(This column originally appeared in August of 2018. Dan Blanchette is on vacation.)
We’ve all been to the supermarket and sometimes comparison-shopped for quality ingredients per money spent. Economically, this is wise. Especially if the ingredients are comparable and taste of the food is at least close to the brand-name item you’re accustomed to buying.
Some items are easier to compare-shop. The two cereals above are practically the same, and one could venture a guess as to who the manufacturer of the Great Value brand really is. After all, it’s widely known that big name brand producers make many store branded foods by contract. This helps both the producer and the discount store: the producer extends its manufacturing volume and therefore its profit, and the discount store has a supplier and still makes a profit on the subsequent sale. They both win.
But the graphics on the containers—either boxes, plastic bags, or cans—is not the same apparent design quality, as exemplified above. (One discount retailer—Aldi—does have decent quality graphics on their packages, a definite departure from other discount stores, but Aldi sells very few SKUs that are not their own brands. They are basically a proprietary retailer.)
Look at the two boxes above. From a design standpoint, they aren’t even close, except for one thing—color, an important detail (see below). The fonts used are way different, including the different sizes. Those fonts are expressive and more dynamic on the General Mills package, including the fact that they’re on a diagonal, an attention-grabbing quality. The photo on that same box has action—almost motion—going for it, with the cereal sitting on acrylic “milk”, and more than probably retouching. Even the gluten free violator has more pizzazz than almost anything on the Walmart box.
Is this kind of quality design hard to do? Of course not. But store branded items generally look drab, almost generic against the national brands.
Why do you suppose this is? Is it because discount chains have a tight budget and don’t want to shell out extra money for the design process and review? Or is it that some imposed differentiation is in the mix between the higher-end producers and the low-end retailers?
According to Tim Harford, an English economist and journalist who writes for Britain’s Financial Times and the BBC, it’s entirely intentional. The cheaper looking packaging is there to get the most from the buying public. Shoppers are smart and know by looking at the package that they’ll get comparable food at a lower price, simply because of the lesser design. And the discount retailer knows this as well, banking on the fact that what’s in the box is the real difference—to them, none.
By aiming the packaging at the price-conscious buyer, they’re fulfilling what makes this work for them—price targeting. The budget-minded consumer doesn’t have to spend several minutes grazing the store aisle, comparing categories for the best item on their shopping list. Especially if the store brands are right there next to (or more probably the next gondola down the aisle) the big name brands. Shoppers can see what they need in plain Helvetica (or Futura, above). And apart from color, which is relational for recognizability, the discount store brands really do need to differentiate themselves readily from the big name brands. And the larger the category, the more chance you’ll see store brands for it.
Thing is, doing store packaging is harder for a good designer to do. Going through design school, a student is taught the nuances of designing to different social strata. And designing for a premium-minded retailer becomes a self-flattering exercise, because designers will use fonts that are more expressive and even decorative, then build those into rich colored backgrounds with beautiful photography and dynamic graphics. Those are then the penchant, the driving force in that designer’s pride of production, what he/she seeks to pack into his/her design portfolio.
And then to step down—in the real world—and design for a store brand, well, that’s just not fun by comparison. Sorry, Walmart.