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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Competing in a crowded field

In a sea of online grocery stores, what makes a brand stand out, asks Roberta Graham?

Thanks largely to lockdowns and our collective, technology-driven impatience, the last couple of years have seen a surge in new grocery delivery services across the UK – from Getir (which recently bought rival brand Weezy) and Grocemania to Gorillas, Zapp and Jiffy – many promising to bring you everything a corner shop offers (and more!) in less than an hour.

Of course, digital grocery shopping is nothing new: the big supermarkets have been offering deliveries for years. But today, it’s bigger business than ever: according to research from Kantar, in February 2020, only £7.40 of every £100 spent on groceries in the UK was bought online: by February 2021, that figure had almost doubled to £15.40 of every £100.

But there’s a sense that these newer on-demand grocery services with snappy names and bold, bright branding cater for the fast-paced, screen-centric Gen Z consumer who needs the odd few items on demand.

Getir et al sit alongside the likes of new Tesco and Sainsbury services (Whoosh and Chop Chop respectively) that promise delivery in less than an hour and even Amazon offers like Fresh and Grocery. But this newer wave of brands still feels like a different proposition, even if they’re using similar tech. Consumers may well think of it like this: if Ocado is the weekly ‘big shop’; Getir and its rivals are more like popping to the corner shop to buy milk, crisps and a few beers.

However, according to investors at least, such distinctions are already outdated. Speaking to  Metro last year, Blossom Capital founder Ophelia Brown (which invested in Dija, which has since been bought by rival GoPuff) said that these apps aren’t structured to encourage a “two item order” – a practice that’s both bad for business, and for the environment. “I think the [delivery app] orders are much more likely to take on supermarkets and their local chains,” she said.

How to stand out

With so many brands popping up ostensibly offering the same thing, bolstered by huge swathes of venture capitalist investment (around £9.8bn have been poured into the newer on-demand startups since the start of the pandemic according to one estimate, The Guardian reported last year), how can they differentiate themselves? And where does that leave the established brands that pioneered the idea of online grocery shopping?

Ocado launched 20 years ago into a very different shopping climate. Back then, it was a true pioneer in UK grocery; pretty much the only brand to offer exclusively online grocery shopping, with its own-brand goods on sale alongside all the usual, traditional FMCG brands.

Over the years, it had become clear that there was a lack of distinctiveness and consistency in Ocado’s brand identity. Much of its issue was around recognition: Ocado’s brand colours (prior to its 2021 rebrand) were largely being misattributed to its competitors in consumer research, for instance. But while an ownable visual identity plays a vital role in helping any brand stand out in a crowded marketplace, maintaining and increasing its share of customers is about a lot more than a logo and colour palette.

A visual identity is only as good as the values it reflects

Despite the issues around Ocado’s image, it remained the UK’s fastest growing online grocer. That was largely thanks to its many significant advantages including outstanding service (Ocado has better Net Promoter Scores than any other retailer) and unparalleled choice (it offers more SKUs than any other UK retailer).

The brands that will stand the test of time in the on-demand and online grocery boom are the ones that have more than a zippy name, slick app or tasteful ‘millennial pink’ branding – they’re the ones that have honed their offer, know their audience and do what they do better than anyone else.

The key to longevity?

Understanding a brand and how to make it future-facing, robust and relevant is all about harnessing semiotics. As part of the journey toward Ocado’s new masterbrand, we worked with the brand to conduct semiotic and cultural analysis of the online grocery market and the opportunities for Ocado. This work informed the final designs created by Jones Knowles Ritchie including the transformational change of the brand colour to ‘Grape’ as well as evolutions of the iconic swirl logo, wordmark and typeface.

Better, stronger brands that exist and flourish beyond flash-in-the-pan success can, in my opinion, only be achieved by in-depth semiotic and cultural analysis.

In simple terms, semiotics is the study of how we understand meaning in everyday life: it’s a way of thinking that helps ‘decode’ the signs and symbols in the world around us  – like images, language, sounds, colours or gestures – anything that tells us something about the people and culture it came from. These different elements come together to create meaning, and understanding how they do so is essential for brands.

For this swathe of new brands that seemingly offer very similar services (and largely all bearing similarly punchy, short names – not to mention ‘friendly’ sans serif brand fonts), it’s vital to have clear, intentional reasons behind their brand assets and the meanings their audiences ascribe to them.

Today, the incredibly fast tempo of cultural development, and the diversity of modern brands’ audiences, means that no idea can stay the same for very long. To grow, brands must retain the ability to constantly reimagine – not to reinvent completely, but to adapt – their identities and their relationships with consumers’ cultures.


Roberta Graham
Roberta Graham
Roberta Graham, Project Director, Space Doctors. Roberta is Project Director at this global cultural and creative consultancy that helps organisations become more impactful, meaningful and relevant by connecting them more deeply with culture. Their expert network includes the world’s leading semioticians, academics, design strategists and data analysts, informing culturally sensitive strategies for brands such as Ocado, Gillette and Unilever. https://space-doctors.com

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