December 2015
Is Mass Marketing Killing Design?

Jeffrey Spear - President, Studio Spear

Jeff Spear

For years, clever and inspired design meant the ultimate in quality. Nowadays, high-end design is everywhere. With the blurring of retail boundaries, the question becomes “How do buyers identify quality after superficial elements lose their validity? More importantly, what’s going to become of design?”


Design is Commonplace
When I was growing up, design was something that applied specifically to luxury products. It was considered quite “exclusive” and could only be found in upscale boutiques and specialty stores. Names like Ferrari, Armani, Gaultier and Alessi were leading the pack and commanded prices that validated their status. Nowadays, it seems design is no longer the domain of the elite and wealthy. Just visit your neighborhood Target store. World-renown designers including Missoni, Graves and Marc Jacobs are gracing the shelves in this everyday-priced retailing establishment.

Even in supermarkets, the influence of design is unmistakable. All you need to do is wander the aisles. From Pom Wonderful (fruit juice) and Guittard (chocolate) to Cheer (dishwashing liquid) and Mazola Cooking Spray (cooking oil), it’s impossible to overlook the impact and influence that design enjoys.

Misleading Value Proposition
It’s obvious that excellence in packaging (design) no longer provides an accurate gauge, or fairly sets expectations, for excellence in product performance.

My first experience relates to wine. When conducting competitive landscape evaluations for an emerging brand of Australian wine a number of years ago, I discovered a lovely presentation that BRL Hardy employed on their Stamp of Australia wines. The label is beautifully crafted and implies a high-quality product. What surprised me was that visual presentations of this nature had traditionally been reserved for better quality wines retailing at $15 or more. The Hardy’s product retailed for $4.99. I’m not saying you can’t get good wine for five bucks. It’s just that this level of design seemed inappropriate for the lower price point and arguably lower quality product.

This practice is not limited to wine marketing. It is visible in many retail environments and applies to a wide range of consumer products.

As mentioned, design is making its mark in supermarkets. Accordingly, it’s not surprising that the quality of design that’s being applied to “house” brands (historically positioned as lower priced “value” products) is beginning to directly compete with that found on higher priced and higher quality national brands. In Harris Teeter, the H.T. Traders brand is distinctive, communicates thoroughly and cuts through the clutter. Similar investments in design can be found in Trader Joe's and Fresh Market. What’s confusing in all of these situations is that, while packaging and design are becoming increasingly more sophisticated and appealing, the quality of the products remains average. Design is making promises (at lower price points) that used to be reserved for higher quality and higher priced products. In effect, there is an inversion of purpose - compensating for the inadequacies of lower quality / lower priced products rather than confirming the benefits of higher quality / higher priced products.

What’s Next?
Let’s assume the practice of “design inversion” continues and that innovation in structural engineering, proprietary design and applied graphics for everyday products achieves market saturation in the very near future. I certainly believe we are close. Assuming again that packaging is operating at its peak, something else will be needed to communicate quality, validate price and compel purchase. I believe the next frontier is retailer environment.

We’re already seeing consumers flock to Starbucks and Whole Foods - places where quality is expected and customer comfort and satisfaction are well looked after. The overall in-store experience is nurturing, entertaining, enlightening and overcomes any concerns about price. More importantly, these marketers are inspiring an army of brand (retailer) loyalists.

When I wonder if mass-retailing is killing design, I’ve come up with a few conclusions. I believe that high-quality design is a marketing imperative. Considering the volume of new product introductions every year, designers will be kept busy for a very long time. In addition, and as environment plays a larger role in the sales process, interior designers are going to prosper as well.

Lastly, I’ve always viewed design as a problem solving process that expedites communication and facilitates sales. These days, it seems as if package design and brand imagery is bordering on window dressing. I cannot say for certain who is to blame. What I have recognized is that the impact and influence of design, while nowhere near dead, is certainly changing.


If the time has come to overhaul, update and re-invigorate your brand image, or you'd like to change up your marketing program, please call 904 685 2135 - ask for Jeff Spear. You can also contact Jeff via email:

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