No One Buys Product: the ultimate illusion

It Goes Against All Logic Doesn’t It? But then again, we are not creatures of logic, are we?

Industrial standardisation has weakened the argument for product quality and uniqueness quite significantly. It has steered consumers towards motivations other than simple quality and function. We “eat” with our eyes now more than ever before. Nowhere is this more readily apparent than in the fashion industry where function and quality serve only to support design as a key consideration in making a purchase. How does this work though in the retail of general consumer goods, particularly in the supermarket? Branding has grown to be a very broad concept; in this article we consider one key aspect.

Wherever there is a challenge in life, an effective solution must be found. Design, has been found to be a very effective solution in addressing a very specific commercial challenge; the challenge of competing in markets of standardised goods. There are many, varied types of goods being sold on various platforms and in shops around the world, including in digital online stores. The goods vary in both type and size, ranging from the minute, hand held variety to the colossal, crane loaded types; also ranging from the technology based and synthetic to the organic and agricultural; all competing for our consumptive interest and the little money, circulating around the world.

Because of the larger number of merchants trading in these goods, compared to the relatively smaller range of needs which they all hope to satisfy, there tends to be a lot of product duplication with a large number of goods seeking to fill identical needs and therefore becoming themselves inevitably identical or very nearly so. In an attempt to gain a little distinction and faced with stubborn technical facts such as, for example, a circle or a disc always remaining a 360degree object no matter which manufacturer has created it; directly competing manufacturers or traders turn to the only solution offering a high level of flexibility in Attempted Differentiation of Standardised Goods (ADSG); the creative arts.

Graphic design is one of those creative arts purported to offer these distinctions and largely superficial competitive advantages which are often the only and very thin veneer of uniqueness in commercial competition. In the following text, extracted from my book – Riding The Consumer – we shall look at whether graphic design really does make a difference or whether it is a little overrated. To avoid confusion we shall be limiting our focus mainly to packaged goods, sold from supermarket shelves, although the various principles do extend to a much broader range of design disciplines or applications. 

The extent of God’s or the supreme creator’s creation in general is eternally infinite; But, in a world of manmade trade and commerce, based on a rewards system of monetary units of measure, resources are prohibitively scarce, resulting in vicious competition. It is this vicious competition which led to the growth of an industry largely concerned with seeking to create advantageous perceptions or conditions for its clients’ businesses and or products, in order to maximise market share and earnings. This is a task made that much more difficult by the advanced computerisation or automation, mechanisation and standardisation of modern day industries. In these highly specialised and standardised manufacturing industries of the plastic generation, characterising the mass production twenty first century, it is relatively cheap and easy to consistently produce quality goods fast. The technologies necessary for such increased efficiencies and standardisation being readily available to anyone with access to the required financial resources. Thus, competitors inevitably find themselves at the market place fighting to sell identical or nearly identical goods of insignificant variation; goods identical in both chemical composition and product quality – more often than not, similar in product design as well.

The greatest downside of standardisation has been that, amongst direct competitors it makes most claims of product superiority difficult to justify. For example; Kellogg’s versus Bokomo or Willards cornflakes. In the absence of justifiable claims or genuine superiority and a perceptible or demonstrable difference of some kind, sales of directly competing goods in their unembellished form – that is; in unmarked, plain packaging, such as boxes, jars or tin cans – would be left to the mercy of the winds and luck would become a very significant component of strategy. In a standardised environment – where exclusivity of patent does not
exist and products are produced according to the exact same specifications and formulae – it is quite clear that quality of the actual product, amongst a host of other directly competing products, plays no real role in a potential buyer’s decision-making process when making a selection amongst them, as all the competing goods are essentially the same; one can literally just close their eyes and pick. Personally one challenge I have always had has been that of simply picking out a standard loaf of bread from a supermarket bread rack. Eventually, after a small ritual of lifting and putting back down a couple of loaves, I manage to settle for one. It is more a game of “ini mini mini mo” played by a grown man than an educated decision making process. And it’s a futile game I play each time this unfortunate task falls on me. But,
I must admit, as delusional as it may be, it does however; leave me with a sense of having exercised my free will, in making a choice.

In such a standardised environment, it would seem that even marketing efforts would only be a significant factor in gaining a competitive advantage if other competitors neglected or were totally incompetent at it – Especially when we consider the possibility of two great marketing efforts meeting and cancelling each other out. Incompetence or negligence are an unlikely scenario given the number of highly competent and educated marketing executives in any given industry with skillsets and knowledge which are themselves quite standardised.

Therefore, in a bid to improve its fortunes, in such an environment, a business might consider physically moving as far away from its competition as possible and advertise its existence or presence in an isolated corner somewhere, hoping that potential customers nearest will respond, drawn by some perceived convenience or advantage. 

However, we are in the 3rd millennium now and given the vicious nature of 3rd millennium competition, finding such viable isolated corners may prove more difficult than fitting an African elephant into a match box. Even if such a fit were possible, it would most likely still prove to be an uneconomic application of effort in the end, when one considers fluidity of movement and the ease with which potential customers in this millennium can move from place to place rapidly at very low cost.

Complicating an already challenging situation; is the seemingly irreversible adoption of the supermarket concept followed by the wheeled trolley, allowing the shopper even more freedom. Thanks to the arrival on the retail scene, of one Clarence Saunders and others like him. According to research and history, Clarence Saunders, was the brain behind the concept of the self-service grocery store in 1916, the year he is said to have opened the doors to his first store. See the extract below, which may or may not be a hundred per cent accurate; the veracity of which is neither here nor there for our purposes; what is crucial, and is easily verifiable through our daily experiences, is that supermarkets did come into being, and the empirical evidence of how they generally operate.

This development pushed even very direct competitors to share the same ‘bed’ so to speak. To this day, competing packaged goods are displayed and sold under one roof. They are crammed onto shelves and vast shop floors; housed together in their numerous variety in areas far removed from the advertising, sales, marketing people and media. Goods inevitably and constantly rub shoulders with the “enemy” and are left to literally sell themselves off the supermarket shelf.

Now, if today we were to sell unembellished, competing, packaged goods in this way, this would present a monumental challenge, because when packed in unmarked cans and boxes, directly competing goods are virtually indistinguishable: A can of beans, a can of peas, a can of peach halves, a can of sardines and a can of… and a box of… alongside boxes and boxes of…? Imagine yourself being the hapless shopper standing in front of identical, unmarked opaque tin cans and boxes containing all manner of human sustenance and trying to pick out a can of beans or box of cornflakes from “Rock River Foods”. How would you know which can or box to pick? Where would you begin? How willing would you be to pay for something whose contents are uncertain? But, let us suspend our pessimism for a moment and let us suppose that by some enviable miracle, you did participate in and win this version of “Roulette” and actually did succeed in picking out the desired can or box; the following morning at breakfast, you might be swept off your feet by the heavenly, delicious taste and freshness of the beans or cornflakes and wish to go back to the supermarket to buy some more. It all seems perfectly logical and simple enough doesn’t it? Provided of course that you have the necessary cash; plastic or otherwise. But, hold on a minute; how would you then be sure to pick out a can or box of the exact same quality of beans or cornflakes, from the same “Rock River Foods” in a place lined with row upon row of unmarked, identical tin cans and boxes? Luck again perhaps?

Fortunately, at any one given time, there always seems to be somebody somewhere in the world, with a little too much time on their hands; time to dream up “useless” ideas, such as labels and package design. Yes, BASIC LABELING. There you have it! a small piece of, usually, sticky paper that has kept a lot of businesses out of immense misery. Common sense it seems… And thus artificial differentiation is born and the rise of a much misunderstood profession. Of course, in their early forms, labels were very rudimentary and did not even require a professional eye. Uncle Joe’s toothless grandmother could make them effortlessly, whilst rocking Mary’s ten pound baby to sleep. I imagine the early innovators would have benefited tremendously from this effort, but, alas; as with all good ideas, everybody would have quickly caught on and of course the brief advantage would have been instantly lost as the laggards got up to speed; taking us back, practically, full circle to square one – zero differentiation – save for the names of course. More creative ways of differentiating the labels would have had to be found and with that, the differentiation of the products as well. As pressure piled on competitors to out do each other for a little competitive advantage, everything would soon become a little more complex; requiring a more professional, skilled eye and Uncle Joe’s grandmother would soon be out of a job, giving way to the professional graphic designer who had now come to town and who had come on a one way ticket. The rest is…, fortunately for graphic designers, not yet history, just a big mess we are desperately trying to contain and this quick read -Riding The Consumer – is a contribution towards the clean-up effort. Click here to pre-order the book