I am a big fan of Publix supermarket’s store name private label brand. Ever since I first saw it some five years ago, I saw elegance in its simplicity; I appreciated its ease of application across product categories; I loved the way its designers were able to vary its color schemes, avoiding the monotony to which some private label designs hew in the name of consistency; and perhaps best of all, I found the humorous illustrations a welcome and human touch that drew my attention to package after package.
Having presided over the design of many private label products over the years (examples at www.goldforest.com), and as someone who’s written and lectured widely on the subject of private label branding, I give Publix an A+ for its body of work.
All of which brings me to the subject of my mother. Yes, the same one who starred in my first television commercial 16 years ago, charging from home to the rescue at the last minute when my lead actress failed to show at the shoot. The result, predictably, was oohs and ahhs for HER every time I showed MY spot to friends and family. Mom, now 78, has been a loyal purchaser of Publix brand Free&Clear Ultra Laundry Detergent for a while. When guests at her home noted recently that her towels were notably lacking in absorbency, she discovered that for two months she’d been “washing” her clothes with Free&Clear Ultra Fabric Softener!
Over dinner last week, she told me that the bottles of the detergent and softener were so deceptively similar, she’d purchased the wrong one. Upon my examination of the packages, I can see that she is very, very right. Clearly the designer of this packaging system intended to communicate the compatibility of these products as a one-two laundry solution. The colors of the container, cap and label graphics are identitical, as is the sub-brand logotype “Free & Clear.” The illustrations are different, but neither clearly references either the detergent or softener function. The same argument applies to the slight differences in container shapes and sizes, as well as the variations in cap design: they are not category specific. In fact the only design element that clearly and undeniably tells the shopper which product is which is the descriptor line, printed in light grey, at 1/3 the type size of the logo lettering and just beneath it.
This error is a sort of “line extension nightmare,” and an occupational danger of the private label designer. A private label brand is in essence one long series of line extensions. In the case of a supermarket, it can stretch across 30 categories or more, and some categories may be dozens of product variations deep!
Publix offers multiple scents of Ultra Laundry Detergent / Fabric Softener combinations in addition to Free & Clear. Shown here is the Fresh Scent variation, using a pink motif. Other than the pearlescent colored cap on the softener, the same issues exist in differentiating by function.
The problem is that detergent and softener are two different categories, and in this case, there is simply not a strong enough visual differentiation between them to prevent the habitual shopper from grabbing the wrong one. Is that too strong a conclusion to draw on the basis of one untoward incident? In the case of my mother, who I know to be a lifelong savvy shopper, I think most definitely not. Publix, notice served!