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Pushing Tins

The man behind U.K. chain Waitrose’s glorious private label design explains why packaging matters more than ever

Bruce Duckworth, design expert, Grammy Award winner, and much sought-after personality on the speaking circuit, is contemplating canned meat. A principal at the internationally acclaimed design agency Turner Duckworth, the London-based designer has helped create and refresh the visual identity of global brands ranging from Coca-Cola and Amazon to the heavy metal band Metallica (whose most recent album, Death Magnetic, won a Grammy in the Best Recording Package category).

Today, though, he’s talking about Turner Duckworth’s long-standing association with upscale U.K. supermarket chain Waitrose. Since 1992, Turner Duckworth has overseen package design for Waitrose’s much-lauded private label brand, which encompasses everything from canned vegetables to cat litter.

Waitrose’s product line is the result of both stringent quality control and a singular vision

The packaging on these products bears as much resemblance to the yellow and black No Name products as prime rib does to Spam–a fact reflected in their contribution to Waitrose’s bottom line. According to the chain’s most recent annual report, private label was a significant factor in the 9% increase in gross sales for fiscal 2010. And a new discount product line, Essential Waitrose, is expected to contribute £750 million in revenues for the upcoming year.

But back to the meat. While premium products like olive oil and wine are often renowned for eye-catching design, Duckworth is just as motivated by the challenge to make humble products–such as a tin of canned meat, for instance–visually enticing. “I think great design can be done for honest, everyday products. That’s what I like to do more than anything else,” he explains.

To persuade somebody as they’re picking something up is becoming one of the few consistent parts of marketing,” [Duckworth] says. “It’s essential.

In many ways, the Waitrose line’s visual identity is quintessentially British: elegant, refined and refreshingly free of hyperbole like “A great source of vitamin D” or “Now with 30% more cleaning power.” Where most brands shout, Waitrose products tend to offer quiet confidence. “When you go to a supermarket there’s a limit to how many times you can be shouted at,” says Duckworth. “You tend to tune out.”

Waitrose’s product line is the result of both stringent quality control and a singular vision. Every two weeks or so, representatives from Turner Duckworth and Waitrose’s senior product managers meet to discuss new product launches and their design. The result is a formula that seldom varies in tone, with visual simplicity its overriding tenet. “The principle is ‘Why use two elements to accomplish what one element could do?’ ” explains Duckworth.

He believes package design is becoming an increasingly important battleground, especially as companies see the success that brands like Apple and U.S. retailer Target have enjoyed by making it such a fundamental part of their business. And with consumers increasingly awash in marketing messages, standout packaging can also help differentiate grocery products, he says. “To persuade somebody as they’re picking something up is becoming one of the few consistent parts of marketing,” he says. “It’s essential.”

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