Effective Packaging Design: Do Dark Market Branding Restrictions Really Have an Impact? How do Brands React?

Cigarette Packaging will have to make use of the Ugliest Color in the World

So CNN reports that pantone 448 is now officially the ugliest color in the world. As a result it will now have to be featured on cigarette packs to avoid cigarette brands from using bright colors to attract consumers. Will it help? In this article, we discuss what is known as “dark market” branding strategies aka ways we can make use of packaging & brand design to prepare a brand for more restrictions imposed on brands that governments feel need to be regulated.

So, What is “Dark Market” Branding exactly?

In our world we refer to markets where governments actively attempt to discourage the consumption of certain products as “dark markets”

Brands that operate in markets that have gone dark face all kinds of government implemented measures and restrictions that negatively affect their branding executions and packaging designs, limiting their options to express their brand in the ways they could previously do. Government measures and restrictions are aimed at reducing the attractiveness of their brands to consumers, in an effort to slow purchases down and educate consumers on the negative effects associated with purchase and consumption of alcohol and tobacco products.

However, dark market branding is not applied to alcohol and tobacco brands anymore, baby “growing up milk” formula brands for example are also not allowed to advertise certain products within their ranges. As the WHO deems that breastfeeding is the best source of nutrition for young infants, brands that manufacture and market such products cannot do advertising for products up to a certain age range. Also, the sugar content in many soft drinks and candy products is facing increased scrutiny and might get effected at some point down the line with legislative restrictions.

Some examples of measures and restrictions that we’ve seen being implemented include: price increases, advertising bans or advertising restrictions where brands are not allowed to mention a product, showing product use, or even showing a pack shot are common examples. The list goes on with mandatory warning messages on packs, restrictions of display of products within the retail environment, restrictions on what times products are allowed to be sold (alcoholic beverages in Thailand for example) or even a total ban of a product from certain channels (alcoholic beverages in Indonesian convenience stores). Cigarette brands have been forced in some markets to place graphic images on packs. We’ve seen the mandated use of standardized fonts for logo’s and we’ve even seen some brands that were forced to change name altogether (JTI’s popular Mild Seven brand for example was forced to rebrand itself as Mevius as the word “mild” is deemed too descriptive in a positive way). These are some of the examples we’ve encountered and the latest to join this list is the forced use of the world’s ugliest color on cigarette packs in the UK.

Will Government Restrictions Help?

If we look at the share price of Philip Morris, the answer is no, as its share price is at an all time high above USD 100 / share (as at june, 2016)

Without entering into an elaborate discussion on whether or not governments are right or wrong to restrict the sales and purchases of certain products, brands operating in dark markets develop various strategies to try and at least allow some form of branding to take place.

A few of the more creative methods we’ve seen brands use include:

  • BE PRO-ACTIVE TO AVOID ADAPTING TOO LATE – many manufacturers pro-actively anticipate change and try to prepare and make the best out of a likely legal change, such brands invest future advertising budgets early on, before markets go dark – allowing them to build a loyal following before restrictions are implemented.
  • DEVELOP ELEMENT-RICH VISUAL IDENTITIES WITH ENOUGH VISUAL ASSETS TO AID RECOGNITION – legislation varies in different markets and categories, in some markets alcohol brands cannot show product, in some they cannot show people consuming product, in some they cannot even show logo’s being larger than xx% of the space of the advertising canvas. Of course, brands look for ways to communicate and achieve recognition and thus develop rich visual identity systems allowing them to build elements other than brand name and product visual – the Heineken red star, the Carlsberg Hops Leaf or Johnnie Walker’s walking man and signature black and yellow colors are good examples.
  • DEVELOP SURROGATE BRANDS – Many examples exist where brands launch a product in a completely non-related, non-restricted category under the same name as the brand that is facing scrutiny to help build awareness and image. Brands like Camel and Dunhill went into fashion and accessories. Chang and Singha beer in Thailand started to produce soda waters and there are many more similar examples where brands try to get their name out, albeit in a different category.
  • USE CORPORATE BRANDING INSTEAD OF PRODUCT BRANDING  – in Thailand Boonrawd Brewery changed its name to Singha Corporation. If the corporate name of a company matches a product’s brand name surrogate branding could take place on a corporate level, allowing for example CSR activities to be undertaken that also help spread the brand name of the product.
  • CREATE A FAMILY OF PRODUCTS TO DRIVE LOYALTY – Many of the Baby “Growing Up Milk” Formula brands do this, where age restrictions apply on the early life stage products. How do we bring consumers into the product family, simply launch pre-birth product ranges (such as “for Mum” products aimed at the pre-pregnancy or post-natal stages). Once a brand connection is forged if Mums then start to make a choice which brand suits my newborn, we might as well stick to what I’ve been drinking during pregnancy.
  • PRODUCT INNOVATION – many cigarette companies are invested in the development of the harmless E-cigarette alternative, just to allow users or former users to not go naked and have something in their hands. Many beer brands are exploring with alcohol free beer alternatives and a lot of the soft drink companies like Coke and Pepsi are actively exploring the use of sugar alternatives, pre-empting future bans on products with high sugar contents.
  • SELF REGULATION & BRAND INNOVATION– more common in the oil industry for example are complete corporate brand-level transformations where entire companies are aiming to reposition themselves as “natural energy providers” adding solar and wind energy solutions to the mix and downplaying the use and depletion of limited resources – In the consumer branding world, we’ve started to see big brands like Coca Cola and McDonald’s trying to figure out how to adopt and adjust their corporate branding to tap into the sustained trends that put emphasis on health and well-being, indicating consumers will continue to become more critical of products that are unhealthy.

Many forms and variations of dark market branding strategies exist. Of course the question will remain, who is responsible to limit the negative effects of a product and how far do we want to take it? Is it up to the consumer to make smart decisions? Is it up to the manufacturer to offer alternatives and innovation or up to the governments to just keep on enforcing restrictions?

If you’re managing a dark market brand and if you’d like to have a chat and discuss branding solutions don’t hesitate to get in touch here.

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