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Sunday, May 19, 2024

The copycat challenge

It’s time brands were bolder, braver and believed in their ability to differentiate from the sea of sameness on supermarket shelves, writes Brett Goldhawk

As consumers want to be seen increasingly as individuals, and next generation audiences especially so, the brand world is responding very strangely by focusing too much on the opposite.

In the era of supposed self-expression, a walk around a supermarket reveals less originality, more copycatting, less ability to differentiate between one product and its competitors and a dearth of fresh thinking. Or more specifically, of idea execution.

This is the case for traditional categories, where every bread brand for example has spotted 50/50 formulations, seeds and artisan versions with little separation on packaging bar brand name. For newer spaces such as seltzers where the chance to disrupt landed but has then created a wall of facsimiles, with similar packaging, shapes and colour choices. And for aisles that in theory should be all about creativity and inspiration, such as pasta, where that memo seems to have passed everyone by for a reliance on the basics and the functional.

Why is this? Surely we all start with ambition for our brands, grand visions of market leadership, love, respect and impulse led purchases as we hijack the hearts and minds of our potential brand fans?

I’m not naive to commercial goals but to win big we need to think bigger. Change some rules of normality. Move out of comfort zones. Surprise and delight.

And I think there are a number of challenges we have fallen foul of, that need some disruption in the thinking and development stage to have any chance of disruption and freshness at the point of impact.

First up is research and a reliance on ‘Focus Groups’. Too often a bunch of people that tell you they prefer option A over option B because there is less yellow/bigger fonts/a slightly funnier name in the mix. But if focus groups come in at this stage, with a small segment of people judging which option of two is the least bad in return for being paid, then it’s no surprise originality is not going to break through.

What if instead you asked a larger number of consumers to visit an aisle and critique it, tell you what’s good, what’s missing, what would turn heads, how many seconds it actually interests them for? Suddenly you are in the real world, establishing much more impulse meets considered thinking, finding chinks in the category armour, and spending time on the ‘what if?’ value of mould breaking approaches. This is the research value that can kick off bold thinking, provide a brief for creative partners to use their best talent, show retailers why you’re thinking is unique and how they can benefit from it with your new approach. If you don’t break patterns of doing things you don’t break patterns of sales.

Linked to this is the need to park respect. Seeing a category leader’s results can tell you they have got it right, right? But have they cracked the code or are they just winning on familiarity? Are they top because no one has showed them an alternative? Or are they there for disruption if the right challenge comes along. Why launch with the same flavours as a rival just because they do? Why follow bottle shape because that’s what people just buy? Why join a bandwagon after the curve has passed on a variety, rather than be in on something on the rise?

If you want a small share of proven space, then that’s a gamble choice, but what earns you the long-term shelf space from that other than being a backup choice or a promotion price-only-option for customers?

Ambitious brands should be looking at offering genuine choice. And aiming for genuine financial breakout.

Which means lining up the existing category players, finding their similarities and then parking those that are negotiable. The interesting, bold and smart move is to look at what they aren’t doing and pursuing those routes rather than trying to match their best bits. Then you have a story. A shelf differential. A marketing approach. A pitch of value to retailers where you are bringing something new.

I may be cynical on focus groups, but I’m not anti-research or data to back this challenging of the status quo. It’s just a question of the right kind of research and data. Less demographics (because we are beyond that era of geographic and age led sameness) and more mindset understanding. More about patterns in other disruptive sectors where learnings can be taken. And more listening to real customers and their shopping perspectives than narrowly channelled self-focused questioning.

And within that listening, reflecting on the importance of digital and how your product is going to come across in what may be less than three dimensional on a retail website. This may impact on choice of packaging shape or colour for visual stand out. Or positioning of the messaging that matters if people can’t read your backstory and personality on the back of the pack that isn’t online visible. Maybe, just maybe, we should look at creating holistic and simple packaging design that is identical across all channels, using mobile search as the lowest common denominator when looking at brand and product messaging on pack. Browsing time online is even quicker than browsing in store, so those seconds are crucial when it comes to landing original thinking and is the perfect litmus test for disruptive innovation.

However, one of the biggest challenges is in an understanding of what innovation actually means, or what it could potentially deliver. For many brands this is about a new flavour or variety. Maybe seasonal, often temporary, but ultimately 100 percent within comfort zones. And for small incremental sales increases, why not?

But it’s not going to drive the talkablity or open up new customers. Or in the case of ‘Christmas packaging on a household cleaning product’ going to be relevant at all!

The smart thinkers will look more laterally. And some have done extremely well in crossing from food into drinks, chocolate into ice cream, alcohol into chocolate. Each has some shared audience insights with people who like category A also being fans of category B. And the extensions have lasted and genuinely opened up new revenue streams.

So why not think bolder too? If you are an outdoors brand selling everything for the weekend adventurer, what about looking at energy bars? If you are a sofa driven entertainment brand, where is the sofa snacking range? If you are a toothpaste brand, where are the spin off mints? Or if you are confectionary brand that isn’t chocolate, what about the sparking drinks?

I’m not saying any of that’s easy, but if you don’t tackle the thinking as an option and debate the potential of how that might look, feel, be understood and excite customers, then you aren’t up for breaking the rules, when rule breaking is the secret ingredient of fast track potential.

As always it’s more fulfilling and richer to start with the big ‘what if’ and pull it back as you need to do what still feels different, then it is to start with the easily doable market cues and make that genuinely exciting.

Post pandemic is a time for reinvention, not for hiding behind safe development and marketing. Bring more joy. Add more surprise. Be braver in spaces you understand to change the pace.

If we go back to the start and my view of too much copycatting when consumers are more about seeking the original, the summary solution lies in asking better questions. Trickier questions. Ones you don’t necessarily want to answer.

It’s not all that radical a plan. Do more listening. Find the gaps not the similarities. Change your research value. Bring some excitement into the planning. Trust your gut. And don’t invite the people who like the comfort zones to the meeting.

Brett Goldhawk, Managing Director, Ziggurat,

Brett is a global brand and innovation specialist. He leads Ziggurat, a brand and packaging design agency which has been based in the heart of London for over 35 years. Specialising in the food and drink sectors, Ziggurat has created and launched countless category leaders.





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Brett Goldhawk
Brett Goldhawk
Brett Goldhawk Managing Director, Ziggurat, Brett is a global brand and innovation specialist. He leads Ziggurat, a brand and packaging design agency which has been based in the heart of London for over 35 years. Specialising in the food and drink sectors, Ziggurat has created and launched countless category leaders. https://ziggurat.london

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