Good shelf image

It can be hard for a brand to stand out on a supermarket shelf filled with similar but competing products. Sarah Rayner looks at how designers tackle the thorny problem of standing out from the crowd

It can be argued that despite all the best efforts of advertising, the real battle for consumer attention is at shelf level. As shoppers make purchasing decisions in the tiniest fraction of a second, packaging design has to work extremely hard to communicate a persuasive proposition quickly and effectively. At the most fundamental level, the winner is the pack that draws the consumer away from its competitors and says “buy me”.

But in reality, producing a winning pack design is not just a matter of graphics, or even of propositions; other factors come into play. These days there is a whole legislative minefield of what companies can and cannot communicate on packaging. Food products now have to state they are fruit “flavoured” if they don’t contain the fruit they are supposed to taste of, and in these cases illustrating the fruit itself is not permitted. This can create all kinds of challenges for packaging designers, who are left to devise cunning solutions that avoid reference to specific ingredients.

As if this weren’t enough to contend with, further complications arise from the demands of specific consumers, who have different expectations again: from their perspective the job of the label is also to let them know what they are buying.

As such, a list of ingredients, a nutritional breakdown, quantities contained within the can or package, the durability of the product, storage information and the name and address of the manufacturer are all things they need to see, and any design has to allow space for such mandatory inclusions. Indeed, in certain instances – for diabetics and those with nut allergies, among others – being accurately informed is not just desirable, but crucial.

So how does one tiptoe through this minefield? Brandhouse WTS managing director Mark Gandy has been closely involved in a recent packaging redesign for Sharwood’s. He says: “Other brands, including own-label ones, have tended to play safe and focus on the cooking method or the finished product, so images of woks, balti dishes and plated-up meals abound. The result, by the time it reaches the shelves, is indistinct. Creating cut-through demands a fresh approach, and where the products are good and carefully prepared, there is not only the opportunity to do something new, but the commercial responsibility to do so. We have tried to communicate not what the product will look like, but what it tastes like.”

The jars illustrate his point. The Indian range uses a kaleidoscope of colour bursting out of the centre of the label. The hotter pastes feature warm, bright colours, while the milder ones are blue and lilac. For the Thai range, with its subtler flavours, the label focuses more on the ingredients themselves.

Focusing on the consumer is a way to help clarify thinking. Only by understanding who they are talking to, what those people are interested in and what they are looking for can designers produce a pack that will appeal to the target market. Understanding what motivates or hinders purchase is also key.

Jill Marshall, chief executive of 2D and 3D branding and packaging at DesignBridge, elaborates: “Cystopurin was already established as an effective cystitis cure but we wanted to remove some of the embarrassment associated with asking for it in store. The solution was to pick a key ingredient, cranberries, which are known as a way of curing cystitis naturally. Using this imagery, we were able to produce a pack design that is eye-catching and approachable, rather than intimidating and clinical.”

This approach is all very well when the product in question contains an appealing component such as cranberries, but what happens when the ingredients are less homely? Here, designs based on an emotional appeal, such as indulgence or relaxation, often work well.

Marshall continues: “Feminax had a similar problem to Cystopurin – consumers were embarrassed by it. In this case, emphasising active ingredients wasn’t feasible – Feminax is a painkiller and the chemical content would have been impossible to illustrate. So instead we went for a more abstract image with the ingredients – codeine, paracetamol and hyoscine – in swirling text around an illustration of a woman’s stomach, as if targeting the pain.”

Marshall says that every market has its “points of understanding”, so what is right for one may not be right for another. She cites Sun Tea, a black tea with a hint of fruit flavouring, as an example. “The packs show a huge fruit, which is fine in markets where consumers understand that Sun Tea is a black tea in the first place. But if you were to show that to UK consumers, they would think it was a fruit infusion tea, and be misled. It is vital to establish usage occasions and the conventions of the market before deciding the best approach,” she says.

Fat and fatuity

Simple structure, clever design and clear copy would appear to be the best ways to avoid confusing the consumer. But a quick scan of the supermarket shelf underlines how difficult this can be, and any shopper with a particular aim in mind, such as eating healthily, may find a barrage of conflicting messages jumping out from the shelves.

Take the terms “fat-free”, “low-fat” and “reduced-fat”, for instance. “Fat-free” means a product contains less than 0.15 per cent fat by weight, “low-fat” that it contains less than three per cent fat by weight and “reduced-fat” means it contains at least 25 per cent less fat than the full-fat version. But how many people really understand the difference?

“We’re bombarded with so much of this information that it becomes meaningless,” says Ian Read, creative director of The Church Agency. “Many packages feature ingredients by percentage, but I for one don’t know what to judge these against. Consumers need a defining point, a marker.” Read says it is easier when the focus is on a single, straightforward attribute, even when this means communicating what a product does not contain, rather than what it does. “Salt and fat are often celebrated when they are absent from products, because their non- existence is a key part of the brand values and is as important, if not more so, to consumers than what is in there,” he says.

He uses Shredded Wheat to back his argument. The new promotional pack clearly and boldly states “No added salt” on the front, reflecting the current view that large amounts of salt are not good for you. But it also ties in to the fundamental proposition of Shredded Wheat, with its single ingredient – wholegrain wheat. Read acknowledges that being able to say “No” meant he could focus on a definite, forceful message.

“I would much rather that than have to push a vague message which only ends in confusion. ‘No added salt’ leads on to all the values and trust messages that are traditionally associated with the brand, so we clarified our statement by telling the full story on the back of the pack, with a guide to salt intake, thus raising awareness and promoting healthy eating,” he says.

Science or psychology?

But sometimes there is an equally strong case for highlighting one particular, extra special ingredient. Who can have failed to note the astonishing number of “groundbreaking scientific formulations” in the beauty market, for instance? “Nanosomes of Pro-Retinol A + Par Elastil”, “Dermo-Peptide” and “Activa-L” are proclaimed boldly on the front of L’Oréal Revitalift, Age Perfect and Visible Results respectively, for instance. These revolutionary sounding names probably mean little to the consumer, but their presence serves to reassure and to justify a premium price.

Of course, some famous ingredients have significant commercial value in their own right. Consider brands such as Intel, Teflon, Dolby, NutraSweet and Visa, for instance. Research has established that some 60 per cent of consumers who are familiar with Stainmaster, Gore-Tex and Lycra are willing to pay more for products containing them because they raise the perceived value of a finished product. And with more than 70 per cent of consumers worldwide recognising its logo, surely one of the best known of all ingredient brands has to be the Woolmark, which appears on more than 500 million products each year.

The makings make it

Intangible Business managing director Thayne Forbes observes that while it is vital to have established strong brand recognition in the first place – which is why companies such as Du Pont invest heavily in standalone campaigns to build their brands in their own right – now these fabric/ingredient manufacturers are collaborating with the brands which contain them on in-store promotions. He says: “One of the things a consumer will look at when making a purchase is the fabric an item is made of. It’s part of the buying process, an indicator of quality.”

Forbes says he does not believe such promotions create conflicts of interest; rather he feels one brand often complements the other. “A Marks & Spencer man’s suit bearing the Woolmark on an armband helps reinforce the store as a vendor of quality clothing while at the same time communicating a great deal about the quality of the suit itself. Wool is warm, comfortable, light and very smart, and the logo says all this in an instant. Moreover, it does so in a subtle way, without consumers even realising.” And when a purchaser is making a decision in a split second, a brand that can communicate so much, so fast, is clearly worth its weight in gold.”

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