat own-label competition, is Heinz. At a time when supermarkets were dragging the price of canned beans down to just a few pence, Heinz maintained its price and its market share by value, and came out of the price war stronger than it went in.

“Heinz understands what its brand represents, and has never been frightened of investing in it, constantly promoting consumer confidence,” says Knowles. Design for the Heinz beans, soups and pasta ranges was recently revised by jkr.

The crisps category was confidently predicted a few years ago to be set for a downward spiral into commodity status and the domination of own label. The fightback by the brands, Walkers in particular, has been led by direct appeal to the youth market. Brand awareness in this category is now stronger than ever before.

Procter & Gamble’s Pringles has, through differentiated packaging and product presentation, moved this category even further. By introducing its smaller “Pop Box” to complement the familiar tube, P&G has assured Pringles a place in children’s lunchboxes. The pack appeals to adults by limiting portions, appeals to kids with the fun format, and achieves a price close to 50p. P&G worked on the design and engineering for the new pack with PI Design International.

Where clients do invest in radical redesign, it is probably because they want the brand to work harder. Even with commodity products this is likely to involve, or pave the way for extensions into new ranges or variants.

As David Rivett, managing director of Design Bridge explains, sugar is such a commodity product that supermarkets will tend to stock just one of the two leading UK brands. To turn this around, the consultancy has worked on a redesign of the Silver Spoon range with the aim of increasing consumer awareness of the brand. This involved revitalising the graphics on the traditional bag and putting the sugar into an easy-pour, membrane-sealed can.

“By adding wit and a certain lightness to the illustrations, we have tied the two pack formats together,” says Rivett. But a large npd programme is also planned. “If you are one of the two major players in a bland sector, strengthening your brand will create a very good platform to start building on.”

When it comes to cheese, Cheddar has to be the closest product to a commodity in the UK – it accounts for 58 per cent of sales by volume, and substantially less than this by value. In a redesign implemented in early 1998, Design Bridge helped lift the Maidwell brand out of this generic category and give it its own identity. The design uses a distinctive, resealable rigid “butter dish” presentation format which will make the pack registerable as a trademark, and so easier to protect from imitators.

Proof that an apparently mundane category can be transformed with a little marketing inspiration can be found in the detergents sector. A combination of product, graphics, structure and naming innovation has transformed the sector, backed up by advertising.

Linda Mooney, senior consultant at design agency Dragon, believes the ambient food sector has failed to inject the same excitement into its brands. “It has not kept up with consumer lifestyle or evolved with changing needs,” she says.

The exception proving this rule is John West’s Tuna Light Lunch range. Here, the brand owner has invested in structure, introducing a plastic container with a peelable lid, and breaking free from the metal packaging that is typical of the sector. Dragon worked on the graphics for the lid, leaving plenty of scope for including appetite appeal. Mooney adds it is refreshing to see a manufacturer who is willing to invest in structure as well as graphics.

Of course, breaking away from well-worn category language does not need to involve structural changes to packaging. New materials such as plastic/metal laminates, have allowed brands in categories as diverse as baby products and pet food, to innovate without changing the basic packaging format.

Designers agree that the client must have the will to succeed, alongside sufficient knowledge of the sector to generate a strong product proposition.

With this as a starting point, and with mobilisation of the entire marketing mix – not just pack design – there is no reason why the blandest categories should not be home to the strongest brands.

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