Shelf starters

Turning a ’mom and pop’ cottage industry product into a mainstream brand calls for genuine differentiation and serious long-term investment – and getting the packaging design right is crucial to success. Emily Pacey investigates

Compared to reverently and minutely evolving an fmcg design classic such as the Heinz Salad Cream bottle, getting stuck into a vivacious new challenger brand enters the realms of the fantasy design job. Last week, in the first episode of High Street Dreams, a new BBC One series that charts the transformation of cottage industry products into aspiring brands on supermarket shelves, consultancies Pearlfisher and Blue Marlin displayed their skills on prime-time TV.

But despite taking mere days to turn out packaging and branding that had the clients gawping in amazement, both consultancies caught some flak off buyers from Waitrose and Asda for faults that include using illegibly small text and failing to communicate the story behind the brand.

’I am not going to start pointing fingers, but if a piece of information is important enough to go on the label, then it needs to be legible by people with 20/20 vision,’ says Kate Blandford, former head of packaging design at Sainsbury’s, who left two years ago to set up her own consultancy.

’Instinctively, designers want to declutter, and it is true that some of the best brands are the simplest. But there is a temptation for designers to think more from the point of view of creating the iconic brand, rather than about the consumer’s decision-making at the point of purchase,’ adds Blandford.

So how can consultancies create vibrant ’challenger brand’ packaging while making sure it’s still conventional enough to get supermarket buyers on board?

Pearlfisher, which branded and packaged Mr Singh’s chilli sauce in the first episode of High Street Dreams, believes that artisan food brands can afford to give no more than a hint of the story on the packet itself.

The consultancy’s creative partner Jonathan Ford says, ’What consumers actually want is a good product that is well presented and looks great on the table.

There is definitely a place for fluff and guff, but it is better to reveal the story layer by layer.’

With a wealth of digital and social media tools at a brand’s disposal, there are now multiple opportunities to peel back the onion layers of the brand story. Mary Say, who runs Brand Potential, a consultancy that’s stated aim is to help small brands break into the mainstream says, ’If a big retailer like Asda is willing to give a platform to a brand like Mr Singh’s to tell its story, then the client and designer have to run with the ball in terms of making sure that all the brand touchpoints – such as the website, Facebook page and Twitter feed – are in place’.

Blandford agrees that supermarkets are increasingly design-savvy and are beginning to demand progressive design from challenger brands. She says, ’Big retailers see that new players with a genuinely different message are capable of snapping people out of their sleep-shopping and of making consumers reassess an entire category, and, as a result, they are looking for quite eccentric challenger brands.’

Owner/founder-managed brands such as those starring in High Street Dreams are often blessed with natural charisma, gleaned from the passion of their creators.

’Any brand that has the proprietor’s name above the door, such as Cath Kidston or Jo Malone, is going to have a human element that is irresistible’, says Say.
From a business perspective, design consultancies that are willing to risk their time, money and energy on a tiny brand with potential can gain a lifelong client, the credit for an iconic brand and might even start a design revolution that will see them sorted for clients for a long time to come.

But Ford points out that ’mom and pop’ (his name for artisan) and challenger brands are not necessarily one and the same, and that design groups looking to invest their money and time should tread carefully. ’Are they just a back-room husband-and-wife team looking to launch something on a dream and a whim, or have they seriously considered how they are differentiating themselves, in a clear-eyed way?’ he asks. ’A challenger brand knows what it is challenging, and a really smart challenger brand will have done a lot of thinking, and will probably have a certain amount of capital investment.’

The trouble often comes not with the initial push to create a brand from a good product, but further down the line, once the product has reached the supermarket shelves.

Ford says, ’We work with a lot of these sorts of brands, and we are going to get them through the next three years of their life, but selling a brand into the supermarket is, frankly, quite easy. Once you are in there and competing with the Innocents and Green & Blacks, which have spent years building themselves up, you need to outmarket them, and you need to have a hard head and be a clever brand-owner to do that’.

Since High Street Dreams aired last Monday, Blue Marlin’s outgoing executive creative director Martin Grimer claims to have received ’so many calls from companies professing that they didn’t realise how important marketing is until they saw the programme, and asking for help.’

Packaging design groups, brace yourselves for an onslaught of Wellington booted, would-be entrepreneurs – and don’t forget to use generously proportioned text.

Designing packaging for artisan brands

  • Humour is a good way for brands to show that they are not taking themselves too seriously
  • Spend time with customers in their homes, working with the product. See how they use it and interact with the packaging
  • Accept there is a lot of subjectivity in design. What is right for Asda may not be right for Waitrose, and vice versa
  • Be savvy about which artisan brand clients you are willing to design for. Many lack the ability to keep the brand above water, which means you could lose out financially

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