Brand blocking traps you don’t want to fall into

By Bratislav Stefanovic, Sr Shopper Insights Manager at EyeSee

Fit Ztudio – Shutterstock

Brand blocking has long been a go-to merchandising technique for brand managers looking to ensure that their brand stands out on the shelves. Still, there are several challenging questions that need to be addressed when applying this technique:

  1. Is the brand’s portfolio broad enough so it will pay off, but not so broad as to induce a paradox of choice?
  2. What is the wider shelf/category context: price thresholds, competitors, anchor points?
  3. Will brand blocking of certain brands support or disable category growth?

All these dilemmas arise from the fact that brand blocking is impactful on two different levels – brand growth and category growth – and the key to success is to reconcile and align these two. To understand how to do that, we should first look at shoppers, brand managers, and category managers’ points of view separately.

Brand blocking impact on consumers 

According to the Food Marketing Institute, a traditional supermarket has 15,000–60,000 SKUs, or around 40,000 on average. This means there are an enormously large number of stimuli ‘attacking’ consumers from the shelves, so for their ‘defence’ they use all sorts of anchors in order not to feel lost.

Sometimes that anchor is a price, an emotion, or a clearly communicated claim. Other times, it can be a disruptive packaging design that will anchor the shopper’s attention and make them stick to a brand even if the product that caught their eye does not end up in their cart. 

That is why blocking should help consumers scan through shelves, allowing for natural browsing patterns like book reading. It is believed that horizontal blocking makes customers spend more time browsing, noticing new SKUs and smaller brands, while vertical blocking ensures loyalty and decreases switching behaviour.

However, in a recent EyeSee study, it was proven that horizontal brand blocking of one brand, which at the same time utilises vertical brand blocking of its subcategories, can result in a visible increase in sales.

With the speed of ‘shelf scanning’cut by 2 seconds, this methodologyprovided 32% sales growth. However, while this type of blocking prevents price comparisons with potentially cheaper competitors, if not placed wisely, it could result in cannibalization.

Is brand blocking really a must for all brands? 

Brand blocking for brands looks like a no-brainer: the product is clearly visible from afar, it takes up more space, and, more importantly, it covers a larger surface area in the consumer’s field of view.

The whole brand portfolio should come from the same key visual that allows brand creativity to emerge. Aside from the lead colour scheme, customers use visual connectors, such as some kind of characteristic design detail that connects a group of products. Heineken has its famous red star and Coca-Cola has its characteristic typography.

Pack tests in a realistic shelf setting can and should be used to determine whether the pack stands out enough, has a clear claim, and has a strong point of difference in comparison to competitors. 

However, the impact of design is not the only thing that is relevant to shoppers. Price and value for money play an important role as well. For example, if we put a large pack of products from the same brand next to or near a smaller, premium pack and they have the same or similar prices, shoppers will compare these two segments of the brand portfolio and use the ‘cheaper’ one as a threshold. In this case, brand blocking can be counterproductive, unless decision tree testing is used, which can help brand managers to understand the role of every product in their portfolio and how it serves different target groups. 

The category manager’s role in brand blocking

When mentioning price and decision tree testing insights for arranging the shelves in stores, we are entering the realm of category management, and one of the biggest issues for category managers is price pack architecture vs brand.

By using Decision Tree or Conjoint testing, category managers can get answers on whether it is the strength of the brand or the price that will influence the shopper’s purchase, but in order to find an optimal solution, that will not be the only aspect they have to integrate into their decision-making.

For category managers, category growth is, understandably, their top priority, and brand blocking can both help and sometimes stand in the way of that growth.

Brand blocking helps when:

  • brands’ strengths help consumers identify certain subcategories or segments, such as health or occasion-based ones;
  • a brand is a category leader and a strong driver of innovation and change;
  • brand assortments, or planograms, are already made with a category growth mindset.
     

On the other hand, they must pay attention to the following:

  • Brand blocking by brands that do not innovate or change can lead to a status quo and the falling out of both brand volume and category.
  • Brand blocking can decrease the time that consumers spend shopping: they make decisions before coming to the store, disabling impulsive shopping at POS, which results in a smaller number of SKUs in their basket, which has a negative impact on category growth.
  • Brand blocking isn’t fit for brands that have too narrow brand portfolios – it simply doesn’t pay off.
     

Conclusion

When we examine brand blocking from three different angles – consumers, brand managers, and category managers – finding the perfect category planogram is more like solving a Rubik’s Cube than painting a nice, branded colour scheme on the shelves. 

However, it is critical to remember that both brands and retailers want the same thing: for products to move and large-volume sales to occur. To be successful, the brands’ growth visions must align with the growth mindset of the category, and vice versa. This necessitates constantly looking at the big picture and making a series of informed decisions supported by data-driven insights provided by a series of context tests of shopper behaviour in realistic environments.

This article was first published in the Q3 2023 edition of Asia Research Media

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