The brand consultancy, Interbrand, widely known for their annual “Best Global Brands Report” and for the website brandchannel.com recently published the second edition of the Interbrand newspaper titled “Private Brands: A global guide to the rise of private label brands”. They include articles and commentary on Private Brand in Argentina, Japan, United States, Spain, New Zealand, Switzerland, Germany and Great Britain over the next few days I will post a series of three of the articles, focusing on the United States, along with a link to the entire publication.
My first private label experience
I distinctly remember 1981-82, for a number of reasons: I was living in Britain, and it was the year of the Falklands War and the start of the bitter miners’ strike that came to full effect in 1984. It also was the year I first encountered “private label” packaging. Maybe, subconsciously, even then I knew bad design when I encountered it?
I was sent by my mother to the local supermarket, Lipton’s, to purchase some sliced bread and my favorite tin of baked beans – beans on toast being somewhat of a delicacy in the UK! At the shelf I was amazed to see what can only be described as packaging that looked like army rations. It was a plain white can with stencil-style lettering that simply said “baked beans.” Knowing that money was tight and I was on marching orders from my mother to not overspend, I still could not bring myself to purchase the private label can of baked beans: Heinz baked beans was the winner then, and it remains so today. Later that same month, I was horrified to discover Lipton’s private label packaging in my home. Was my family also being affected by the miners’ strike and the financial squeeze gripping the country? Was the terrible poverty and hardship we were watching on TV every night invading our home in the form of this shocking-looking packaging? In the early days, many consumers believed that private label goods were the same as branded goods in “less-fancy packaging.”
This prompted brands to go on the offensive and publicly state that they did not engage in producing private label brands. The war for shelf space and consumer loyalty had begun! After an initial trend of looking “cheap,” private label brands tried to copy the designs of their branded competitors as closely as possible in an effort to gain some of the brands’ aesthetic cache. The strategy behind this approach is still unclear to me: was the idea to confuse the consumer or, even worse, trick them into buying private label instead of the brand they had trusted for so long?
New and exciting times
Little did I know or understand way back in 1981 that what appeared to be a terrible design crime would turn into a global phenomenon and an industry in which I would be actively involved. (In fact, when I worked as a package designer in London with Safeway and Sainsbury’s, their commitment to raising the design standards for their respective private brands was very clear.) Thankfully, package design for private label products has advanced by quantum leaps since those early days of emulating army rations and copying brands as closely as possible (while avoiding legal action). Today private label packaging frequently sets the standard and tone for high-end design and consumer expectations for product delivery.
British and Swiss private label brands, for example, have capitalized on the opportunity to create white space on shelf and distance themselves from the perception that private label goods are inferior to the brands they once tried to emulate. Better yet, some private label brands have become destination brands in their own right. No longer need consumers feel shame in the checkout line when placing private label products on the conveyor. Private label brands are creating new and exciting design languages, consistently winning design awards, driving business and delighting consumers.
Private label is a growth industry, and one that we can learn from as designers and brand developers. It is becoming abundantly clear that consumers are far more open to new creative ideas than we ever dared imagine. While once branded products led the way, today private label market share is growing year on year. 1981 seems so long ago that I hardly dare wonder what my weekly grocery shopping experience will be like 26 years from now. Certainly, the future appears bright and oh-so-very private.