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Plain packaging in FMCG: How soft and hard power can future-proof brands

FMCG merchandising is about visually seducing the consumer at point-of-sale (POS). Products vie for consumer attention with loud, smart or innovative packaging, and the challenge is to build a shelf-defining visual identity. But what if that identity was stolen away?

That’s the challenge facing big tobacco. Recent regulations in the UK state that cigarettes and rolling tobacco are to be sold unbranded, and hidden behind sliding doors from public view.

With the tobacco industry rocked by austere new packaging regulations, could a generic, flavourless future be looming for many other FMCG brands? That’s the warning klaxon sounded by Campaign magazine’s brand reporter Simon Gwynn in a recent article. So, what can FMCG at large learn from big tobacco, and how can brands future-proof now?

Smoke and mirrors

Once elbowing each other off newsagents’ shelves, the beautiful ephemera of cigarette cartons evoked ancient Egypt, the Machine Age and Starsky & Hutch’s Gran Torino. Packaging graphics were as much a part of smoking’s sacrament as a Zippo lighter.

With the ‘revelation’ that its products aren’t good for you, the tobacco industry faces meltdown. Advertising’s gone, smoking bans are pandemic and sexy packaging is history. The thrill has gone. Smoking’s allure is deadened by drab, standardised military green and regimented typography; the only images are lurid reminders of nicotine’s more ruinous outcomes.

The industry has kicked back hard. Legislation was misguided, it said; an assault on freedom of choice. Tobacco firms mounted PR charm offensives, compliant scientists debunked established facts. Ministers were lobbied, political parties funded, public officials compromised.

It was all to little avail. Struggling to find ritual appeal in organ decay, consumers voted with quickening feet. Public Health England claims that between 1974 and 2015, smoking declined by more than 30% to 19.1% of the adult population, and sales continue to plummet.

The focus for many big tobacco brands now is on the unregulated new category of vaping where packaging design is still paramount, and the opportunities plentiful.

A warning for FMCG

What’s the risk of government turning its puritan gaze on other FMCG products? High, warns Jonathan Duce of Japan Tobacco International (owner of Hamlet, Benson & Hedges and Silk Cut). Duce argues that similar packaging restrictions are now bearing down on alcohol, confectionery and soft drinks.

“What we’re doing is a wake-up call to the food-and-drink sector on how they are next in line for extreme regulations,” Duce told Campaign. “That includes plain packaging.”

For smaller businesses, such extremes could prove catastrophic. The Guardian reports how micro-distillery Sipsmiths is steeling itself against plain labelling that could zero the shelf-presence of its craft gin.

“It’s an absurdity,” says co-founder Jared Brown. “It will crush the craft side of the industry. It will shift the business back to the industrial producers, who will be very happy to move people back to mass-produced drinks. If something like this comes through we won’t be able to weather it.”

He goes on: “Are they considering similar labels for bacon? Fish and chips? Crisps?”

The answer is: potentially.

Cigarettes have set a precedent, and noises from campaigners are getting louder. How soon before we see stark warnings on unhealthy products of all kinds?

How can brands future proof?

The key is in understanding your consumers, and turning them into fans. By utilising your brand’s hard and soft power, we think the coming generic austerity can be mitigated.

Hard power is high investment and (potentially) high return brand innovations. Product development (for instance, tobacco firms moving into the vaping sector), supply chains, or business models are all examples of hard power. If campaigners want unhealthy snacks to be packaged plainly, is now the time for FMCG brands to develop healthy, sustainable, environmental lines and categories, leveraging hard power to avoid a potential conflict.

The difficulty then is in maintaining a brand continuity. How does Mars suddenly develop a protein range with added spirulina while maintaining its authentic brand voice?

It’s all about balancing hard power with the soft stuff: brand design, social media, and tone-of-voice. Clearly these are relatively low-cost, but still with the potential for high returns.

For a heritage brand whose main ingredient was even celebrated in its name – Sugar Puffs – Halo Foods undertook a rebranding exercise. Once Honey Monster Puffs had distanced the brand from the sweet stuff – with ‘honey’ the friendly, natural alternative – the manufacturer was able to reassure parents that it wasn’t force-feeding their kids an additive increasingly perceived to be harmful.

Products can also be hitched to charities and good causes. Redolent of sustainability and an ethos of kindness (it’s even in the name) Kind Bars is a brand that resonates well with a millennial demographic. Evol is committed to redefining both the frozen food it manufactures and, in the broader context of healthy eating for children, school food and food education. Skinnybrands Ltd claims bragging rights as the first UK company to specialise in low-calorie alternatives to traditional wine, lager and cocktail products. All use soft power – a relatively low investment – for high, brand differentiating returns.

With soft power, brands also speak to a youthful audience, winning early adopters and cementing product loyalty in the longer term. Its lower cost and high return is exciting. How can a manner of address impact consumer perception? Think of the cool, easygoing tone-of-voice projected by Aldi, for instance.

Tobacco’s travails prove plain packaging is on the march, with many more FMCG products in the crosshairs. With legislation driven by the (undeniably worthy) quest for better public health, brands need creativity and expertise with digital media to boost visibility, attract markets and build customer loyalty.

If the lumpen homogeneity of cigarette packaging threatens mission creep tomorrow – clobbering profitability and visiting upon every shop and pub all the gaiety of a North Korean waiting room – the right messaging and tone is crucial today.

 

Image credit:

robertstinnett on Flickr, CC 2.0

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