When it comes to store brands, there are almost as many strategies as supermarket chains. Some companies support a store name, others choose an unrelated name. Still others use a combination of names in a multilevel structure, which typically includes a value and premium or super-premium tier or features different names in different categories.Regardless whether products carry the store name or another

When it comes to store brands, there are almost as many strategies as supermarket chains. Some companies support a store name, others choose an unrelated name. Still others use a combination of names in a multilevel structure, which typically includes a value and premium or super-premium tier or features different names in different categories.

Regardless whether products carry the store name or another name, package design increasingly is used to communicate the message that today's store brands are equal or even superior to competing national brands.

"The role of package design is changing from a specialty activity of marketing communications to an activity that's very strategic and really central to defining the brand and brand positioning," says Darrel Rhea, principal at Cheskin Research, Redwood Shores, Calif., the country's largest packaging-research firm.

New packaging also generates excitement at the store level because it provides something different for consumers to focus on and almost always boosts sales.

Recognizing what a good profit center store brands can be, chains are "starting to reinvest" and are undertaking redesign projects to upgrade their labels' image, says Gary Oakley, vice president of creative at Watt Design Group, a Toronto-based design firm, which has developed house brands for Wal-Mart and Safeway and is working on enhancing the graphics for Ahold's Sensational mark.

A number of chains including IGA, Kroger Co. and Piggly Wiggly are currently engrossed in redesign projects crossing dozens of stockkeeping units. At Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y., redesign is "a continuous improvement process," reports Bill Drake, private-label category manager. "We always have a number of items being designed," he notes.

With purchasing decisions made in a split second as shoppers push carts down the aisles, "if you don't have a design that's eye-catching, there's less chance of a sale," he explains.

Why so much activity now? Nutritional labeling requirements, which took effect in 1994, spawned a considerable redesign effort. Since the mandated changes had to be made, many chains took the opportunity to update graphics, as well. With the time interval between redesigns compressing from an average of seven years to more like three, many designs have reached the point where it's time for the next update.

Also encouraging redesign are changes in labeling of over-the-counter pharmaceuticals and the introduction of store brands in categories like fresh-cut produce, deli items and portion-control meats. "The specialized packaging for these value-added products is driving a rethinking of store-brand packaging," reports Brain Sharoff, president of the Private Label Manufacturers Association, New York.

With store-brand produce looking fresh and inviting, graphics in Center Store categories must be upgraded or run the risk of looking dated. This is especially necessary if the store brand crosses all categories. "You have to pull the entire range up to the same level," says Sharoff.

An active mergers-and-acquisitions climate also is encouraging the freshening of store brands in preparation for extending labels into new stores.

When creating new graphics, designers have a number of tools at their disposal. Inevitably, the number of colors is increased from three or four to six, eight or more. Also likely is a transition from simpler line art to process printing, plus a greater use of photography. "We do a lot of photography," says Drake. Indeed, Price Chopper has an internal photography studio to support its three award-winning, in-house designers. "It's a wonderful resource for us," says Lisa Wassenaar, supervisor of private-label design at Price Chopper.

Other popular tools include eye-catching devices like iridescent or fluorescent inks, metalized film, paper or paperboard, holographic images -- which provide a glittery, three-dimensional effect as the package or consumer moves -- embossing and foil stamping. The goal is "a more visual impact in-store," says Oakley.

A new way to impart decorative effects is via the use of coatings like Edge Packaging Technologies developed by Du Pont Co., Wilmington, Del., for polyethylene terephthalate bottles like those used for soft drinks and a host of other products. The patent-pending, two-step, spray-on exterior coating/overcoat system, introduced in February at the Nova-Pack Americas 2000 conference in Orlando, Fla., can impart recycling-compatible color, holographics, electroluminescence (it lights up with electronic current), direct printing, frosting, chrome illusion or thermochromatic action (it changes color according to temperature). Since the coating also can improve barrier properties, initial commercial applications are expected to be for oxygen-sensitive products such as juice or beer. Another attention-grabbing tool is the use of multiple labels, especially clear pressure-sensitive styles, which present a "no-label" look. There's also interest in custom container shapes, functional closures like sifters and other dispensers and multipanel labels, which provide a peelable or removable section for value-added extras like recipes or coupons.

To successfully develop a new design, "it's essential to have a vision of what you want to achieve," says Oakley.

Consider "what the customer would think about when he/she looks at the product," advises Drake.

For example, Price Chopper has two styles of packaging for its ready-to-eat cereals. Each is intended to appeal to a different target market. So, kid-oriented cereals feature proprietary characters, while adult-positioned stockkeeping units depict a farm scene. The only consistent elements between the two designs, as well as store-brand packaging in other categories, is inclusion of the Price Chopper logo and quality guarantee. Otherwise, graphics reflect the goals of the individual product.

"The focus in private label has changed in the past 10 years," explains Wassenaar. "The quality has increased so much that we're actually able to identify ourselves as a brand," she says. Consistent trade dress across product lines is not necessary, she insists, likening Price Chopper's use of its logo to how Nabisco incorporates its mark on its packaging.

That's not to say graphics across product categories are totally unrelated. Packaging for Price Chopper's pasta, pasta sauce, cheese and pizza are inter-related under an Italian village umbrella, which will soon be expanded to include a premium, imported pasta. "It will use the same design as our regular pasta, but in black, so it will be very upscale looking," reports Drake.

With average redesign intervals for national brands at about 18 months, look for more frequent updating of store-brand packaging with three years becoming the preferred interval between redesigns. "Every three years, designs should be looked at, challenged and investigated," recommends Oakley.

Aiding the increasing frequency of redesign is a transition from gravure to flexographic printing of paperboard cartons, flexible packaging and labels. Flexo printing generally is viewed as more affordable because flexo plates cost significantly less than gravure cylinders.

Perhaps more importantly, recent advances in flexographic technology mean the switch can be made without compromising quality standards. "New flexo presses are more than capable of competing with gravure," reports Ed Zumbiel, manager of the beverage-packaging division at Zumbiel Packaging, Cincinnati, a producer of multipack paperboard cartons, which has bought two flexo presses in recent years to add to its existing gravure and flexo equipment.

Use of flexo printing also will help make promotional packaging more affordable for store brands, enabling the inclusion of games, contests and in/on-pack premiums, techniques long used by national brands to spur sales. "Although no one has even talked about it before this year, we'll start to see store-brand promotions in the next six months," predicts Zumbiel.

Forces keeping redesign intervals at or above the three years include the tighter margins typically encountered by store brands vs. national brands and the greater number of SKUs usually involved. This means less tolerance for the larger investment required in printing plates/cylinders when changes are made.

Redesigns can be fraught with peril if not carefully planned and executed. To avoid problems, the first step in a redesign project should be discussion and agreement among all stakeholders regarding the message to be communicated by the packaging.

An objective eye is essential. "Make sure the design is benefit-driven," advises Oakley. It shouldn't be picked simply because it's personally appealing.

New structures should be tested for compatibility with filling equipment. This avoids productivity-sapping handling problems downstream and expensive design changes to ensure or restore machinability.

Another important consideration is the shelf environment the package will experience. Unless imitating a national brand is the strategy, graphics should set the product apart on-shelf.

Consider color choices carefully. "The subtleties of package design can be more important in determining the customer perception of quality and performance than the product inside the package," says Cheskin's Rhea. "This means that the packaging is capable not only of creating expectations of product performance, but also it can change the experience," he explains.

Indeed, taste perception can be influenced by package color. It's a documented phenomenon called sensation transference. For example, adding yellow to the packaging of a lemon/lime soft drink will increase the citrus flavor perceived by consumers. Nonetheless, product "quality is a prerequisite," says Oakley. "When it is compared to a national brand, the store brand can't be weaker. It should be better and priced right," he states, because a disappointed consumer will tend to look suspiciously at every other product carrying the same name.

"You must deliver on the product's promise or consumers will walk away quickly," agrees Michael Lucas, managing partner at Interbrand Gerstman+Meyers, a New York-based brand-identity consultancy.