It's What's on the Outside that Matters! NMB'S New-to-Redo Look at the State of Private Brand Packaging

An edited version of this article appeared in Retail Wire and on Myprivatebrand.com yesterday.  Here's the full monty!

Packaging is one topic that came up continually at this month’s Private Brand Movement conference and by most metrics that matter, the original redo of Walmart's Great Value brand was hot sauce: According to Michael Ellgass, Director of Grocery Marketing,   87% of shoppers find it easier to spot on the shelf, 70% think it looks like a “true brand” and 78% like it so much that they’ve purchased more products post-primp.  That’s a nice perception jump from over a year ago when Andrea Thomas (who formerly headed up Walmart’s private label program and is now senior vice president of sustainability), spoke of the “disconnect” between Great Value’s purchase rate and its brand awareness. 

However, if you think that Walmart and other retailers are launching and forgetting, you've got another thing (and another thing, and another thing . . .) coming!  Here's my roundup of iterative updates and new standards in private brand packaging, complemented with observations from post-conference store visits.

WHITE BITES

Any visit to any paint store will confirm that “white” is a complicated proposition and Mr. Ellgass acknowledged that flaws show up mightily on white packaging.  As a result, Walmart has begun to add touches of color back into Great Value's packaging which also addresses customer feedback that the initial re-work of Great Value went a bit too far into generic territory.  Mary Rachide, Family Dollar's DVP of Private Brands, stated that they are also breaking from, what she referred to as, the “crisp and white” trend, first set by European retailers such as Carrefour, then adopted stateside by Target, Walmart, and others (see next section).

COLOR CONNECTS

It turns out that Walmart’s new quest for color isn’t just about store shelf navigation—they’re now thinking about how products look in shoppers’ pantry shelves.  It stands to reason that if you’re buying more Great Value than ever, telling your green beans from your garbanzos would become problematic as the sea of white stacked up on your shelves!

Kmart’s new mantra is “colorful thinking” and, based on my observations, they are going for full saturation with the recent redo of the Champion Breed pet line.  Both Family Dollar and Kmart are pushing for more vibrancy from the get-go with their respective launches of Family Gourmet (formerly Family Pantry) and Smart Sense.  Addressing the recent wave of retail whiteout, Mary Rachide stated, “Just because everyone else is doing something doesn’t mean it’s right for you.” Well, it looks like color is now what' right for everyone!

CLOSE-UPS CALL IT OUT

Mr. Ellgass revealed that ongoing iterations of Great Value packaging will incorporate even more customer-appropriate props (based on my store visits, think sensibly-plated food resting on not-too-fancy placemats with fork to the side) and it will feature more close-in photography that will make the food the “hero.” 

McDonald’s Senior Director of Global Brand Strategy, Matt Biespiel, showed off the I-can-almost-taste-it photography that is becoming the new standard as McDonald’s marches on with its “simple, easy, enjoyment” rebranding.  Increasing "appetite appeal" is a big focus for McDonald's, and Mr. Biespiel also spoke of propping as the next big thing.

CROSS BRAND IS THE NEW CROSS CATEGORY

It’s so hard coming up with a brand name that will work across multiple categories, much less driving visual impact and continuity across that brand in everything from spaghetti to soap!  That’s now a tune for the world’s smallest violin as inner-brand continuity fast becomes table stakes.  Based on my early shelf sightings, the green-blue-orange palette for Kmart’s new master brand, Smart Sense, will not only accomplish amazing feats of color-popping in-band continuity, it also promises to serve as a color template for Kmart’s re-visionings of its other private brands.  So far, Champion Breed is in lock-step.  Will the planned facelifts for Image Essentials and Vitasmart follow suit?  Regardless of the answer, with over 1,200 storewide SKUs of Smart Sense planned by 2011 and Champion Breed beefing up to 120+ SKU’s, Kmart is raising the connect-the-visual-dots bar for everyone.  As Melissa-Smith-Hazen, Ahold USA's Director of Strategic Design called out,  retailers "have the entire store to capture a customer's attention" and, as shoppers move through the store, they "connect the dots" through packaging.

PACKAGING PERPETUATES

Sam’s VP of Private Brand, Maurice Markey, spoke of how packaging is something that customers “interact” with until the product is “depleted,” and McDonald’s Mr. Biespiel pointed out that, since packaging for them is an after-purchase event, it serves an important role of “reassurance” and offers McDonald’s a great platform for story-telling.  Packaging has gone from a fleeting flirt at the shelf to an LTR that lives on!

Base on Annie Zipfeil, Target’s Director of Owned Brand’s presentation, Target is the unexpected hold-out on the can’t-leave-well-enough-alone packaging front.  The retailer’s Up & Up brand launch is about the same age as Walmart’s Great Value re-launch, yet no mention was made of further packaging futzing.  She did state that one of the reasons Target embarked on its initial bullseye-busting, “brand architecture” project was because once you look like everyone else, “then it all comes down to price.”  By sticking to its visual story in the midst of all the tweaking, Target may actually stand out by simply standing still!