Think grocery shopping and most of us imagine a typical aisle in a bricks-and-mortar supermarket. The shelf layout conforms to carefully controlled category management. Brands sit shoulder to shoulder, vying for our attention with their pack design. A glint of silver foiling catches our eye signalling a premium product that takes our fancy. A waft of freshly baked bread begs to be picked up, squeezed, sniffed. The soundscape: a cacophony of clanging trolleys, chatter and electronic beeps.
Yet for a growing number of grocery shoppers, the reality is a 2D world. ‘Flat’ really sums it up, from an environment of chaotic sensorial overstimulation to the utilitarian and routine. FMCG retailer sites currently prioritise convenience and cost comparison over enjoyment or inspiration, embedding a functional mindset with online grocery shoppers. Straightjacket behaviour is the norm here: repeat-buy via favourites lists or shop for tried and trusted brands using typed product searches. What is emerging is a shopping realm that undermines the traditional role of pack design. Online, substrate and pack communication are barely relevant and the competitive ‘fixture’ within which we understand design is constantly changing.
While the market share for FMCG shopping is relatively small now, online is the fastest growing channel in this sector. What is significant is that this new shopping behaviour has massive implications for the design industry, threatening to flip well-entrenched packaging rules on its head. So we need to be prepared for how to tackle the challenges of packaging design in the future.
What does this mean for design?
Context is key in understanding design. But what happens when the competitive context changes every time a pack is seen? Furthermore, what is the role of design in a world where consumers tend to shop by product names rather than by look and feel? And how can a pack communicate an emotional benefit when, online, it’s barely providing the cues for recognition? These are some questions The Big Picture set out to answer in our consumer research project aimed at understanding the challenges for FMCG pack design in the digital world.
First, what are some of the challenges ahead?
- Premiumness is at a disadvantage online. The traditional ways brands express their values, uniqueness and category credentials (substrates, foiling, fine detail etc.) go unnoticed in the digital realm. To boot, retailer websites list the price by weight, perpetuating a rational decision-making mindset between products and brands.
- The online shelf is a continually changing fixture. Brands and products that would never be merchandised together in-store may be presented as digital neighbours, enforcing a continual reappraisal of how we perceive brands and their worth. Even if marketeers manage to get their brands to display on the elusive first page page of results (who can be bothered scrolling through pages of products?), the competitive context is impossible to predict, forcing design to work much harder, across a broader range of brands and products.
- Pack identification is a priority in the digital realm, as it is in-store. Yet the online medium significantly hinders this with stamp-sized and pixelated images. Out of necessity, accompanying retailer copy often has to be read to provide the information shoppers need –especially size. In other words, a rational (‘System 2’, according to Kahneman’s theory) approach is usually required for digital grocery shopping. And it’s hard work! This reinforces the ease of repeat buying – it’s simply too much hassle to double-check information for unfamiliar products.
- ‘Brand-blocking’ strategies that work so well in bricks and mortar, allowing similar designs to dominate the shelf, have few advantages online (see picture, above). A heavy-handed ‘masterbrand’ design approach often results in variants looking homogenous in the digital realm, enforcing the need to rely on ‘System 2’ – reading retailer information. Or typing in the name if you know it (the stuff of nightmares if you can’t remember what type of Dolmio pasta sauce little Johnny refuses to eat – Lasagne Roasted Onion and Garlic or Bolognese Extra Onion and Garlic?)
A new strategy needed
So what can brands do? We have pinpointed three principles that we believe will help future-proof design in a 2D world.
- Essential ‘equities’. Principally, brands need to prioritise their most ownable and recognisable pack equities, both graphic and structural. These act as the visual shortcut to your product, so build in as much emotional currency to these equities as possible; can they communicate efficacy, fragrance, freshness? Critically, equities also need to be scalable. Do they work just as well on a billboard as they do on a stamp? And clear out unnecessary visual clutter to make your equities ‘pop’.
- Make variants distinctive. In the digital world, there is no advantage to a brand-blocking approach. What’s more important here is allowing individual products or variants to be easily recognised and understood. Don’t rely on retailer copy to tell your product story.
- Exploit digital. It was back in 2012 that Birds Eye teamed up with Ocado to have the Fish Fingers ‘spokesbear’ Clarence come to life in the digital fixture for a three week campaign. It’s a struggle to think of any brand that has capitalised on digital’s potential to add theatre to the online shopping space since. Animation, music, snack-sized advertising and even 360-degree pack shots are obvious advantages here, but are vastly under-utilised.
In the future, there is an expectation that grocery retailers will take the lead in encouraging consumers to the online channel, but there has been little innovation compared to other online shopping sectors. And while we can expect rapid advancement, certainly compared to bricks and mortar, we can’t wait for them before we consider designing for digital.
Digital grocery is a radically evolving landscape for design to operate in and the design industry needs to be ready to adapt its thinking. Brands and design are not appraised in the same way as they are in-store. We need to take an approach that considers the new role of design, the ever-changing needs of the digital shopper and the channel through which design is presented.
Brands who exploit the advantages of each channel, with a strong visual brand language irrespective of the context, are best placed to succeed.
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