Why the wrong design will kill even the best food and drink brands

“Huh, how can design be wrong? Surely design is either good or bad?” If this thought popped into your head, then you may need to revisit your approach to the design process.

Henry Barnett
Written by Henry Barnett
Creative Director

“Hey, we need one of our food products rebranded, and we needed it yesterday, can you help!?”

A few years ago, these words echoed down the phone as one of our clients reached out to us to help rebrand their food product. They had acquired a smaller established brand and were keen to capture a more significant market share.

Usually, starting a conversation like this would raise some serious alarm bells. However, we had built a stable working relationship with them over the last few years and didn’t want to let them down. So our younger naive selves agreed to the job and seemingly tight deadline.

Coffee, tea & rock n roll propelled us through the initial stages of the project until we were ready to present our initial design concepts.

Colour, typography, tone of voice and imagery were all consciously selected during the design process to craft a design that would resonate with the products’ target demographic we established earlier in our brand strategy.

Our client didn’t fall into the demographic their product was targeting, not uncommon, but in this instance, it presented us with a challenge:

The initial feedback was good, but against our advice, they steered the design towards their tastes resulting in them targeting the wrong demographic.

Ultimately they didn’t see the value in the design process and were unwilling to listen to our expert advice. Unsurprisingly, this caused the product to fall flat when it launched because it wasn’t positioned appropriately in the market.

We are by no means innocent in this story; our mistake at the time was not explaining the value of the design process.

Why design isn't always valued

Design & marketing go hand in hand, intrinsically linked where one can't survive without the other, a little bit like Ant & Dec.

A good design won’t save lousy marketing and vice versa. Companies understand the benefit of marketing, but often see design as woolly and ‘subjective’ so don’t value or invest in it.

Very early on in my career, a colleague and good friend of mine used to define being a designer as ‘just colouring in shapes for a living’. Although he was joking, his definition was based on clients' common misconception that design is purely about aesthetics and making something look ‘pretty’.

This misconception is born from the notion that design is the same as art. Both share similarities but have vital differences:

Art is the freedom of creative expression. There is no right or wrong, but plenty of subjectivity surrounding it.  

Design, on the other hand, is process-driven. Every decision made is a conscious one used to achieve a specific goal. Failing to accomplish this goal means the design is wrong.

Positioning a product

In the context of brand strategy, the design is just one element used to position a product, but one hell of an important one.

Sounds obvious, but if your brand strategy is to position your product to a younger audience, then the design needs to resonate with them.

Colour, typography, tone of voice and imagery are all tools at a designers disposal to ensure this happens. Getting any of them wrong will have a detrimental effect on what demographic you’ve targeted, resulting in the positioning of your product to misalign with your strategy. In essence, the design process is just a tool to execute your strategy; an objective series of design decisions carefully selected to position a product effectively.

The wrong design will undermine a good strategy.

You can love or hate the look of a product, but if the design doesn't position the product in line with the strategy, the design is wrong.

The right design won’t fix a lousy strategy.

Alternatively, if the strategy for a brand is to target supermarkets with a premium ketchup priced at £1,000,000, design won’t save you. It doesn’t matter how well you position the product through the design process; it’s not going to succeed if you have a lousy strategy.

First impressions

You only get one shot at making a first impression. It doesn’t matter how talented you are if you turn up to a job interview naked you’re unlikely to get the job (and most likely end up getting arrested in the process.)

The same principles apply to your design; a customer’s first impression of your product will always be a visual one.

Another excellent example of the power of packaging design is ALDI. Their copycat approach to packaging design sees them capitalising on the equity of rival products already established in the market before undercutting them at a competitive price.

Their copycat products invoke instant recognition that would otherwise take years to achieve naturally. Subconsciously, customers believe that because the product looks like Heinz Ketchup, it must also taste like Heinz Ketchup without any evidence to back it up. Right or wrong, Aldi’s approach demonstrates the power design has in the customers’ decision process when purchasing products.

In the case of our client; all the additional marketing spend in the world didn’t help their ill-set product gain traction when it launched.

Regrettably, the product became delisted from a leading retailer less than a year after the product rebrand.

Trusting and investing in the design process would have not only saved them the additional marketing costs but given their product a decent chance of being successful. As we said before, the wrong design will undermine a good strategy.