On the shelf

There is no doubt that fmcg is one of the most challenging retail industries for brands at the moment. But, it also has the potential to be one of the most rewarding.
Product consumption and consumers’ appetites for new stimulation has never been so great. Add to this the impact of new methods of communication, a huge awakening of the ‘social conscience’ and an increasingly opinionated and powerful consumer audience, and brands are faced with a baffling task in cutting through the noise and achieving effective, sustainable results.

This is where design has a critical role to play in achieving this cut-through and ensuring successful brand stand-out and engagement. It has never been more important for fmcg brands to invest in design – both in product and packaging – to truly innovate and make the difference. In an industry of constant evolution, packaging is arguably the most powerful medium that fmcg brands have to communicate and engage with potential customers.

Above all other topics affecting the industry, the past year has seen the fmcg world dominated by issues of sustainability and environmental responsibility, both in terms of product and packaging. We are seeing a wealth of new packaging initiatives launching every month, each claiming to be more environmentally conscious than the last. But are they hitting the mark?

The most effective examples we have seen so far are those which take into account the ‘bigger picture’ in terms of marrying these new packaging initiatives with innovations in product development, manufacturing and logistics which genuinely tackle the wider issues of sustainability. Wal-Mart really set the tone for this at the end of last year with the launch of its scorecard initiative to rate the sustainability credentials of all suppliers – from manufacture to packaging – and select partners accordingly. And Marks & Spencer’s Look Behind the Label campaign is really spearheading consumer awareness in the UK. What began as a point of difference for smaller, niche brands on short-run quantities of product is now becoming big business.

Asda’s recent trial of 100 per cent biodegradable Greenbottle milk cartons for its locally sourced organic milk is just one example of where a brand is managing effectively to combine packaging design innovation as part of a bigger, responsible sourcing initiative. And Sainsbury’s recent launch of popular wines in PET plastic bottles – which look identical to the glass versions – is another great example of where design and environmental needs are combining to create products that not only tap into the social conscience but still appeal aesthetically to the demanding, increasingly style-conscious consumer.

But it’s early days and there is a lot of work yet to be done in this field. Packaging alternatives of this nature have still not reached a stage where they are absolutely cost-effective for mass roll-out and, in many cases, manufacturing and logistics still hamper substantial overall energy improvements. And there is the ongoing issue of too much packaging being used – no amount of ‘alternative material solutions’ gets around that fact, if manufacturing needs and energy costs are not diminishing accordingly.
Looking to the other overarching issues for the majority of fmcg brands – category saturation and an ever-more demanding consumer – these are both areas where investing in design and innovation can have marked results.

Consumers’ increasingly style-conscious decisions in all areas of their lives is resulting in even the choice of household cleaning products taking on greater significance. For fmcg brands, where the shelf edge is still the most powerful communication space, well-designed product packaging will, without question, boost ‘pick-up power’.
It is necessary here, as always, to stress that good design does not necessarily signal the need for bigger budgets, and return on investment is now provable. Think of Green & Black’s packaging redesign, which resulted in a sales increase of a staggering 789 per cent, or Sainsbury’s SO organic range, which recorded enough profits by the end of the first week of trading for the design to pay for itself.

In creating the most effective shelf stand-out, good design must also be coupled with authenticity in delivering the brand to the consumer – not just through behind-the-scenes responsibility in manufacturing but, in packaging design terms, through brand story telling and information delivery. Consumers respond well to knowledge-sharing and demonstrations of expertise from brands, as seen, for example, in Waitrose’s Cooks Ingredients range and Boots’ recent launch of its extremely well-received Expert range.

Looking beyond shelf edge to the role of point-of-sale in fmcg brand communication, it is clear that technology is playing, and will continue to play, a greater role. However, where implementing technology can be hugely effective – as seen in the radio-frequency identification (RFID) tagged units for Lab Series male grooming products in UK department stores, which resulted in a 400 per cent sales increase – it can also be a distraction from the core needs of the brand. To put it bluntly, content on in-store plasma screens does not automatically solve the challenge of connecting with consumers. Sometimes, good design and execution of packaging and product is enough, and the ‘less is more’ concept of old still rings very true today.

In a world of multiple communication channels, packaging is the only part of the brand with which consumers may ever physically engage, and it is certainly the only dispatch from the brand – aside from the product itself – which consumers may choose to retain within sight on a day-to-day basis. Those small surfaces of the packaged product are worth investing in, at least as much as other marketing channels, if not more.

Lucy Johnston is executive editor of the Global Innovation Report, published by research and trend analysis consultancy GDR Creative Intelligence, London

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