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Stand by Your Brand

There's always been a fine line in branding between flattery and imitation. No doubt store brands tread on the right side of the law. But just because they're not doing something illegal does not mean that they're completely transparent. This is the approach I find less clear-cut: when the store brand's packaging looks a little too similar to the product it's "inspired" by.
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Perhaps this has happened to you: you're making a mad dash to the store and you reach for some familiar packaging...and only when you get to the checkout do you realize you've grabbed the wrong thing. It happened to me recently at my local drugstore. Instead of the Crest Whitestrips I was after, I found myself at the checkout with the drugstore's own brand version of it.

No, I don't need glasses. But you do sometimes need 20/20 vision and concentrated attention to see the differences between how the generic store brand is packaged compared to the manufacturer label.

Saatchi & Saatchi coined the phrase "Lovemarks." This is when a brand becomes more to you than just the product in the packaging, but something that inspires you beyond the expected performance.

"Lovemarks reach your heart as well as your mind, creating an intimate, emotional connection that you just can't live without. Ever. Take a brand away and people will find a replacement. Take a Lovemark away and people will protest its absence. Lovemarks are a relationship, not a mere transaction. You don't just buy Lovemarks, you embrace them passionately. That's why you never want to let go." - Saatchi & Saatchi

One example of this might be Dove's campaign for real beauty. You could argue that this campaign goes way beyond what we want and need when we're buying soap. But their campaign is certainly inspiring. And precisely because of that many people feel an intimate connection with the brand. They perceive Dove as a brand that's more inclusive, positively feminist etc. And they might always reach for Dove at the drugstore because for them that brand is a "Lovemark" that goes beyond a mere fad. They love the product, but also respect it.

The reason I was upset about my purchase was because I felt led astray by the too-similar packaging. The brand I wanted is by a company I know and trust. I've used their product a long time. OK, it may just be a tooth-whitening system, but I know the product performs and I rely on it. I feel like over time it's my trusted brand and I respect the company. In fact, many of the brands I feel this way about are those small consumables that I buy over and over again. You know the feeling -- we all have our favourite products we buy over and over!

Branding is an integral part of my job, but it's also the kind of shopper I am. I pay really careful attention to products and branding. Some retailers' approach is to go for a generic "no name" brand -- that familiar yellow packaging is, in fact, a brand itself. It stands for no-nonsense and value, it conveys that the product isn't trying to impress you with fancy and excessive packaging but is focused on giving you "exactly what it says on the label" for a fair and competitive price. I completely respect this approach. It may seem like those no-name products are a "non-brand," but in fact they're a very clever and distinctive brand in their own right.

But there's another approach I find less clear-cut: this is when the store brand's packaging looks a little too similar to the product it's "inspired" by. This is the approach I was nearly taken in by, and I've since noticed that it's pretty common at drugstores and grocery stores! A lot has been written about luxury designers (Chanel, Fendi, Louis Vuitton) being copied, whether it's designer purses sold on Canal Street or Louboutin's iconic red soles suddenly appearing at many discount stores. But what about these more everyday brands? Is imitating them not also wrong? Do we think the brand is "worth" less just because the product is affordable?

It might be wrong to assume that just because a product costs $10 and not $1,000 that less investment goes into the branding and research. Think about it. The world is a much more competitive place for coffee-makers and shampoo companies than it is for high-end designers. If you're going to spend $800 on pair of shoes, you'll no doubt pay attention to what you're buying. It's almost certain that those kinds of brands will be "Lovemarks" to the people buying them. But if you're making that mad dash to the grocery store, the decision-making process is very compressed in time and way more competitive. The pressure is on! These products must attract your attention, communicate clearly what they are and why they're better and also deliver to make you loyal over time.

Most companies work exceptionally hard to develop a recognizable brand. They select a product name, design packaging, fonts, colours and materials. They conduct a lot of research to get it right, making sure customers understand the product name, that the most important information is prominent and that the design is aesthetically pleasing. Once they hit the right formula, they stay loyal to it so that they become a familiar and recognizable brand to their customers. Colgate, Starbucks, Nike -- you can probably picture their packaging just hearing their names. That's a sign of effective branding.

But beyond the packaging, those companies are also the ones who conduct all the product research and development, search out new ingredients, run clinical trials and huge taste kitchens, always trying to bring a better product to the marketplace. And they stake their very reputation on the fact that it's an effective product. When Crest brings out a new toothpaste or tooth-whitener, it represents a huge investment and risk.

There's always been a fine line in branding between flattery and imitation. No doubt store brands tread on the right side of the law. But just because they're not doing something illegal does not mean that they're completely transparent. If they created their own consistent brand and product (like the yellow-packaged no-name brands do), there wouldn't be an issue. But it feels like they're simply piggy-backing off the hard work of other companies in order to confuse customers, just as I was confused. As customers, we should be able to make our own choices. There might be times when I don't care and am happy to buy the store brand. I just don't like the idea that I might unwittingly make a purchase I didn't want to make.

But the thing that really strikes me is that these imitation brands are missing an opportunity. That no-name generic yellow packaging is a better brand because it could actually become a Lovemark -- something that people respect and love, turn to every time and would miss if it was taken away. But the imitations will never be a Lovemark to people because they're not actually doing something original and with integrity. Why not build a brand that people actually respect? Wouldn't that be better business?