Shooting the messenger

Being asked to create designs for a problematic product can be a poisoned chalice for designers. Clare Dowdy looks at some of the challenges involved

‘In ordinary human relations, when someone isn’t pulling their weight in life and moving forward with you, you tend to become interested in other people.’ And this, says design consultant Michael Wolff, is what can happen to brands – they fall out of favour.

A nightmare situation for any brand owner, it is one that can be addressed in a handful of ways. The most obvious routes are to change the product, which, in fmcg, usually involves improving the ingredients, or to try to change consumers’ perceptions.

And this is where design can step in. Many’s the briefing session where designers are asked to make a brand look better. But woe betide the client which thinks that design holds all the answers. ‘Design is the discipline that’s most likely to express the results of the waking up – but the waking up is not a design thing, it’s an internal thing,’ cautions Wolff. ‘It’s folly (for clients) to assume that your consumers want you to be there (and successful).’ And, of course, telling your client that the problem is inherent to the product, rather than anything to do with the design, is not only unpalatable, but can end the relationship.

The food and drink sector is particularly prone to this scenario. Frozen foods fell foul of the chiller cabinet, so Birds Eye tried a product overhaul, with complementary design, courtesy of Carter Wong Tomlin. The message was a tough one to convey, given that the chiller areas were full of products that didn’t even need to be chilled, but just wanted to be there so that they looked fresh.

Frozen food, on the other hand, could make genuine claims to freshness, because it was frozen immediately after preparation. But that’s a message that modern consumers find hard to stomach.

Mr Kipling is the classic example of a product that was not keeping up with the times. The healthy-eating mood was leaving processed, seemingly old-fashioned cakes out in the cold. Mr Kipling’s attempt to radically reinvent itself did not initially extend to its formula. Sales initially picked up when Turner Duckworth’s ‘upmarket’ redesign hit the shelves. ‘But, while design can make you buy something, it can’t make you repeat purchase,’ says Bruce Duckworth, partner at Turner Duckworth. And, without the promised new recipes, consumers were only going to be hoodwinked once. In such a situation, design gets a bad name for over-promising, letting down consumers and then being treated as the scapegoat. Interestingly, when the new, more conservative re-redesign (by Vibrandt) was introduced in January 2006, it was accompanied by a reformulation of some of the products.

Walkers was in a similar position, as the media’s attention turned to the evils of fatty, salty crisps. But, this time, brand owner Pepsico married a pack change with a formula change.

The relaunched brand has less saturated fat and less salt, explains Derek Johnston, creative director at Landor Associates London, and, as a result, Walkers sales rose by 5 per cent more than their forecast, meaning a 13 per cent increase in 2006 on the previous year.

‘We wanted to get the packaging to say it’s still a potato snack, but it’s just a little bit healthier. If you make packaging that tells people that it’s better for them, they almost step away from it, because they want to be the judge,’ Johnston adds.

Sometimes, it’s not the contents that have fallen out of favour, but the packaging itself. At the other end of the food spectrum, there is increasing competition at breakfast time, as new cereal entrants appear on a regular basis.

Dorset Cereals was a relatively old hand, but had been sitting in the same packaging for the past 18 years. Customers were starting to moan that these oh-so-familiar bags fell over and were difficult to open. Last year, Big Fish switched the product from what Dorset Cereals’ marketing controller Patrick Horton describes as a dated bag to a contemporary box. The effect has been significant. Not only did sales double in the first nine months, but perception changed as well. ‘We’ve had a lot of press coverage, and have been in every single national newspaper,’ Horton says. And, what’s more, ‘we have got back in front of the key buyers. Now we have increased distribution in all the major multiples.’

But, as Blue Marlin creative director Martin Grimer points out, when a product really is no longer relevant to consumers, not a whole lot can be done. He cites Smash, suggesting its only redemption could be ‘as an organic product in the chiller’.

While food has been going through a pretty major revolution, household cleaning products are not far behind. Gone are the days when the more chemicals are pumped into a pack the better. Consumers are very slowly becoming aware that such artificial cocktails may not be advisable in the home. Couple this with the desire to save energy and water, and there could be some major changes in washing and cleaning products. In a small way, ecologically friendly brand Ecover is already benefiting from these modern sensibilities.

Added Value’s research into the bug spray market demonstrated that many pack graphics were out of kilter with consumers’ attitudes. ‘Bug sprays’ graphics used nuclear-explosion coding,’ says Added Value associate director Izzy Pugh, ‘but you don’t want nuclear war going on in your house.’ And it only takes one brand to redesign to make the others look outdated and irrelevant.

Ariel has been one of the first traditional brands to jump on this bandwagon. Its latest Landor-designed packs display a 30-degree dial, to express the idea of a ‘cool clean’. ‘The message is that the product is so advanced in its cleaning you can wash at 30 degrees,’ says Johnston.

If enough consumers wake up to the ingredients used in such products, then ‘brands will need to change formula or volume and that will be next’, predicts Johnston. ‘Washing is going to be all about powerful mighty drops. We are going to see more laundry products going in that direction.’

Either way, Wolff believes it’s down to authenticity. ‘You have to be real and authentic, otherwise you are found out. Companies are increasingly falling out of favour because there’s greater choice and more information, and we will become more skillful choosers. There is a lot of stimulus to become better purchasers.’

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