In the household category function has always taken priority over form. For supporting evidence of this statement you only need walk down the household goods aisle at your local supermarket where you will be met by a wall of very similar products. The same packaging structures, the same delivery mechanisms, the same power graphics and the same bold product promises. (“We kill 99.9% of germs – dead!”)
As a result of this ‘me-too’ approach the category has, to some extent, grown stale, with own-label products able to gain a significant market share because the brands haven’t worked hard enough to differentiate themselves. Now packaging and branding experts are crying out for brand owners to reinvigorate the category by investing in new packaging structures that boost shelf appeal and attract old and new shoppers back to the category brand leaders, before own label gains a stranglehold. But what’s the best line of attack for brand owners?
One radical solution put forth by design consultancy Echo to revive the category’s fortunes is for brands to cash in on untapped consumer segments that are more reflective of today’s societal trends. Take men, for example. According to Mintel research the number of men who clean the home has risen by 14% over the last five years, with Mintel senior analyst David Lockwood claiming that “men remain an under-exploited household cleaning target”.
Echo concurs with Mintel’s assessment that there’s a major opportunity for brands to target this consumer segment through products that are specifically designed to appeal to men – it’s even come up with concept designs to show how it would approach this market (microwave cleaning grenades, anyone?)
“More men are cleaning and caring for the home and an opportunity exists for brands to carve a niche in this area,” argues Echo creative director David Bicknell. “Appealing to the younger male, who may be less inclined to invest in household care/cleaning, by creating brand- and product- appropriate experiences that breathe new life, energy and fun into what is generally considered a chore – other sectors attract this consumer segment in a more playful way and household care brands could innovate much further to boost appeal and brand uptake.”
But targeting men isn’t the only opportunity for household brands, says Bicknell. “Considerations for how people live now should also be designed into products and brands,” he argues. “Smaller living spaces, single occupants – these trends lend themselves to more compact and smarter design solutions and smaller, lower cost packs. Where does one put that ridiculously large mop, for example?”
Then there’s the opportunity for brands to exploit the country’s growing ageing population. Holmes & Marchant client services director Rebecca Fone expects there to be major developments in packaging design to meet the needs of this demographic in the future.
“Around 38% of consumers aged 50 plus are fully responsible for household cleaning yet cleaning brands fail to target them,” explains Fone. “The strong growth of this segment means a potentially large consumer base in the future; therefore household care brands would benefit from catering to the needs of mature consumers via specialist products and marketing. For example, focusing on the functionality of bottle lid fixtures and ways to make these easier for the older demographics.”
But it’s not just about making products more functional. To cash in on all of these areas, brands have to become better at delivering experiences and conveying the message to consumers that the household category isn’t just about graft and elbow grease. To achieve this brands desperately need to break away from the current, relatively unsophisticated approach, warns Dragon Rouge’s director of strategy Nick Liddell.
“In terms of style an over-emphasis on shelf standout has led to a panoply of bold, bright and brash packs that look awful once you get them home,” says Liddell. “It’s little wonder that most household goods are stored out of sight. In terms of substance, it’s absolutely crazy that products we may only use for a fortnight come in packages that last beyond our lifetimes and people are increasingly conscious that they pay over the odds for over-engineered, attention seeking packaging.”
Liddell’s point is a valid one but the catch twenty-two situation that brand owners find themselves in is they’re aware of the need to change their packs to bring them up to date and reflect modern values and trends, yet at the same time they’re loathe to change their packaging for fear of upsetting loyal brand shoppers in this low interest category (the average shopper spends no longer than nine seconds in this category in the supermarket). “
The net effect of this is that brand owners are very wary of making discontinuous interventions in the category for fear of losing their existing customer,” explains Steve Gibbons, managing director at Dew Gibbons. “After all, they’re going to do little more than glance down the aisle and reach for the familiar. Competitor activity can jolt brand owners into action but on the whole the category lags behind most others through a general visual inertia.”
Gibbons believes that for the bolder, more adventurous brand owner there’s an opportunity to dissect exactly what a pack needs to do in some categories and suggests a radical approach. “Firstly in a graphically aggressive sector it needs to be seen, but once it’s in the home it could play a different role and display better manners,” he says. “A simple way to do this is to have removable branding. It’s only appropriate or possible in some categories, I agree, but it could be an interesting concept.”
Such measures could well be necessary in a category in need of a radical shake up, not only from a packaging point of view, but also in terms of how the brands and products are presented, according to Andy Lawrence, creative director at Elmwood.
“The category is all about broadcasting and shouting rather than having a dialogue,” says Lawrence. “The fight with own label is on a functional basis and that’s why I think the category is suffering because the bigger brands are still competing on a functional basis, whereas the brands that are more successful have an emotional relationship with consumers.”
He cites the example of Andrex. The toilet tissue giant approached Elmwood to revamp its packaging to make it easier for consumers to connect with the product. “On the new Andrex packaging we used matte inks to create a softer feeling pack that didn’t reflect the light in store and actually felt psychologically softer,” says Lawrence. “We also used some psychology in the design based on lessons we took from Disney. So instead of using a picture of the whole Andrex puppy on the pack we used the dog’s face and its eyes to say buy me please and take me home.”
While many of the leading household brands may be guilty of laziness over the last few years, in a low-interest and low-involvement category that’s heavily traded, unless these brands reverse the bad habits of the past and do something radically different they face losing market share in the future, cautions Lawrence.
“Any brand that uses the same spray trigger release mechanism and same bottle shape as an own-label product is absolutely wasting its time because there has to be brand equity and you have to build it in at every level,” explains Lawrence. “Consumers ask about brands ‘what am I paying more for?’ and if you can’t answer that question you’re in trouble.”