The Growth of Private Label Design Owes a Debt to Canadian Grocers

Posted: September 8, 2009 by
Bill Wynkoop

When I was a fresh pup out of the Rochester Institute of Technology, I had a unique job opportunity with a private label manufacturer. It was there that I cut my teeth not only in structural and graphic design for packaging, but in the intricacies of private label development.

At that time, the mid-1980s, the prevailing thinking seemed to be that price was the sell—the only sell—so the package had to be functional with fairly straightforward labeling. And as was many times the case, the package had to be similar in shape and appearance to competitive offerings.

It was a notion that I always felt missed the opportunity to make an emotional attachment to the purchaser. The connection was to their wallet alone, which is a tenuous bond at best, and likely to change when a cheaper price would come along.

A more decadent approach

To me, the larger opportunity was always to view the buyer as a consumer—a potential that frequently seemed overlooked. It generally held true until the turn of the decade, however, when our astute friends north of the border realized the value and power of taking a branded approach to their private label and, viola, the President's Choice (PC) line boomed.

Being on display most prominently in Loblaws, PC took the novel step to develop their products with a branded mindset. A good example of their early work was their Decadent cookie packaging, whose redesign employed bold photography with scrumptious chocolate chips flowing over all sides of the front panel. Of great importance, it introduced the Decadent branding that they are now so famous for. Furthermore, the package design downplayed the product name in favor of the Decadent name, a decidedly branded tack.

Up to that point, private label designs generally used photography in a minimal manner and as a secondary element only. The most prominent parts of a design were typically the product name followed in hierarchy by the brand (i.e., store) name. In price sensitive categories, a large pre-price might then follow.

When the Decadent design hit the shelf, mouths watered, many packages sold (they became the No. 1 one selling cookie in Canada), and the doors were now opened for a more evolved approach to private label package design.

Getting on the bandwagon

Many eye-appealing products from a number of chains soon followed. But beyond just their graphics, these items also began to look at differentiated packaging from their branded counterparts. Again, the knockoff approach that had been in place for the previous two decades was rightly being challenged.

One of the companies leading this charge, Wegmans, just happens to be in my own backyard so I've followed them closely as they have introduced successful private label products one after the other.

A prime example is their Frizzante line of European Sodas. Introduced this past summer, the product is sourced from France and comes with elegant, understated labeling adorning a custom glass bottle. Unique flavors such as Blood Orange and Sicilian Lemon add intrigue, as do the light, spritzy graphics and the unique shape of the package. In all, they create an offering that is wholly original.

Higher end private label

From the 1990s onward, private label designs have continued to evolve a more sophisticated sensibility, with many retailers using a fairly spare approach that is both refreshing and appealing. A stellar execution can be seen with the Publix brand where the single color band and restrained logo size are always complemented by always captivating photography or charming illustration. The package designs are uncluttered and present a very effective brand presence in their stores.

A similar aesthetic is in place with the Compliments private label brand from Sobeys, which is available in Canada. Using slightly more complex design guidelines, they have developed a two-tiered approach—one for their value products and one for their top level. To a degree, they are segmented. The value line packages typically set the product image against a white background whereas the top-tier packages may make use of moody, soft focus photography as well as custom packaging. Though slightly individualized, overall they offer the shopper a harmonious branded sensibility in their stores.

As consumers, many of us are excited to see new offerings on our local shelves. In my case, this predisposition applies not only when I see outright redesigns, product extensions, or package changes, but it can even apply deep down to changes in the packaging minutia, which explains why my wife no longer shops with me.

But this connection also goes a good amount of the way toward demonstrating the emotion that consumers can extend toward the products they purchase. When private label companies began to realize this power and harness it, they created a connection with the hearts of their consumers—they began the branding of private label.