Copycats get the cream

In the world of product branding retailers reign supreme, not manufacturers. Richard Murray thinks that much of this is due to old-fashioned complacency

What is the world of marketing coming to? I have been approached recently by two world-famous manufacturers with a brief to make their brands look more like one of their retail rivals!

The manufacturer versus retailer debate, is in itself nothing new, but it does seem to have taken a bizarre twist. It would seem that while manufacturers were investing their energy in whinging about copycattingí they took their eye off the ball long enough for the more clued-up retailers to embrace and establish a far more enlightened approach to packaging design. In short, the smart retailers have stolen a march on beleaguered manufacturers.

Increasingly, it is the retailers who are setting the standards for new packaging design. Everyone seems to aspire to the continuity or handwriting of Boots, or the turnaround effects of Superdrug and Halfords.

In 1999 you are more likely to say “it’s very Waitrose”í than “it’s very Kellogg’s”í while Harvey Nichols has become an unarguable universal benchmark for all things premium.

Tesco Finest has out-manoeuvred a host of well-known food brands by doing everything that manufacturers had previously thought was fundamentally wrong: small type, negative space, precious product shot, and the use of the unfoody silver. Colleges will set a W H Smith brief over a Basildon Bond brief any day of the week, and Asda wines has probably been more influential than any other wine brand you could care to mention.

It’s now an accepted fact that retailer brands have produced the majority of creative landmarks over the past two decades. That is not to say manufacturers have achieved little, but when you look back through creative annuals and award schemes you have to say “Thank God for Boots, Superdrug and co”, or we’d be up to our eyes in logos.

While it has become de rigeur to take a pop at own-label design when it wins accolades and awards because it’s supposedly easier, I suggest those designers who sneer at retailer work as if it’s some kind of second-class citizen should wake up and smell the Tesco coffee! It can be just as easy and achievable to juggle the elements of a manufacturer brand if the desire is there, the difference is that it can also present a far greater creative challenge.

So what might the manufacturers learn from the retailers?

First, they need to see the real value of design. Back in the days when retailer brands meant relatively little to the consumer, they had no other option than to take the creative highroad, in the absence of a reputation or a well-known name. Ironically, the tables are now turned and it is the manufacturers which, through years of hiding behind a logo, find themselves meaning little to the consumer. For me, the best examples of retail branding uphold very basic design principles. They seek a good idea and execute it well.

Next, it has to be said that retailer brands are much less afraid of change – so manufacturers should take heed. Those who persist in making reference to what has been done before are likely to come unstuck at some point because that was “then”. Supposed brand assets end up becoming millstones or excuses not to move forward.

Manufacturers should learn about real commitment to design. That’s not just about budgets and embarking on design projects, it’s about really wanting them to be successful. Waitrose and Halfords are not any better, cleverer or braver than a Kimberly Clark or RHM. They have no hidden success formulae.

They are committed from the very top of the business to the use of design in building their brands. They were looking for transformation, and not just incremental gain. And that has been their prize.

However, not all retailers have successfully embraced design. Their failing, as with manufacturers, tends to be complacency. Guilty on one hand of thinking you can languish behind a name, and on the other of greatly underestimating their consumer. We know who they are and will be watching what they do next with interest.

You would be hard pushed to find better evidence of design effectiveness per se than in the growth of the retailer brand. As a genre it has been elevated from cheap and cheerful copycat to being the packaging design hero of the new millennium. My advice to any prospective client wanting to emulate retailer’s success is simple. Learn from them, match their standards and principles by all means, but not their designs. You know only too well the pitfalls of that particular approach.

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