Own-labels were once the ugly ducklings of the food and drink sector. Dressed in cheap, nearly nude packaging, their main role was to undercut the established food and drink brands on price.
But, following the economic crash of 2008, supermarkets began to relaunch their own ranges using classy designs that pushed messages of quality and authenticity. And shoppers have since flocked to these revitalised ranges, which are cheaper than brands yet compete strongly on quality. This strategy has turned the screw on brand-owners, including Heinz, Premier Foods and Unilever, which are fighting to restate their values and revive their fortunes.
Packaging design – the silent salesman – plays a key role in reminding people why they fell in love with a brand in the first place. One tactic to reignite that old spark is to strip back cluttered pack designs to boost the clarity and impact of a classic logo. Turner Duckworth achieved this with its much-lauded Coca-Cola can redesign, launched in June 2007. Another tactic is to resurrect age-old designs that evoke a comforting nostalgia in the face of the uncertainty of the economic downturn. This approach has been pursued by a wide range of branded products, including Hovis bread and Heinz Tomato Soup.
Meanwhile, brand leaders in fading categories are adapting to the latest trends by highlighting their natural, wholesome qualities to underscore their relevance.
Premier Foods relaunched Sun-Pat peanut butter in October with lightweight packaging and a new design by Tynan D’Arcy that emphasises the product’s natural properties. Now looking more like a Whole Earth product, the on-pack imagery shows peanuts in front of a field scene.
The latest brand to pin its hopes on charming shoppers back to a long-established name is Campbell Soup Company, which pulled out of the UK when it sold its operations to Premier Foods in 2006. It’s back, but this time with a range of dried packet soups and sauces marketed by UK food company Symington’s.
Big grocery brands have to be remarkable, not just very good, because own-labels have already filled that space
Ben Marshall, Landor
Packaging is by Path Design. Some observers are surprised that Campbell has forsaken the iconic design immortalised by Andy Warhol in his 1961 portraits of the Campbell’s canned soup range. Instead, Path used colour photography of the vegetable ingredients, with Campbell’s classic red-on-white logo emblazoned across the top. Tom Herman, a partner at Path, says the design challenge was to promote the quality of the packet soups, a category most people consider cheap and cheerful. Using photography was essential in communicating premium food values.
’The quality of print now is superior to what it was in the 1950s, when Campbell created those classic cans,’ says Herman. ’You can have a sixor seven-colour label, rather than just two colours, and not to use that is foolish. We tried to get that classic feel, but with a modern touch.’
However, Landor’s associate creative director, Ben Marshall, believes this could have been a mistake. ’Big grocery brands have to be remarkable, not just very good, because own-labels have already filled that space,’ he says. ’They have to be seen as leaders by tapping into something that nobody else can own. They have to be relevant and unique.’
Marshall adds that there is a danger with food photography on packaging that every brand ends up looking alike, with fruit and vegetable shots creating similar packaging colours to rival brands.
Sainsbury’s relaunched its premium own-label range, Taste the Difference, in October, introducing the Bistro range of ready meals. Sainsbury’s head of packaging, Stuart Lendrum, says the new-look packs, designed by Brand Me, were created on a ’less is more’ basis, demonstrating food quality and reducing waste.
Lendrum believes the economic downturn has created a new type of shopper. He says, ’Savvy shoppers are here to stay. They shop across brands and own-labels, up and down and across the tiers, both at the Basics and Taste the Difference own-brand levels.’
Brands play to savvy consumers by using design to reinforce messages of quality and relevance. Some have dug deep into their archives to find ways to reaffirm their role in the UK’s cultural and culinary identity. Last year in a project by Cowan, Heinz Tomato Soup recreated its 1910 packaging to emphasise its heritage.
A similar use of retro packaging was seen in the 2008 Hovis relaunch, created by Jones Knowles Ritchie. It featured an old Hovis logo and an image of a boy on a bike from the TV ads of the 1970s. JKR creative director Silas Amos believes brand-owners must assure the quality of their products at the same time as repackaging. Premier Foods improved the quality of Hovis bread and the pack design sought to emphasise this.
But Amos predicts a move away from this trend. ’We are going to be moving on a bit from nostalgia, that card having been played so much. Better brands are future-facing,’ he says.
Brands may currently be on the defensive, but there are plenty of strategies they can employ to restate their pre-eminence. The tricky part is maintaining product quality at a time of steep price inflation for ingredients. But, if the big brands stay ahead of own-label on quality, designers will have the ammunition they need to take the message to shoppers.