On your marks…

A good brand will have several design elements that are uniquely associated with the product.

SBHD: A good brand will have several design elements that are uniquely associated with the product.

American cowhands who could neither read nor write could recognise and name any brand on a cow, whether it was in letters, figures or symbols – the brand was a key to ownership and prosperity. Many ranches were named after their brand, and they all held the brand mark in the greatest of esteem. Brands were highly visual trade marks, and were protected and enforced by law, though the relevant law was generally that of the gun rather than of the courtroom.

Today, the common law right is that the owner of the mark must prove what it stands for in the eye of the consumer, an expensive, time-consuming and vague process. But the brand is still well worth protecting. For companies such as

Cadbury’s, Unilever and Guinness, share prices can rise and fall with the fortunes of branded products. The brand is big business and its protection is worth fighting for.

Sainsbury’s Classic Cola has attacked Coca-Cola head on (taking 15 per cent of all Cola sales in the UK) and Virgin has steamed in with its Cola, leaving the branded sector reeling. Coca-Cola had three excellent brand equities going for it: the logotype with its unique lettering style, the swirling line that underscores the logo, and, of course, the famous bottle. But in being forced into using cans by huge sales volumes and the need to remain competitive on cost and convenience, Coca-Cola has seen what is probably its strongest protectable equity – that unique bottle – diminished.

But the consumer is no mug – delivery of a good product is everything. My children love

Virgin Cola, don’t mind Coke, but actually ask for Pepsi. With Coca-Cola we see that the reassurance offered by an established brand is being challenged on price, product values and, quite literally, a more attractive own-brand offer.

Choose a brand, take it apart layer by layer, and ask the question: “How much of this is ownable, unique, memorable and distinctively ours?” The weaknesses in it will be exposed.

The brand mark is something that must be protected, but it is only part of the territorial story. Long before Sunlight Soap was ripped off by Zunlight, the importance of having more than just a unique logotype was being battled out, and one of the things that it threw up was the importance of naming.

Inventing a non-descriptive name such as Exxon, Kodak or Amstrad can help build a strong foundation for a brand by giving a sense of uniqueness to the product. A handful of examples might include Tide in the washing powder sector, Shell in petrol and Kit-Kat in confectionery.

Working these names into a strong logotype like those for Marlboro or Heinz makes for a distinctive mark, but creating names that also have product relevance, such as Slumberland or Aero (the aerated chocolate), makes them uniquely ownable, memorable and protectable.

Nor is a logotype enough. Heinz Baked Beans, with the black keystone, unique typeface and the “ownership” of turquoise, are in a better position than most beans, and, for that matter, most brands.

The use of colour has its own problems. In most people’s eyes Cadbury “owns” purple, but the colour may eventually pass to Silk Cut. Going back to soft drinks, we see that though Coca-Cola can own a logo, it can’t own red, which has come to be associated with a product category rather than an individual product – Sainsbury, Asda, Virgin and Woolworths all use red cans. The surface graphics help to differentiate the products, but only Virgin offers added value with its refreshment appeal.

Colmans has “owned” the colour yellow for years, but all the own-label mustards have followed in that colour, as well as imitating Colmans’ famous bull symbol. More could be made of such a distinctive mark, combining it, for example, with unique lettering and some means of suggesting Colmans’ heritage and added value. The American brand Habañero’s is marketed as the mustard from hell (the world’s hottest) and uses a cheeky devil and a waxed dripping lid as well as yellow. The use of colour is no different from Colmans’, but the layers of imagery and inventiveness set it apart from most big brands.

Brands have long used visual devices to build on – Bluebird toffees, the Guinness toucan, Startrite shoes with the happy-go-lucky children, the Slimcea girl, the Birds Eye Logo, the Esso Tiger and, of course, the Bisto Kids. The added value and ownership were there – the Bisto kids created an association with appetite, the Esso Tiger with power and strength, Birds Eye with quality and the Slimcea girl with fitness and health. Pneumonic devices have also evolved to help give brand names more impact – Whiskers with its cat shape, Jacob’s with its diamond. The ownability, strength and impact of such devices give instant recognition in a sea of brands but probably the greatest area for protectability is within structural design.

Jif Lemon did it years ago, but nowadays products like Toilet Duck, bottled Perrier water and Issey Miyake perfumes are using structure to great advantage. Although a costly exercise, structural packaging increases brand ownership. Such structural devices ensure instant brand recognition and allow graphics to work harder. With large volume sales of branded goods it can be difficult to justify a price premium, but if you show someone a silhouette of the Coke bottle and ask them to identify it you’ll see that the investment is well worth it.

Once a brand is successful it will clearly be imitated by competitors wishing to gain market share by association. Just one layer or element cannot necessarily be totally protectable, but the language of a brand can become unique by its combination of ownable properties.

The design and evaluation of branded packaging has become a complex and highly responsible business – how could it be otherwise with so much at stake? Existing brands survive by building on strength, heritage and longevity.

While design is only part of the marketing mix, it is important to work closely with clients and agencies to become brand custodians. It is easy with today’s technology to ask for quicker solutions, but only by giving the brand the thought that it deserves can designers and marketers bring back the craftsmanship necessary to create ownership and uniqueness.

Successful brands have survived because they have been managed carefully and because they have kept up with changing times. While luxury goods will always be bought in the shop environment, justified by their premium price, everyday items will in future be purchased by teleshoppers, with deliveries direct to the front door. The brand recognition, loyalty and immediacy will have to work even harder against world-wide competition. Put simply, the brand that fails to move with the changing pattern of consumer purchasing will become extinct. m

Glenn Tutssel is creative director at Tutssels Ltd

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