A design of the times

Packaging is the last piece of marketing consumers see before purchase, so it has to stand out in a crowded retail environment and engender that vital desire to buy, says Richenda Wilson

It is often said that change is the only constant in the modern business environment. Customer tastes alter. Competitive environments shift. Technologies become obsolete. Any of these can lead to a product losing its edge, indicating that it is time the item is dropped, significantly altered or strategically repositioned.

There have been some dazzling successes – think Hovis’s baked bean bread bags – and some notable disasters – think Babycham – when it comes to redesigning brands to reposition them. But what is it that makes something sail or fail in the market and just how important is the role of design in shifting perceptions of a product?

For proof that design can have a major impact on sales, one need look no further than Clipper Teas, whose sales have almost quadrupled since it redesigned its packaging in 2001. And this growth has been achieved without any other brand-building activity.

Clipper, founded in 1983 on organic and fair-trade principles, benefited from the growing interest in organic products in the Nineties but suffered from increasing competition from companies, such as Twinings and Cafédirect, and the general decline in tea drinking in the UK and other markets. It called in Williams Murray Hamm to overhaul its packaging.

The design agency’s first step was to move away from the clichés of tea packet design – moody, smoky colours and imagery dredged up from the days of empire. The new look captures the company’s integrity and ethical working practices, boiling the brand essence down to “the thinking person’s cuppa”. Inspired by journals such as National Geographic, each packet displays a nugget of information about the region where the tea was grown and carries a picture of an indigenous animal.

The bold yet simple packaging led not only to dramatically increased sales but also to an expanded export market – from one to 23 countries – which has had the knock-on effect of improving the quality of life for the communities and fair-trade estates that supply the company.

The objects of desire

Another product that has been redesigned to great effect is the Waitrose Pure range of toiletries. In this case, sales were already impressive but the packaging had been unchanged for six years, so Waitrose called in design agency Pearlfisher to refresh the look.

“We looked at the patently obvious, the conventional wisdom for an entry-level range of everyday toiletries – photographs of water ripples and so on – then we broke all the rules,” explains Pearlfisher creative partner Jonathan Ford. “We wanted to create desire, the emotion that makes you engage with a brand.”

Pearlfisher decided to emphasise the characteristics of quality, purity and simplicity. The resulting look, a pure white frosted design with clean blue typography, is subtle, desirable and aspirational.

Pure was launched in Waitrose at the start of 2004, whereupon volume sales rose 21 per cent on the previous year (despite a promotion by main rival Simple). As a result, the product was introduced to John Lewis stores in April 2004, the first own-label product to be stocked alongside the big-name brands in the beauty department.

The example of Waitrose Pure indicates that a basic product can reap dividends by looking aspirational and upmarket. Consumers may want to buy cheap goods but do not want to look like cheapskates when they do it, especially as the pack will remain on view in their homes for some time.

Communicating quality

This has been the thinking behind another new range of own-brand packaging. Danish discount grocery retailer Netto has built success by using its buying power and no-frills stores to offer shoppers cost savings on a range of own-label goods. Design company Gratterpalm has been given the task of expanding Netto’s customer base upmarket by redesigning its 300 own-brand lines to communicate the quality of the products. Gratterpalm joint managing director Gordon Bethell explains: “The strategy is based on the concept of ‘smart shopping’ – that shoppers will buy everyday commodity items at a low price, leaving them time and money to spend on more premium, infrequent or luxury purchases.

“In the UK, consumers are still coming to terms with the appeal of own-label and we have inertia to overcome in assuming the discounters are merely low demographic territory.

“The design challenge is to create packaging aspirational enough to appeal to the new breed of value-seeking smart shoppers, while retaining Netto’s core market.

“You only have to look at the success of Asda’s George brand to see how consumers are smart shopping. It is now perfectly acceptable for consumers to create a fashionable look by combining George with Prada. It is the aim of our packaging design to achieve the same effect for Netto.”

Gratterpalm’s designs, which © use understated typography, elegant colours and clean, fresh photography, are being rolled out in Netto stores this spring.

There are many examples of successful product repositioning where design has played a major role. Hovis ditched all conventional category language with its mouth-watering bean-smothered bags. Lucozade famously transformed itself from a drink for convalescents to an energy drink for active people. Skoda cars have shifted from laughing stock to stylish, desirable brand.

O2, the reborn BT Cellnet, has been reinvigorated by ditching its old-fashioned name and creating a modern identity, with the distinctive bubbles theme. On the other hand, 3 has struggled to create a clear identity for the brand, trying various cryptic and diverse advertising approaches and resorting to price cutting when all else fails.

Design Disaster

Manor Bakeries has redesigned the packaging of Mr Kipling cakes, while introducing several new products. The smart new look – which uses Hovis-style, full-bleed photographs of the fare inside – is intended to give the cakes a more home-baked, healthy image. The jury is out on whether this is a good move, since the cakes are factory-produced and sugar-filled some observers believe the packaging may over-promise. However, Manor has introduced new baking methods to make the cakes themselves appear more home-cooked and so far the revamp has been a success.

Sometimes it all goes horribly wrong and a redesign fails to win the intended new customers while simultaneously alienating existing ones. The prime example is Babycham, which in the early Nineties attempted to counteract the potential loss of sales from the ageing of its customer base by completely overhauling its packaging to appeal to a younger market. Sales plummeted.

Design company SiebertHead was given the job of reversing the damage. “They had thrown everything out,” says SiebertHead director Satkar Gidda. “They changed the shape and colour, and lost their existing consumer base. Meanwhile, new customers didn’t want it because it simply wasn’t cool.

“We were called in to take the design back but update it,” he adds, “so we reintroduced some of the previous brand imagery and sales climbed back up to where they were before.”

Marks & Spencer, too, has struggled with repositioning. The Autograph brand floundered when it failed to create desire for its designer ranges. Consumers were not prepared to pay relatively high prices for M&S clothes when they could go straight to the designers themselves. Per Una, however, is faring better, and Sally Horrox, managing director of design agency Finisterre, attributes much of this success to good branding and design.

“It’s branded clearly and it looks very different from other parts of the store,” she says. “It has good signposting so it feels like a boutique. The labels are contemporary with beading and fringes. They are tactile and use modern, different colours.”

But labels alone are clearly not enough to revitalise an ailing brand. The product has to be right and the other marketing materials used to promote the brand must work with the packaging to create a consistent message.

The final package

“Packaging represents the brand in the hand – the physical and tangible evidence of a repositioning – the promise delivered,” says Dominic England, director of packaging at design company Dragon. “Advertising, direct marketing and so on set up the promise, whether emotional or functional, and packaging delivers. The key issue is how to flow a new positioning into the media and to understand what packaging can deliver in terms of creative strategy.”

England points out that each pack on a supermarket shelf has a fraction of a second to get itself noticed. Compare this with a television ad, which is focused solely on the brand for 15 or 20 seconds.

“Packaging can not communicate your whole brand positioning model,” he adds. “Its best focus is on how the intangible emotional factors can be translated into tangible experiences. This then has to be achieved within very tight delivery parameters – the packaging will be around for years, whereas advertising can change every few months.”

In the face of media fragmentation, design has an increasingly important role to play, and packages can convey much that seems intangible. When creating that vital connection with a brand, products need a design that not only looks good but is able to subtly and instantly evoke human emotions, such as desire, as well.v

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