5 Questions with the Vertex Awards Judges, Michael Duffy

The judges have completed voting and the ballots are being tabulated for the sixth annual Vertex Awards International Private Brand Design Competition. In preparation for the Awards Ceremony at the Velocity Conference I sat down with each of the judges and asked them five questions about Private Brands, package design and differentiation – their answers present a unique global perspective and depth of knowledge of the retail brand space.

Today’s conversation is with Michael Duffy, Group Creative Director & Partner, Equator Design in Chicago, Illinois

  1. How will the growth of online shopping and home delivery change private brand?
    The impact of e-commerce on the retail landscape can’t be understated. You could argue that objectives haven’t migrated too far – private brand packaging still aspires to generate excitement and loyalty for a brand via a series of touchpoints. However, these days retailers face media in continuous flux, and standards which are rising at a rate we’ve never seen before, as brands get savvy to the potential of product packaging to translate into shares on social media.

    Retailers are faced with a new challenge – how will they retain or indeed amplify brand experience when not confined to the shelf, and when each new touchpoint, from the click to the doorstep to opening a parcel, becomes a variable? It’s the brands who view this challenge as an opportunity and give themselves the liberty to create and innovate, who will succeed. A brown box delivered by UPS will only dilute the brand’s identity and constitutes a lost opportunity on several levels. To achieve standout within a noisy, crowded marketplace retailer must rethink their approach to packaging, and begin to see it as an integral part of the product itself, rather than an afterthought.

  1. The traditional tiered private brand portfolio (good, better, best or basic, NBE, premium) has dominated retailers’ strategy for the last thirty years, will this continue? If not, what strategies will shape the new portfolios?
    The tiered structure has been developed and refined over the years, and although it’s been in place for quite a while continues to dominate because it satisfies consumers’ needs: it communicates quickly to the customer, who shops with no time to spare and needs quick indication of quality and whether the product is within budget. Likewise, customers have become savvier shoppers, and they now make judicious purchasing decisions across several tiers. Thus, the tiered approach isn’t going away soon, and in future, the offering will only expand.

    The UK provides a crystal ball for emerging private brand environments such as the US. Retailers in the UK cast a particularly wide net with their range strategies; for example, fresh is tiered across all food types and delivers internationally inspired flavors and diverse recipes to parents seeking simplicity and discerning foodies alike. Dietary needs are met across most categories while specialty brands for baby, pet, and kids are prevalent.

    Some private brands are even becoming brands in their own right. For example, since its acquisition of UK convenience retailer Nisa last year, we are seeing Co-op’s private brand offering promoted through their outlets, aiming to fill any gaps in Nisa’s offering. I think we’ll see inevitably see more brand evolution as the two merge, but as Co-op branded products are embraced by customers outside Co-op environments, this represents the potency of private brand and of the tier format in general.

  1. What design trends do you see impacting private brand today?
    Since private brand is generally quite strong and well-promoted across traditional and online media channels here in the UK, retailers have an excellent position from which to set their own global design trends. However, conducting investigations into what’s going on in the wider design world, including the latest trends in photography, social media, popular culture and representations of food in print media such as cookbooks, all instruct and spur on the design trends of private brand. One market trend that’s impacting UK retailers is the increasing popularity of seasonal offerings, linking in with celebrations and holidays virtually all year round. For example, last Christmas saw the largest seasonal private brand offering yet, with everything from advent calendars and gift boxes to party food and fresh items such as the inevitable poultry of choice – turkey. Within that it was possible to discern five or more distinct design trends, including Scandinavian folklore, which has a warm, family feel with characters and traditional patterns repeated to create a homely yet modern effect, and what we call Party Vibrant, which is largely aimed at millennials and features an eye-popping color palette and copious glitter; it’s fun and youthful, as well as being highly “Instagrammable”.

    When considering the wider picture, however, I feel that private brands are having to react to more general trends affecting the retail marketplace, which are in turn impacting design. The ones that spring to mind include:

    The rise of the instore experience. From simple instore tastings to the full-on experimental flagship stores and pop-up shops, which may also host themed events, talks, demonstrations and the like. Retailers are transforming the store visit into a shopping experience, turning up consumer motivation to buy in person instead of online. Packaging now needs to work in a way that complements this. More than ever it needs to tell a story about where the product come from, who grew it, how it was created it, any relevant and interesting historical background – even recipes and the families who originated them. Private brands need to inform, inspire and excite.

    Environmental impact. Recycling and reducing, as well as attending to the ethical provenance of materials and goods, are all affecting the design and build of packaging as concerns around global plastics overuse becomes ever more the core of the private brand. Retailers are now questioning the use of different printing effects such as foiling, varnish, glitter, and ink coverage as they all have an impact on the environment. We’re seeing the “Attenborough effect”, which is defined by a reduction of single-use plastics in addition to researching new materials to make the products and packaging out of.

    As designers working within a set of imperative constraints, we must still convey the quality of the product at hand, while communicating which tier it sits in and what it stands for – all in a cleaner, more sustainable way.

    Simplicity. Products are becoming simpler and increasingly incorporating plant-based foods, as more consumers choose vegan for health as well as ethical considerations. This trend is reflected in the packaging and food styling that accompanies it. Moving away from the previous trend of showing a messy, frenetic scene, as if the chef was creating it in front of you, photography and branding are moving toward a stripped back feel, with simple lighting and a clean environment in which the food is front and center with no tricks.

    Honesty. In line with simplicity, consumers are looking for factual information on which to base their decisions, and as such, they prize honest presentation and information. They are looking for the frank and heartfelt, and shop with their emotions as well as their wallets – so what the retailer stands for is as important as what the product is.

  1. What retailer do you think is setting the standard for private brand design?
    There are a handful of retailers who are streaks ahead, and each of these is carving out its own distinct brand messaging and following. Aldi is certainly a success story. The supermarket is working to build strong brands, and it’s hard to argue with their Year over Year increase over the festive season in 2018: an incredible 10% rise in sales. Co-op, Tesco and Selfridges also performed well. However, M&S saw disappointing figures.

    Co-op is delivering on the emotional level with provenance and community at its heart – and it’s been great to see Aldi and Co-op, long-time clients of Equator, outperforming the competition.

    Selfridges has been pioneering the in-store experience model, with make-up, style and personalization events, and even art exhibitions, bolstering loyalty and in-store sales. In terms of sustainability, a factor which can only grow in influence, Iceland has made a definitive stand against plastics overuse and deforestation, partly through its collaboration with Greenpeace, while Waitrose has proven it’s keen to distinguish itself as different from the rest, approaching packaging design with great originality as well as leading on the sustainability front. If we look at the wider high street, we can see premium brands such as Hotel Chocolat now using compostable, reusable and recyclable packaging, with the aim of reaching 100% sustainability by 2021 for all product packaging as well as cups, utensils, and straws in their cafes.

  1. The Vertex Awards celebrates its sixth edition this year when you look back on the winners, what should we have learned?
    The Vertex Awards are a celebration of innovation and pushing the boundaries creatively – and that’s exactly what designers have a responsibility to do. In the private brand revolution, the retailers are winning against national brands – so we must dare to be different. Meanwhile, as the bar is raising on the industry side, customer expectations are raising too. Let’s create private brands that serve a higher purpose by enhancing the customer experience, and keep focus on this as we innovate around all touchpoints, whether they are instore or via e-commerce.
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Christopher Durham
Christopher Durham is the president of My Private Brand and the co-founder of The Vertex Awards. He is a strategist, author, consultant and retailer who built brands at Delhaize-owned Food Lion, and lead strategy and brand development for Lowe’s Home Improvement. He has consulted with retailers around the world on their private brand portfolios including: Family Dollar, Petco, Staples, Office Depot, Best Buy, Metro (Canada), TLW (Taiwan) and Hola (Taiwan). Durham has published five definitive books on private brands, including his first book, Fifty2: The My Private Brand Project. In 2017, he will debut his newest book, Vanguard: Vintage Originals, a visual tour of innovation and disruption in private brand going back to the mid-1800’s. Dynamic in his presentation while down to earth and frank in his opinions, he has presented at numerous conferences, including FUSE, The Dieline Conference, Packaging that Sells, Omnishopper and PLMA’a annual trade show in Chicago. Durham lives in Charlotte, NC with his wife, Laraine, and two daughters, Olivia and Sarah.