Brands beware. Retailers are looking to steal your customers with revamped own-label lines. Rob Brown meets the team behind Asda’s Little Angels baby range to find out how fresh design and grand ambitions are converting shoppers to own label

The days when own label was primarily focused on functionality and value have long gone.

Today, own-label lines are outperforming the UK’s most powerful brands Tesco’s Finest and Value ranges are the UK’s biggest food brands, while Coke is third and the economic climate is encouraging the supermarkets to push the boat out even further.

Especially on the design front. If there is one area in which own-label still sometimes lags behind the brands, it is aesthetically. Nowhere is this better epitomised than in Asda’s Little Angels infant care range, which, hot on the heels of the design-driven relaunches of Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference and Asda’s standard range as Chosen By You last year, was this February extended into food and given its own fresh new look.

The own-label range desperately needed a revamp, admits Simon King, brand manager for non-food at Asda. Launched in 2006, the nappies and infant toiletries offer did little to stand out from the crowd and, as a consumer survey revealed in 2009, shoppers weren’t impressed. “Awareness was almost zero,” recalls King. “The recessive design meant there was little customer recognition. There wasn’t a lot of shout on-shelf and there was no emotional content for the customer.”

The retailer’s ambitions went far beyond just a redesign, however. Asda had its eyes set on achieving two industry firsts by being the first of the Big Four to stretch an own-label range across the entire infant care category and launching the UK’s first named own-label range of babyfood. By advancing into babyfood Asda threw down the gauntlet to retail rivals and brands such as Cow & Gate, Heinz and Ella’s Kitchen. In February, the new-look range now encompassing babyfood, accessories, maternity products and toiletries hit the shelves.

Although it is still early days, the vibrant new packaging coupled with the more comprehensive offer are already delivering the goods, says King. “Sales results have definitely endorsed what we’ve done,” he says, adding that research is already underway to ascertain the strength of the Little Angels brand against rivals’ non-food focused own-label baby offerings.

Raising awareness
King is expecting consumer awareness to be much higher than it was two years ago, as is Jo Hanford, associate director at Brand on Shelf, the agency that worked on the redesign. Consumers now see own-label ranges as brands in their own right and this needs to be reflected in their design credentials, she says. Me-too offerings just won’t cut it any more.

“You have to look at the brands on-shelf and look for something that doesn’t look like those brands,” she says. “You don’t want to mimic anything that’s already out there Pampers is already big in nappies and Johnson & Johnson is already big in toiletries. You want something that’s going to have its own standalone identity.”

With this in mind, the look and feel of the competition was taken into account in the redesign of Little Angels. The brand uses coloured text on a white background, as opposed to white on coloured, the category norm. It also had to speak to shoppers in its own language, says Hanford.

While Boots’ credentials as a pharmacist allow it to use a scientific tone on its baby product packaging and the likes of Pampers and Huggies highlight a combination of function and care in their communication, Asda, as a family retailer, decided the tone of the Little Angels range should be “caring and playful”.

This transition, from a predominantly value and function message to communicating the retailer’s own brand values, is symptomatic of a wider shift across own label as retailers look to capitalise on the current economic climate and drive own-label sales.

Packaging is key to own-label’s ability to communicate this broader message and take on the brands, says Justin Kempson, account director at Charbrand, who worked on the Asda Chosen by You project. “Retailers are pitting own-label against the brands,” he says. “They’re looking to blur the boundaries between branded and own label they’re doing it through packaging.” He adds that the “majority” of Chosen by You’s success is down to the products’ packaging design and ability to attract shoppers’ attention.

At Sainsbury’s, similar emphasis is placed on packaging design, as well as product innovation, says head of product brand Anna Shirley. Last September, Sainsbury’s relaunched its Taste the Difference label, adding 150 new lines to the £1bn range and unveiling a new design aimed at strengthening the brand’s “universal appeal”. The bolder design presents the line very much as a brand in its own right achieving greater shelf standout and allowing it to be carried into new categories, such as beer and ice cream, says Sainsbury’s.

Increasingly design will be used to transcend conventional value tiers, says Jonathan Ford, creative partner of brand designer Pearlfisher. “There’s an opportunity for retailers to use design to look at their ranges cohesively and go beyond good, better and best,” he adds. In some cases this is already happening. Taste the Difference’s push to the poshest end of the spectrum with its super premium Bistro line is one example and Asda is drawing up plans to launch a premium offering under the Little Angels label.

Close attention to the look and feel of own label also offers the opportunity to stretch own label ranges across the food/non-food divide. Sainsbury’s Different by Design non-food range, which clearly takes cues from its Taste the Difference range in terms of design and language, and the Asda Elegant Living homeware range, launched last month, are good examples of the broader remit own-label ranges are now expected to cover.

“Clearly there’s the opportunity to expand into general merchandise,” says Martyn Withers, co-founder of branding and design agency Embrace Brands. “Shoppers are scrutinising what they buy much more closely and this gives retailers the opportunity to expand their offerings. But the big question is credibility. Can you take any existing brand ranges and leverage that in general merchandise?”

It’s a two-way street, as Little Angels’ move from non-food into food shows. But whatever the category, the use of design to communicate more than value and function will be of increasing importance. “The next big challenge is what we do in non-food in terms of own label,” says King, adding that it’s how non-food own-label offerings look and the values they communicate that will be key to their success.

Given the clear benefits a revamp can bring, it’s no surprise that so many retailers are reviewing their own-label packaging. The other upside, of course, is that they don’t have to pay for any changes, says Kempson. “The investment the retailers are making is in the thought process, but it’s always going to be the supplier that is made to actually pay for the investment.”

They could well need deep pockets in coming months as own label continues its fight with fmcg’s biggest brands. 

From zero to hero

When Asda launched Little Angels in 2006 it had bold ambitions - to be “the nation’s favourite own label baby brand. It failed spectacularly.

In 2009 a survey revealed “almost zero” shopper awareness and Asda went back to the drawing board (see below).

In the likes of Pampers, Heinz and Tommee Tippee, Little Angles is taking on some of fmcg’s biggest brands in its push into new categories. To be able to hold its own against these titans, says Asda senior design manager Simon Arundel, three challenges had to be overcome.

“We needed to find something distinctive and ownable, something that could stretch across the breadth of categories, and something that talked in the right way to the right category,” says Arundel.

By developing of an overarching brand and through judicious use of photography, text, colour and illustrations, Asda says it’s struck gold. Now taking prominent places in Asda’s baby aisles up and down the country, the retailer says Little Angels has become a big hitter.

How little angels was re-invented

1) The starting line
No wonder nobody knows what Little Angels is. With a recessive design that typifies own label of old, the range does little to attract shoppers.

“We needed something that shouted from the shelf,” says Asda’s Simon King. “Wherever you look in the baby category, there are extremely strong and colourful brands. We needed to compete.” Only stipulations: keep the baby and the ‘Asda’ name.

2) Breaking the rules
One of the first things to go is the use of white text on a coloured background the norm in the infant care category. “All the other brands use white out of colour this completely breaks that rule, giving it freshness on shelf,” says King. Benefit bands are added to communicate product properties and a heart is used to dot the ‘i’.

3) The caring touch
The team opt for a “caring” and “playful” tone of voice in the packaging. Cue pastel colours and a cutesy flower to replace the heart. But does it shout from the shelves enough?

4) Visual cues
Photography helps to assure shoppers of quality and gives easily readable visual cues. But is the design too cluttered and can it be applied to such a wide range of products?

5) Job done
The idea of ‘homespun mum’ leads to the stitching design and the button. Colour on white gives shelf standout and difference, and the design is versatile enough to be carried on a range of products. Sales began to climb after the new design hit the shelves, says Asda.

Designed for life Design will be a central theme of seminar programme at The Grocer’s annual Own Label Food & Drink Awards next month.

Both sides of the equation will be covered at the event at Chelsea’s Wyndham Grand Hotel on 11 May as top brass from Asda shed light on the success of its Chosen by You Launch, while Kerry Foods innovation director David Hamilton, winner of The Grocer Gold award for own label last year, shares his view from the supplier’s standpoint.

Before lunch and this year’s own label awards ceremony will be a talk from Claire Nuttall, insight and innovation director at the agency 1HQ on Getting Packaging Design Right.