Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Cracking the codes of value

Value is centre stage again and Tesco’s recent replacement of its iconic blue and white striped range as a more comfortingly retro-packaged Everyday Value range has changed the rules. But how? We decided to dig deeper, by applying a semiotic eye to the way that the major supermarkets package their “value” ranges. The first thing that even a cursory semiotic skim tells us is all these ranges are missing the customary “brand adornment” (photography, benefits, serving suggestions, extensive colour palettes...); we see a plethora of products with white backgrounds, simple retail master brand colourways, “handwritten” script fonts, line drawings of products. So one of the key rules of value range packaging – it is all about absence. The “conventional” meaning of this is that no money has been spent on anything other than hygienic containment of the product and basic information – stripped down to give you, the customer, best value. But Tesco’s decision to break the rules and opt for a “de-stigmatised” design quietly breaks this rule. It reminds us that being able to afford the unnecessary adornment of branded packaging is central to the pleasure of consumption, of buying what I “want” rather than what I “need”. So, in contrast to Sainsbury and Asda who remain loyal to the puritanically stripped down approach, Tesco has decided that its value shoppers can have their Everyday Value cake and eat it, without being seen as “too poor to choose”. But (like the playfully redesigned M-Savers from Morrisons) it remains, recognisably, a value range. The Tesco range also breaks the “standardisation” rule. Products in the Everyday Value range do not carry exactly the same livery – yes, they are recognisably of the same stable but use different colours, have different product shapes. This provides just enough of a sense of visual variety for the products to provide some of that “unnecessary” adornment needed for proper consumption. What’s more the visual style and the product shapes have a loosely retro style and so connote a bang-on-trend simpler time of housewifely thrift. At the other end of the value market Waitrose essentials range conforms to many classic value codes. However its minimalist white “essentials” pack is dressed in picture-book-retro product drawings which connote an idea of lashings of ginger beer & a simple & more reassuring time. M&S reinterprets the value range rules in another way, principally through the motif of the “torn from a note pad and handwritten” label. Again the overt absence of “design” here says what all other value ranges say, (no wasted money), but behind the casual “notepad” motif, it is hard not to paint a picture of the surrounding domestic scene (a well stocked and well appointed middle-class kitchen or shopping basket carried from store to store collecting provisions). So below the surface these ranges play with cultural narratives of need vs want, conspicuous consumption & cultural capital, puritanical rejection of adornment, the aesthetics of the Protestant work ethic and ideas of thrift & nostalgia...there is so much more going on here than value ! Tesco & Morrisons have shifted subtly away from the classic codes of value of Sainsbury and Asda. Time will tell which is the best approach, but Tesco’s move has implications for brands not just their retail competitors. The introduction of more visually (and thus socially) acceptable value ranges can only mean more private label competition for them. In belt-tightened-Britain brands should at least be aware that even retailer value ranges are now offering some aspects of the “consumption experience” that brands offer to their consumers, but at half the price. And that should be cause for concern.

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