When it comes to value, ‘no frills’ doesn’t have to be ‘no fun’
Communicating value during the cost-of-living crisis.
In January, the food writer and anti-poverty campaigner Jack Monroe called out the diminishing size – and increasing price – of supermarket budget ranges at a time when inflation was already starting to bite hard. Citing prices from one of the big four supermarkets (though she didn’t specify which), she pointed out that the range of budget products had dwindled from 400 to less than 100, and even the most basic staples such as baked beans and rice had increased in price in a way that those on the tightest budgets could ill afford. Asda responded directly to Monroe’s concerns shortly after by saying it would stock its full Smart Price and Farm Stores ranges in all its food stores and online, making its products more available nationwide.
Fast forward to the summer, with the cost-of-living crisis still in full swing – and value brands are perhaps making up a part of more customers’ shopping lists.
One of the roles of a brand is to simplify decision making, which is particularly crucial in times of crisis when customers are having to make tough choices. Having a clear and recognisable brand identity for budget products can make that decision easier. However, budget brand design can fall into a trap of ‘no frills’ in a way that, if done badly, can seem mealy-mouthed and unwelcoming.
One of the biggest and most recognisable value brands in Canada is No Name/Sans Nom, launched in 1978, and sold in its similarly branded No Frills stores. Back then, discount grocery stores were a relatively new concept in Canada. These days, it competes with a wide of stores, including contenders from the US such as Costco. While its look has evolved over time, its current design still has a strong link to its roots with a bold yellow background, black Helvetica type and a deadpan literal description of the contents. The brand’s heritage and fame within Canada has also allowed it to play with this look and feel beyond packaging and in-store, using deadpan humour in its ad campaigns and across social media channels.
Such a bold and confident approach shows that value brand design can have personality, and even be cool. No Frills’ #Hauler campaign in 2018 tapped directly into this by targeting the under-30s, styling itself like an album launch with even a limited-edition range of clothing and bags – all in the brand’s iconic yellow and black.
In the US, Target’s Smartly brand – where most products are under $2 – approaches value by matching white with an optimistic pastel colour palette, simple iconography and no-nonsense product descriptions. It’s basic with a positive attitude. The look and feel also ladders up nicely to Target’s clean, cool overarching brand, which uses plenty of block colour, cut-out photography and a confident typeface.
Closer to home, Co-Op’s Honest Value styles itself as a ‘value range with values’, using clean type on a white background to speak plainly about credentials such as responsible sourcing and 100% British meat. This is paired with playful food illustrations for a sense of positivity. Ocado’s Own Range takes its own illustrations a step further with an individual pattern for almost every product in its range, giving everything a stylish yet straightforward cohesion.
Sainsbury’s and Tesco have taken an alternative approach to their discount ranges, having dissolved Sainsbury’s Basics and Tesco Value into a range of tertiary brands several years ago. This approach lets the product price do the talking when it comes to value, and instead focuses on quality and taste credentials. However, Tesco’s range of farm-themed brands such as Boswell Farms and Creamfields came under fire at their launch for being “fictional farms” at a time – not so long after the 2013 horse meat scandal – when provenance was becoming increasingly important.
Some private value brands choose to echo the look and feel of equivalent national brands, making the product’s own identity second fiddle to the brand identity of the product it is aping. A metallic purple chocolate wrapper with white text on it will tell the average customer plenty about what the chocolate inside is hoping to be (whether it lives up to that promise or not), making it easier for the customer to decide what to choose. Of course, this approach has its risks, as shown by the Colin vs Cuthbert furore between Marks & Spencer’s and Aldi.
However, customers can be less likely to take risks if money is tight, which doesn’t always mean they choose the cheapest. If a value brand echoes the look and feel of a familiar and well-loved neighbour, customers may well still reach for the one that they trust and are familiar with – even if it costs more.
Effective value-focused design often plays into a straightforward timelessness, which gives it a broad appeal and a longevity factor – so that designs don’t need to be refreshed and reprinted too often, reducing cost. Done well, this approach also feels honest, non-judgemental and optimistic.
In the end, there’s only so much that design alone can do to help customers choose in a cost crisis. But when designing for value brands, ‘no frills’ doesn’t have to mean ‘no fun’.
Author: Laura Siragher is a Senior Designer at CreativeRace. Her design experience spans 12 years, from freelance to in-house to agency, covering both design and illustration.