As reported by the Financial Times, the cost of living crisis has led more and more shoppers towards supermarket own brands, which are remaining popular even as inflation drops slightly. Given the steadfast popularity of these in-house offerings, retailers have increasing opportunity to tap into demand for own-brand goods across occasions, consumer desires, and price points – as exemplified, for instance, by Asda’s recent launch of a new premium range, Exceptional.

In order to stand out in this space while clearly communicating product benefits – be they value or premium – to consumers, brands must have a deep understanding of the cues and conventions of this tiering system. So then, how are retailers delineating their ranges within the own-brand space? We’ve looked at a small selection (Asda, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Tesco) of supermarket offerings to pick out some of the key codes.

Value Ranges

For Asda and Sainsbury’s, blocks of bright colour – yellow and orange respectively – allude to simplicity. Bright primary and secondary colours are associated with user-friendliness, e.g. in children’s toys, or brands like Google and McDonald’s, while plain colour blocks with limited use of descriptive photography or illustration cue straightforwardness. These colours also suggest urgency with their eye-catching brightness, and indeed are often used to signify discounted goods (e.g. “yellow sticker” end-of-day reductions). They do, however, tie the products back to the Masterbrand (each of which features its respective colour prominently), providing an assurance of known and trusted quality.

Coupled with matter-of-fact language for product names and descriptors sticking to minimal detail (e.g. “Apples”, “Cheese & Tomato”) and for Asda, overt reference to the essential nature of the range (“Just Essentials”) these cues all position the brand’s value products as no more or less than basic, necessary and functional staples.

A selection of products from Asda (above) and Sainsbury’s (below) value ranges, as shown on retailer websites

Morrisons’ Savers adopts a similar approach to those exemplified above, but balances overt linguistic emphasis on financial benefits with a wider range of colours used (including some tertiary tones such as violet, which are associated with complexity) and more frequent serving suggestion imagery, emphasising taste appeal. By both highlighting savings and hinting at rich flavour, there’s a sense that Morrisons’ range of basics provides a little more than just that, including value for money.

Savers products from Morrisons website

Tesco’s value range tactic, on the other hand, is noticeably different. Instead of a single, clearly value-branded line, they’ve opted for a suite of category-specific sub-brands, with only personal care products presented as an overt Essentials range.

A selection of items from some of the Tesco value sub-brands, as shown on the supermarket website

This wide range of visual interfaces codes the products as varied, with detailed and differentiated packaging for each suggesting a range of vibrant, flavourful offerings. Similarly, dividing the range up into sub-brands connotes a convenient bringing together of individual specialist expertise areas, harking back to an old-fashioned approach to shopping where one might visit a dedicated producer for each type of goods and suggesting small-scale care as opposed to mass-produced anonymity in a way which is unusual in the budget space. However, unless shoppers are already in the know about which sub-brands constitute the value offering, there could be room for confusion with this approach.

Premium Ranges

At the other end of the spectrum, the more luxury-focussed own-brand ranges are often signalled through use of darker colours, more decorative pack detailing, and more complex language. For Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Morrisons, tones of grey and black cue seriousness and intensity of flavour while alluding to the professionalism of restaurant settings (e.g. dishes carefully presented on slabs of slate, specials of the day on a chalkboard; or for Tesco, the metallic lighter grey of a silver service).

A selection of products from Morrisons (above) and Tesco (below) premium ranges, as shown on retailer websites

Sainsbury’s in particular breaks this up with food photography that takes up more space on pack, suggesting an immersive and intense gastronomic experience. Scattered ingredients cue recipe book photography and the focussed creative process of cooking, coding these products as expertly and artfully prepared. On some packaging variants, cut slices and spoons resting in plates of food bring the viewer into the consumption moment, heightening the immersive experience.

Taste the Difference products from Sainsbury’s website

Asda’s new range moves away from black and grey tones and drives some distinction, while still coding serious richness through the use of dark tones, by opting for a dark green. This hue, associated with upper class British heritage (e.g. British Racing Green), codes luxury and tradition and ties in with the use of an all-caps serifed font, associated with authority and heritage. Keeping the packaging imagery-free but foregrounding the products themselves draws focus onto the real-life goods, creating a feeling of trustworthy authenticity, but losing some of the imaginative, creative codings exemplified, for instance, by Sainsbury’s.

Exceptional products from Asda website

Linguistically, each supermarket uses the range name to call out the unique quality of the products – “The Best”, “Taste the Difference”, “Finest” and “Exceptional”. In combination with detailed, adjective-rich language on pack (e.g. Morrisons’ “Enriched with our creamy and authentically spiced onion”, or Asda’s “…golden egg yolk, and the sweet and aromatic flavour of Madagascan vanilla seeds”), this codes the products as special enough to require careful description – a next-level, poetic taste experience. References to specific provenance (e.g. “West Country cream”, “Flame raisins”) connote careful, craft-focussed makership processes, augmented by language of service and professional cookery (e.g. “Sautéed”, “enriched”, “finished with”, “specially chosen”).

3 Key Takeouts for Brands

  1. Balancing features of what you want your brand to stand for (e.g. immersive vs transparent) and leveraging these accordingly is important; balancing standout (e.g. different use of colour) with established category codes that let consumers clearly know what to expect from the product (is it a value or premium offering?) is also key.

  2. Value offerings can be reliable basics but also have permission to go beyond this – how can your brand cue value for money and that it’s providing a little bit more?

  3. For premium ranges, cues of quality and specialness are de rigeur – how can your brand take customers on a journey and best show off the product?

Sophia Lucena Phillips, Senior Semiotician

Owning It: The successful semiotics of supermarket own brands