The pain barrier

Painkillers are a real headache for designers faced with stringent rules on promotion. Michael Evamy finds that resulting efforts often border on the surreal

SBHD: Painkillers are a real headache for designers faced with stringent rules on promotion. Michael Evamy finds that resulting efforts often border on the surreal

THE design industry is improving slowly, but what about the condition of the people in it? Besides the horrors inflicted on hairlines, what toll have the traumas of the past few years taken on designers, directors and other staff? As the economy burst a blood vessel in the late Eighties, there was a nationwide boom in headaches and migraines. To design’s most discomfited, the economic decline must have felt like a med- ieval-grade trepanning.

By 1991, there were 7 per cent more regular headache sufferers than in 1985, and nearly 4 per cent more migraine sufferers, which represents a huge swelling of the market for painkillers, or analgesics. In any other consumer sector, such an event would elicit all manner of marketing monkey business by competing manufacturers as they pursued their new customers. So, why no special offers on Anadin during times of national hardship? Why no free dose of Disprin at the discount store checkout?

The answer is simple – there are stringent rules governing the promotion and retailing of painkiller products. Advertising cannot encourage excessive use or employ celebrity endorsements. The Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain’s Code of Ethics prohibits the manufacturers of over-the-counter (OTC) painkillers from producing special promotions, gifts, competitions, special offers and free samples.

For a product sold in supermarkets, this set of conditions is unique. What it means is that painkiller products depend for their success on the effectiveness of their packaging design and branding. And because pharmaceutical companies have limited options when it comes to improving or manufacturing differences in the product itself, design offers one of a very limited range of means of manipulating the market. However, the design conventions that have developed over the years border on the surreal in their oblique treatment of the product and its healing properties.

Competition is fierce in the UK OTC analgesics market, which was worth nearly ú200m in 1994, according to a Mintel report published that year. A handful of big brands dominate: Solpadeine, Panadol and Hedex (Sterling Health), Anadin (Whitehall Laboratories), Nurofen (Crookes Healthcare), and Disprin (Reckitt & Colman). Own-brand products take around 75 per cent of sales. Outsiders face a tough struggle to gain even a point’s share of the market, and must invest heavily in a number of brands to do so.

Major innovations in packaging are considered unsettling and full of unnecessary perils. New product development is centred around brands – Anadin, for instance, used to be identified as an aspirin, but now there are paracetamol, extra strength (combined) and soluble versions. Much of the packaging appears not to have altered for 20 or 30 years, although manufacturers would maintain it is under continual, microscopic development. Looking well-established is a successful strategy.

Philip Byrne Design Associates has worked with Reckitt & Colman on a number of healthcare products, including the classical repackaging of Disprin. “There was a previous design that was very Eighties,” says Philip Byrne. “It was losing the credibility of an established brand.

“We went back to the core values of Disprin and enhanced them. By adding a vignette colouring in the circle we gave it a third dimension. There are no illustrations of someone holding their head, or a fizzy glass. They don’t really work on brands. People know the brand and that’s all they’re interested in – the end result, not the delivery,” adds Byrne.

Barker Oxley & Cook Partnership repackaged Nurofen earlier this year. Marketing director Tony Nunan says consumers do not try out different painkillers in the same way they try out margarine.

“People think about pain as being very personal. People say, `I get this headache…’ and describe it in a personal way. So if they find something that is good for their pain, they tend to stick with it. In addition, if you get a blinding headache and you know that the last two times you took two Anadin, it went away, there’s very little incentive to experiment with a new brand. Pain is not something people have a flex- ible attitude towards,” says Nunan.

However, much of the branded packaging blares the brand name from the shelves, and is almost enough in itself to bring on a headache. Painkiller packs are bereft of intelligible illustration, but they do share a curious graphic language all of their own. Many companies wrestle with a visual representation of pain – rather than the relief their product offers – on the pack.

The big favourite is the “hotspot” motif: usually a red, glowing, sun-like feature, obviously intended to denote a throbbing, localised pain. On the pack for Anadin Paracetamol, the yellow Anadin logo floats in dark blue space above a gently arching sky-blue horizon. It’s like Neil Armstrong’s view of the Earth’s surface from Apollo 9. In the bottom-right corner are two pills – they could be bits of jettisoned rocket.

Blue has historically been the favourite colour for standard strength painkiller packs. Red is the colour for more powerful painkillers. This pattern was only disturbed when Nurofen, the first ibuprofen-based OTC analgesic, appeared in 1983. It was positioned as the high-strength cure, and was packaged in a silver box, with a bullseye on the front.

The pack was revised in 1994 following the hijacking of the silver-plus-red-lettering look by rival high-strength brands, such as Hedex Extra. To put some “clear blue water” between itself and these new competitors, Barker Oxley & Cook gave the pack embossed lettering with a drop- shadow effect, which is “extremely difficult to imitate”, says Nunan.

The most successful repackaging was executed by the Somerfield (formerly Gateway) supermarket chain. Leeds-based Elmwood Design produced a flexible design system which was applied to Somerfield’s own-brand range of ten medicines and which won one of the four packaging prizes in the Design Business Association’s 1994 Design Effectiveness Awards. But the change to the paracetamol pack produced the most dramatic results. Sales shot up by nearly 600 per cent three months after the redesign.

The brashness of the branded products has been replaced by some cool type and a vibrant pink, silky backdrop, intended to suggest sensitivity and soothing qualities, although it would not be out of place on a box of chocolates.

Own-brand products enjoy natural advantages – such as lower prices – over branded goods, which makes the two hard to compare, but the Somerfield success might hold lessons for pharmaceutical companies whose packaging is an assault on the senses. The safe-but-dull doctrine of the big brands – “Why create headaches for ourselves?” – should in future be, “Why create headaches for the consumer?”

However, experts are tipping future market development to focus on creating new niches for age and lifestyle-specific products. So, by the time national decline sets in again and the design industry hits the deck once more, might we see a Nurofen Designer pack featuring a black polo-necked, bleary-eyed creative staring painfully into a Mac screen?

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