WORLD’S APART: Packaging Distinctions for Specialty vs. Mass-retail Brands

The rise of upscale products across many sales channels can create design confusion. Here are four principles to avoid this mix-up.  
By Jeffrey Spear
A gourmet food manufacturer faced a dilemma. He wanted to know how packaging and brand imagery could accurately communicate the quality of his brand and validate its suggested or desired retail price.
The marketer realized this concern when specialty food buyers told him his products seemed more appropriate for supermarkets. Meanwhile, supermarket buyers voiced that his price point could only gain support in specialty stores.
The proliferation of upscale products adds to the uncertainty. Previously found only through small, independent specialty shops, gourmet items have become available on an increasingly broader scale.
Mass/discount retailers such as Target and Kmart are championing “designer” names such as Michael Graves and Martha Stewart, respectively.
This expansion of upscale offerings across multiple sales channels can lead to design confusion and make it harder for marketers to create brand and packaging solutions that are persuasive, relevant and conceptually appropriate.
Design has “arrived” and is attracting tremendous attention. But has design become too clever?
Fortunately, design is a problem-solving process. It’s responsive and has the agility to avoid becoming invisible and/or ineffective.
Packaging is a sales advocate and brand ambassador. The design of the package must convey the product attributes inside and accurately communicate the level of quality.
Too many designs today either over- or under-promise this level of quality. To overcome that problem, here are four principles to guide your packaging designs and deliver a real distinction between specialty and mass-retail brands.
1. Set true expectations for performance
The best thing you can do to satisfy consumers is to make an offer and keep your word. If your product is the absolute best in class, regardless of price, create an on-shelf presentation that says so. If, on the other hand, your product is simply the best available at a specific price point, the communication must be equally forthcoming.
Not too long ago, Hardy’s—Australia’s second largest wine producer—introduced its “Stamp of Australia” brand in the United States.
Although a majority of wine consumers have come to expect some degree of “art” or “invention” in wine packaging, it was still surprising to see the high level of design applied to this relatively inexpensive product (approximately $6 per bottle).
What’s disturbing about the Stamp of Australia design, while beautifully executed, is that Hardy’s has created a trend in which “high-end” design, once reserved for premium vintages, has taken a 180-degree turn and become the domain for high-volume, lower-cost, everyday wine.
The design, in effect, goes against commonly held beliefs and perceptions.
 2. Establish credibility and trust
No matter what kind of product you have, or the claims you make about its performance, it’s essential for buyers to believe what you say. Since on-shelf presentations such as packaging, applied graphics and point-of-sale displays influence the majority of consumer purchasing decisions, generating appropriate perceptions and providing clear, accurate and compelling information is essential.
Americans tend to equate newer packaging materials such as plastic, holography and foil with everyday products. That’s great for supermarkets and big-box discount stores whose inventories cater to daily needs.
For specialty retailers, however, purchasing decisions are emotionally invested in “luxury,” “refinement” and “gourmet.” Reinforcing these ideas requires the use of more traditional, somewhat nostalgic, materials such as glass and metal.
Of course, there are many other ways to communicate quality and credibility. Design elements—including color, typography, illustration, photography, copywriting and layout—are all important and, depending on how you employ them, can deliver impact.  
3. Validate price
Price is one of the primary (emotional) factors that influences purchasing decisions. In mass-retail environments, consumers view some products as commodities with price becoming one of the most obvious distinctions between brands. In specialty stores, price not only implies product performance but also suggests exclusivity and ultimate quality.
It stands to reason that relatively inexpensive packaging materials such as plastic and lightweight paperboard cartons are better suited to mass-retail brands where price is most competitive. Similarly, more expensive metal and heavy-gauge articulated boxes would find greater appeal in higher priced specialty stores.
Glass appears to perform well in both retail situations, regardless of price.
We can see examples of this price/perception relationship in a range of products. In the condiment category, French’s sells most of its well-known yellow mustard in squeezable plastic bottles.
An 8-ounce container retails for approximately 95 cents. In specialty stores, mustard brands in similar container sizes retail from $5 to $7. Without exception, every one comes in glass.
4. Anticipate the retail environment
One of the more interesting influencers, when it comes to purchasing decisions, is environment. In mass retailing, “cavernous” stores can occupy more than 100,000 square feet.
Consumers wander the aisles alone and make purchasing decisions for themselves. Under these circumstances, the primary influencer becomes on-shelf presentation, followed closely by price.  
In specialty stores, retail space is considerably smaller with an “intimate” ambiance. While the relationships between packaging design and consumer decisions are just as important here, we can’t overlook the impact and availability of distinctive merchandising, customer service and a well-informed sales staff, especially true for categories like wine.
An important contrast, however, aside from the merits of store brands, is that purchases in mass-retail environments are not necessarily influenced by “place.” Since brands such as Kraft, Charmin, Eveready and Kodak are somewhat ubiquitous, any influence that the retailer brand (i.e., Target, Kroger, Safeway, etc.) might wield is minimal.
When it comes to specialty stores, the opposite occurs. Products that are available in stores such as Williams Sonoma, Sur la Table, Whole Foods or Wild Oats gain value as a result of having been “chosen” by the retailer.
Customers place a certain amount of trust and tend to assume that “if this (specialty) store is willing to invest time and space in this product, it must be good.”
At least for the short term, mass retailing and specialty stores will continue to offer different products and maintain distinctly different relationships with consumers.
While the difference between the two retail formats is narrowing, packaging solutions and value propositions for each remain separate. This means that marketers must anticipate retailing opportunities and respond appropriately.
The appeal of “traditional,” quality-oriented brands is not the exclusive domain of either specialty or mass retail. But there are credibility issues, packaging solutions, pricing strategies and merchandising considerations that are more appropriate for one vs. the other. BP
The author, Jeffrey Spear, is President of Studio Spear, a firm specializing in brand growth and package design.
Contact Jeff at 410.486.8822 or

Screw-Cap Closures Gain Traction in Premium Wines
When Rafferty’s Rules, a brand of premium Australian red wines priced about $18 to $19 per bottle, debuted in the U.S. market, research revealed that consumers equated “fancy” design with brands priced at or below $15.
The challenge for Rafferty’s became one of balance: To create brand imagery and packaging solutions that articulated quality without being too clever.
Another trend in the world of wine is the shift from cork to “Stelvin” or screw-cap closures.
Traditionally, screw caps appeared on only the least expensive wines. What has finally gained momentum is the knowledge that cork has a significant failure rate (up to 10 percent), whereas screw caps are virtually flawless.
The trend of applying screw caps to premium wines (priced $15 and higher) is taking hold and consumers are beginning to make the adjustment.