Secret to shelf-esteem

Most supermarket brands can’t afford costly promotion, relying on packaging as their chief advertisement. And David Bernstein occasionally gets taken in by it

Familiarity may breed contempt but it speeds purchase decisions. In my supermarket I know what I’m looking for and where to find it. So I’m miffed when the floor plan alters and I have to go aisle hopping. But I understand the retailer’s need to defeat customer habit. Change makes the shopper stop, reconsider, maybe make an unplanned purchase and forget the annoyance. The shopper stops, the stopper shops.

Basic shopping, especially by working people on working days, needs to be conducted quickly and instinctively. Mr Sainsbury won’t worry too much about automata flowing through the checkout. But no model I know of the communication process has an automaton at the receiving end. Communication is about exchange – between two sentient beings. Manufacturers and distributors of brands must engage in dialogue at the shelf-level. Those clumsy, but no doubt effective card constructions that protrude from the shelves with injunctions are known as shelf-talkers.

One day they will literally speak to the consumer if the predictions in the film Minority Report, based on existing technology, are any guide. However, communication need not be vocal. Well crafted ad copy is one half of a dialogue. The copywriter anticipates response and then answers it. But most brands can’t afford much if any advertising. For them the shelf is the substitute medium: the packaging is the advertisement.

The new brand has to fight hard from the shelf. Indeed, if there is little or no support advertising, it may not even make it to the shelf. Positioning is crucial. Where the brand is physically positioned says where it belongs also in the shopper’s mindset. X is like its neighbour Y – but how does it differ? asks the shopper. Price and cost/weight ratio information is supplied right there on the shelf by the retailer.

But other values must be conveyed by the pack itself, especially if the brand is pioneering a new category, for example, Sainsbury’s Active Naturals premium health, beauty and household range (News, DW 26 September). Being cross-category makes its positioning, literal and mental, tricky indeed. The onus is on the pack. Smith & Milton’s design director stressed the clear glass containers: ‘beautiful photography and really simple graphics’.

There is no mention, however, of the accompanying two dozen words of body copy. It would be interesting to see how these principles are applied across the range as the 130 product lines are rolled out. Will some products need more words or, as the brand catches on, fewer?

The packs of established brands may not have to work so hard. Nevertheless, new consumers enter the marketplace every day, old consumers need to be reminded why they use the brand, lapsed consumers can be pleasantly surprised and automata can be stopped in their tracks, as I was the other day in Safeway. A bottle caught my eye. It looked for all the world like tomato ketchup, with the familiar Heinz 57 roundel and label, but it was branded ‘You can’t eat without it’, and the words ‘tomato ketchup’ were relegated to a descriptor. I bought it.

The claim is arrogant and hard to justify for a ketchup (a set of dentures maybe?).

How long will the phrase occupy pride of place? Are other slogans planned? Will other brands follow Heinz’s lead? Not many brands, though, are as strong in their category as Heinz or as distinctive in their packaging. Dominate the market and what you print on the label may be immaterial.

Pack copy inveigled me into taking another product off a shelf – a retro radio, an updated reproduction, the Bush TR130. The pack illustration is accompanied by a photograph of a joyous Bobby Moore, trophy aloft, at Wembley, a strapline: ’60s Design Classic Portable FM/MW/LW Radio’ (how could I of all people decline a design classic?) plus some inviting copy. ‘Thousands listened to England winning the World Cup in 1966 on the Bush TR130’.

I was sold. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t confirm the claim. (I didn’t listen to the final – I was there.) I didn’t need the supporting copy on the side of the pack about the tuner, push-button band selector, 2W RMS output, headphone socket, mains/battery operation and so on, but the reinforcing arguments were nice to have. Masters of shelf dialogue may not know it but they are adherents of EM Forster’s precept: ‘only connect’.

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