Between the lines

With their samey designs offering little or no distinction from their competitors, the majority of retailers prefer to play it safe when it comes to the packaging design of their own-brand products. Paul King considers the key trends and issues threatening creativity, and sings the praise of challenger brands shaking up conventional thinking


We seem to have come full circle with own-brand lines. In the 1980s they were seen as the cheap, poor relation to the brand and to some extent they are slipping back there.

I know retailers would argue that their own-brand ranges reflect their values and eschew the cues of the category and market, but this seems to negate any creativity or innovation. Too much own-brand design is at best mediocre and rather than lead as it used to do, it now meekly follows fashionable trends and is usually very conventional and safe.

This may be the result of a process where too many decision-makers are involved or even the wrong decision-makers are part of the approval procedure. Any creative risk is choked out along the way and the outcome is a general committee-designed blandness. Too often customers are regarded as idiots when, in fact, they are very sophisticated and well-versed in marketing and design techniques and most do actually appreciate good design.

How many own-brand ranges can stand the old test of having their logos covered and that retail brand being recognised? Very few, I would suggest, apart from Waitrose. Its Essentials range has rightly won awards and plaudits for both its creative execution and its innovative retail strategy. But the majority of retailers are all beginning to look the same, with little or no distinction.

In some ways this is unsurprising. Most retailers have been sold brand wheels/brand onions and their brand values probably all say the same thing – caring, approachable, committed, warm and so on. So when the guidelines are handed to any of their creative groups the outcomes are so similar and predicable, as designs are judged against these criteria and not on their creative merits or market relevance.

What brands are doing well, meanwhile, is clearly delineating themselves as market leaders by creating monolithic brand values and imagery. They often achieve this by simplifying or decluttering their logos and pack design to make their products more dominant at the point of sale, on shelf.

In some instances – Coca-Cola, for example – a brand’s in-store presence becomes almost unchallengeable. This is also true of snack giant Walkers, Pepsi and many other brands that have refocused on their core visual equities and not been deflected by fashionable frippery. They regard the branded competitor as the threat, not ownbrand alternatives.

[Challenger brands] are the new own-brand, challenging perceived market norms and creating awareness through design

They are also allowing own-brand producers to develop new products, variants and flavours and, if they are seen to be selling quickly, are adopting them within their brand. It is a cheaper route than costly research and development and research, and is proven. It is almost a role reversal from when own-brand lines aped or copied the brand leader.

Brands also monitor so-called ‘challenger brands’ – relatively new entrants that want to be noticed and shake conventional market thinking. It is a great way to expand in existing markets or enter new markets without too much spending on development costs. Examples include Coca Cola’s part ownership of fruit drink brand Innocent and even Unilever’s purchase of Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream brand.

Obviously, the other big issue threatening creativity relates to dwindling marketing budgets. Not only are budgets decreasing, but in many cases they are being stretched over additional marketing channels and this can degrade standards of all creative work. This also fuels the risk-aversion policy with retailers not wanting to take chances, but to stick to the norm or the mundane. This they hide under a cloak of ‘consistency’.

This is a false economy as that frailty is so visible at the sharp end – on-shelf – compounded by the brand’s dominating presence. Own-brand ranges are actually making the brand leader look better, endorsing its credentials by minimising their own claims. Good ownbrand products should not be recognised in-store by simply being the cheapest.

Brands are also suffering in the current downturn and investing less and less in structural packaging, not only because of production and distribution costs, but also because of the economies of merchandising. Many retailers are reluctant to give too much precious shelve space to extreme shapes and sizes – except in high margin fixtures such as wine, beers and spirits.Shelf space is at a fierce premium and each millimetre is measured and mapped and extravagant shapes can be costly, which again places restrictions on the creative solutions.

The design action appears to be with challenger brands. They tend to go for standard packaging formats with unusual finishes or textures and challenging branding and creative strategies. Some will fail, but in many ways they are the new own-brand, challenging perceived market norms and creating awareness through design.

It is an amazing virtuous circle. Challenger brands are following own-brand traditions, the retail buyer selects them because of their difference, they are successful in the category, then the market, and so a brand leader purchases them. Perfect.

Obviously, the current state of the economy is affecting all budgets, retail and brand, but there is also the impact on customer pull. Consumers are equally feeling the pinch and this is reflected in purchasing trends. With brands and retailers’ own-brands struggling to remain and look competitive, over-priced products extravagantly packaged will not be appreciated by either the retail buyer or the consumer.

So where is the new wave coming from? Who is going to lead? I know of at least three major retailers reviewing their own-brand strategies and design. I am desperately hoping that there will be some new thinking and a creative leap that makes the whole market shift and appreciate that great design is worth the effort, risk and investment. I look forward to seeing something bold and challenging, not merely an easy implementation strategy, and I hope all involved are in inspirational mode and are challenging the brief – that is where it all starts or finishes.

Paul King is an independent retail design consultant

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