BY DESIGN

What began as a minor ambush has emerged as a full-scale war as private labels battle national brands for market share. One of the key weapons in the battle of brands is the development of careful and professional strategic branding decisions for trade names, trademarks and trade dress -- the complete visual presentation of store brands on the shelves.When retailers entered the arena of private labels,

What began as a minor ambush has emerged as a full-scale war as private labels battle national brands for market share. One of the key weapons in the battle of brands is the development of careful and professional strategic branding decisions for trade names, trademarks and trade dress -- the complete visual presentation of store brands on the shelves.

When retailers entered the arena of private labels, packaging design was a minor consideration. Retailers believed that if the price was low enough, customers would buy with no regard to the appearance of the product in the store. When packaging design was considered, it often resulted in a copy-cat version of leading national brands, or whatever package design was offered at little or no cost by the supplier. But times have changed. Although some retailers still take a "no-frills" approach to package design, there is a growing recognition of the power of visual communications to build brand identity and "sell" the consumer at point of purchase. Rather than merely trying to match national brands, many retailers now aim to set the design tone.

Companies have several options available to them for developing private-label identity. These include:

Generic: This strategy is designed to highlight price savings. Typically, packaging carries no store or brand identification, makes minimal use of color and uses cheaper packaging materials. The downside of this approach is that it creates a perception of "cheap goods at cheap prices."

Rubber-stamp: The same store name, symbol, type style and color are used on all products to create a unified image of eclectic goods. One of the first skilled users of this approach was Pathmark. The retailer was convinced that using unified branding in name and graphic design in its supermarkets, drugstores and gas stations allowed an exchange of equities among various products and product lines. The retailer presumes its customers are looking for economy, are sufficiently literate to read labels and are cognizant of and appreciate the firm's reputation for quality.

Retail brand endorsement: With this approach, the retailer's name and identity are displayed in a prominent position, although the package design, color and graphics vary, depending on family product grouping. Due to the different colors and graphics that are used, this approach may be a little more expensive than the rubber-stamp approach and certainly demands more professional design and development at the outset.

Proprietary: In this strategy, private-label lines are developed as stand-alone branded products, the goal being to give a national brand image to a retailer's store brand. Each product has its own identity, but there is little or no indication of true ownership. This is the approach that has been taken by Loblaw's President's Choice with spectacular results.

There is no "right" battle strategy to pursue for private-label identification. For different companies, different approaches may work best for different reasons. In all cases, retailers must develop a strategy that parallels their organizational goals. It's the only way they will emerge as victors in the branding war.

Elinor Selame is past president of Package Design Council International and president of BrandEquity International, a brand identity and package design consulting firm based in Newton, Mass.