Own-labels are packing a punch

Retailers’ own-label ranges are losing their “poor relation” stigma, in part thanks to high quality and strategically led packaging. Should brands be running scared?


In times of financial hardship, it is only natural that consumers reappraise the way they do their grocery shopping. Sixty per cent of shoppers say they are buying more supermarket own-label than they did two years ago, while 71% of shoppers now say they see little or no difference between brands and own-label products, according to a YouGov study by Haygarth.

But being cheaper than the branded equivalent is no longer enough to secure a customer’s loyalty. Packaging must increasingly make emotional connections with customers, both in terms of taste and provenance, causing many retailers to put greater investment into their own-label offerings.

During the past 18 months there have been major relaunches of The Co-operative’s Truly Irresistible and Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference ranges and new own-label launches from Waitrose, Morrisons, and Tesco.

Haygarth head of planning Anthony Donaldson, who led the report, says: “It’s all about price since the recession, but that’s not enough any more. Beyond cost, consumers need to identify with their products and so we’re seeing own-label packaging trying to behave a lot more like branded products. There’s a distinctive shift from ’own-label’ to ’own-brand’.”

The Co-operative senior marketing manager Amanda Collins agrees: “I firmly believe that own-label is a really positive thing to buy; it’s certainly not a compromise any more. These ranges stand on their own because of the quality of branding. You have to deliver that with the products. The packaging must reflect the quality.”

Own from home and away: Waitrose’s Good to Go is sold in other outlets so has strong Waitrose branding

For the relaunch of The Co-operative’s Truly Irresistible range in May, Manchester-based design agency GJ Creative came up with a new identity featuring elegant typography and luxurious food photography similar to that of desert brand Gü or Duchy Originals. The range consists of more than 400 products, around 50 of which have launched with the new look this year (see Brand in the Spotlight, below).

Similarly, Morrisons has worked with agency Coley Porter Bell to revamp its entire own-label range, which includes more than 17,000 products and variants. The new look aims to capitalise on Morrisons’ strong reputation for fresh produce and focus on food expertise. For example, the new M Kitchen range features a friendly, hand-drawn typeface to communicate the care and human touch in everything Morrisons does. Accompanying range M Bistro pairs similar hand-drawn typography with photography of the raw ingredients, to emphasise the artisan quality of the chefs who make the products.

Fresh produce was also an important focus for Waitrose’s LOVElife range, which launched in June with strategy from 20/20 and packaging design by Pearlfisher. Waitrose head of graphic design Maggie Hodgetts explains: “LOVElife is our range of delicious and nutritionally balanced foods launched in response to customer demand for us to help them eat more healthily.

“The design of the branding and packaging uses vibrant primary colours to symbolise that more colour in the diet means more variety and thus improved nutrition, and also to make these products easily identifiable on shelves.”

M Kitchen, from Morrisons, uses a hand-written typeface to communicate its personal touch

Waitrose acknowledges the power of strong packaging, suggesting that its Essential range, which launched in 2009, has been instrumental in the supermarket’s growth. Hodgetts says: “The branding of Essential Waitrose was designed to be in a simple style with strong branding and distinctive illustrations to make it easier for our customers to identify. It now accounts for about 17% of our total sales and has been a powerful force behind our sales growth.”

Now that own-brands are favourably regarded by consumers, some retailers are branching out to sell them in outlets other than their own stores. This year Waitrose developed Good to Go, a range of convenience foods and sandwiches to be sold in shops such as Boots and some petrol stations.

The packaging, by design agency Turner Duckworth, capitalises on the clean simplicity of the Waitrose identity, and marries classic typography with restrained, earthy colourways and watercolor-style illustrations to create a look that is distinctly Waitrose, especially important when removed from its home environment.

Similarly, Tesco launched Chokablok earlier this year, an ice cream that will be sold in non-competing retailers. However, unlike Waitrose’s Good to Go, the Chokablok identity, created by Mayday, does not carry the Tesco name. This shows not just a shift from own-label to own-brand but an attempt to create a brand that consumers won’t necessarily link to Tesco.

But as retailers up the ante with their own-label products, will their ability to invest in promoting these ranges and strong distribution networks pose a threat to brands?

The mimicking of branded packaging by own-label products is something Dorset Cereals brand manager Alison Hooper has noticed.
“Packaging design is either going for a basic look or moving to something that feels more premium. Retailers are using packaging to try to move up to the more exclusive section, where consumers have got money to spend,” she says.

Despina Evangelides, buying manager of the National Trust, which recently overhauled its own-label packaging with the help of Studio H, says: “The recession has definitely changed the way brands commission packaging but it has polarised opinion. There are those who see cost as prohibitive and will only embark on new branding on a cost reduced base, or because new product demands it. Others see it as a golden opportunity to make products stand out when people are pulling in their horns.”

Retailers are using packaging to try to move up to the more exclusive section, where customers have got to spend money

Hotel Chocolat creative director Fredrik Ahlin agrees: “It will be interesting to see how brands overcome this shift from supermarkets. Packaging is about delivering an emotional reason to buy, that’s where you secure loyalty.”

The changing retail landscape has pushed Hotel Chocolat to rethink its packaging, creating concepts that reflect the look and feel of their contents. For example, the recently launched Headonism Chocolate Skull, which is coated with edible 24-carat gold, uses two-tone gloss and matt packaging (to reflect the different coloured chocolates of the skull), finished with a blood-red scarlet ribbon.

Ahlin says: “That’s the approach we try to take all the time, we start with an idea and then the packaging and the product develops in parallel. Obviously packaging has to be fit for purpose but it’s there to tell a story and add another layer of emotion and beauty.”

For luxury pudding brand Gü, the most important thing is to use packaging to reinforce its brand positioning, and its sleek black packaging, photography and bold tone of voice are intended to show its indulgent and decadent positioning.

Gü senior brand manager Joseph Liu says: “Often, when trying to grow a small brand into a more mass-market FMCG brand, there can be an inherent temptation to normalise toward the centre of the category, especially when a brand tries to grow beyond its core consumers.

“But this can lead to the brand getting lost in the shuffle and losing the characteristics that made it successful to begin with. Simplifying and amplifying your unique brand positioning is critical to breaking through an increasingly cluttered market.”



Amanda Collins
Senior marketing manager, The Co-operative

Marketing Week (MW): What is the strategy behind some of your recent ranges?

Amanda Collins (AC): The thinking behind our latest launch Truly Irresistible was product formulation, introducing new products alongside revised packaging.

MW: Do you commission an agency or do you do the creative work in-house?

AC: We use an agency, which is briefed by our packaging design team. The agency comes back to the team with different formats and the creative, then it’s presented to all the category managers and the wider business for approval.

MW: What did the brief for the Truly Irresistible packaging include?


AC: We wanted a premium feel and did lots of research into what signified a premium range. We have specific fonts and the photography styling is truthful and honest but more luxurious.

MW: Are supermarkets changing the way they commission own-label packaging?

AC: Own-label items are looking more like a branded product. If people are trading to these they don’t want to think it’s a poor substitute. The packaging reassures them that it’s a quality product. It’s about consumer perception. We are strong in own-label packaging, in brand and font consistency, so our own-label won’t mimic a branded line. We’re not in the business of pretending we’re some other brand. Our brand stands on its own and is a very high quality own-label product.

MW: Has packaging changed since the recession?

AC: Our value offering Simply Value is toned down and pared back. It looks more functional than Truly Irresistible. But it still needs to be desirable, we still want it to be a positive decision and feel like customers are getting value for money. And it must reaffirm our ethics. Whether it’s a Simply Value or a Truly Irresistible product, British or responsibly sourced, ethics still apply.

Top trends: 2012 predictions


Joseph Liu
Senior brand manager, Gü

Brands will begin calling out social media assets more explicitly on-pack. I’d be surprised if we didn’t start to see Facebook URLs, Twitter icons, websites, QR codes, online competitions and online content appearing on more and more packs.


Despina Evangelides
Buying manager, National Trust

I think we’ll see more simple and straightforward packaging that is unambiguous so that customers can find what they want. Brands will look for more sustainability in materials and, aesthetically, we’ll see a continuation of the trend for vintage and modern – preserving the old and adding the new.


Fredrik Ahlin
Creative director, Hotel Chocolat

I think we will see an evolution of packaging at the aspirational end of the spectrum. I think packaging will become more thought-through and well designed, environmentally and ethically conscious. And as a result of the economy, perhaps a bit more emotional.


Amanda Collins
Senior marketing manager, The Co-operative

We’re always going to be looking at how to reduce packaging and make less of an impact environmentally. I think there will be a continued search for things that will have less impact. There’ll be an innovation in sandwich packaging away from plastic to cardboard. Everyone’s trying to reduce cost, waste and make everything more recyclable.

Fact focus

Milk, bread, toilet paper, baked beans and pasta are the top five products that consumers are most like to buy own-label, according to a YouGov study by Haygarth.

Heinz Baked Beans, Gillette razors, Walkers crisps, Heinz ketchup and Kellogg’s cereals are the top five products that consumers said they would not be willing to sacrifice for own-label equivalents.



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