Cheap as chic

Supermarket value ranges aren’t only targeted at the less well-off these days – the trick is to woo consumers across all social strata with an ‘honest’ and straightforward product in no-frills packaging, argues Scott Billings

It’s well documented that we’re in a period of financial gloom and diminishing credit, which is bad news for retailers. Or is it? While consumers naturally tighten their belts in a recessional period, it’s often the big-ticket items – such as cars, kitchens and holidays – that get the chop, while lower-cost items are bought with a more mix-and-match approach, some value products, some premium. And in this environment, it’s packaging design that guides shoppers through the sea of choices, tugging gently at the subconscious one minute and shouting loudly in the face the next.

Most supermarkets – and, increasingly, other large-site retailers – use a tiered system of ‘good’, ‘better’ and ‘best’ product ranges, ostensibly to offer something for everybody. ‘Good’ represents value or economy, and the standard approach to communicating a value offer is with a bold, simple and often brash palette – high-impact typography and low levels of information. This type of visual communication is quickly and easily understood and doesn’t make excessive ‘decoding’ demands on the consumer. Its simplicity also suggests an economy of manufacture which, in the customer’s mind, translates to higher value.

‘It’s about saying what it does on the tin as fast as you possibly can. Any extra tricks or finesse and people think that they’re paying for it,’ explains Doug James, director of Honey, which is designing packaging for a range of Tesco products.

But it’s not just in economy lines that simplicity and value are intertwined. Jones Knowles Ritchie creates the packaging for McVitie’s Digestives, still sold in a traditional plastic roll-wrap design. Attempts to move away from this with, say, foil materials or card packaging, are met with consumer resistance because the fancy – and therefore ‘expensive’ – design is seen as too complex for the product. ‘We’ve looked at ways of protecting the biscuits for transport and ways of improving freshness, but in terms of the perception of value in people’s minds, it’s very hard to improve on the roll-wrap,’ says JKR director Andrew Knowles.

Different brands and ranges are usually presented in a manner which side-steps their weaknesses and highlights their strengths, adds Knowles. So, Tesco Value and Sainsbury’s Basics ranges compete on price directly with discount retailers such as Aldi and Lidl ‹ with designs that scream value – basic two-tone packaging often set on a plain white background, occasionally with product photography. They can adopt this ultra-value style because, to consumers, the big supermarkets carry an inherent quality level. At Aldi the super-low prices are well known, but it has to fight against an associated perception of low quality. So its packaging uses higher-end cues including full-colour photography and more complex colour palettes. Meanwhile, branded manufacturers such as McVitie’s or Heinz cannot (and do want to) compete on price, so their packaging deliberately avoids any low-price cues, instead promoting higher quality and consistency.

The good, better, best strategy is a complex dance around not only the competition, but also other products in a retailer’s own portfolio. B&Q is on the verge of revealing a new strategy behind its packaging and brand ‘personality’, but already operates a three-tiered approach to products. According to packaging, design and guidelines manager Jonathan Couper, ‘better’ must complement and support ‘good’ in such a way that consumers want to trade up rather than down. ‘Good and better packaging is based around the same identity, a speech bubble device [originally devised by Elmwood]. There’s more colour and information on the better range, but the speech bubble is used in both tiers to tie them together and help encourage trade-ups,’ says Couper.

The idea that value or economy packaging may be especially designed to ‘guilt’ some shoppers into trading up to the next level perhaps has some currency. ‘It has to be as cheap as they can get away with, as they don’t want to migrate regular customers down to the economy level,’ notes Knowles. But Richard Murray, director at Williams Murray Hamm, the consultancy behind the Sainsbury’s Basics packaging, says purchasing patterns may not be that clear. ‘The interesting thing about value packaging is that it’s not just poor people who are drawn to it. Some people choose it because they don’t like slick marketing or to feel that they’re being played with,’ he says.

In this way, the basic simplicity of the packs plays a new role – not just cheap, but honest. Sainsbury’s Basics on-pack copy and illustrations explain honestly, and often humorously, how the supermarket has managed to make the products cheaper. ‘I just bought the cornflakes in the range at 26p. The copy line claims “No fancy packaging, still a great breakfast” – saying it like it is, with wit, engagement and pride,’ says Martin Grimer, creative director of Blue Marlin Brand Design.

Finally, in a climate of achieving value through sustainability, branded packaging itself perhaps walks something of a tightrope. Ikea, the self-styled ‘democratiser’ of low-cost domestic design, uses virtually no packaging apart from what’s needed for transit. A company spokeswoman says this is precisely because it ‘saves costs and minimises waste’. This, hopes Ikea, translates to better value and more honest retailing.

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