(Guest Column in The Drum, 1.3.2013: ‘Ketchup is ketchup, so why does the Heinz brand mean so much?’)
Ketchup is weird, Malcolm Gladwell observed a few years back. It is served alongside mustard, but while mustard is a highly diverse product category, ketchup, as we all know is, well… ketchup.
Yes, it is, essentially, a type of tomato sauce, but it isn’t part of that highly diverse category either. Tomato sauce lives by a completely different set of rules.
So if ketchup isn’t like mustard, and it’s not a type of tomato sauce, what is it then? Ketchup is ketchup. Ketchup is weird. Ketchup is magic.
And Heinz is its magic brand.
Yet Ketchup is not the company’s only magic brand. Heinz dominates the Baked Beans category too. There are few definitive products in our world today, and far fewer still where one brand owns two of them. Maybe Apple has managed to achieve this with the Mac and the iPhone (with two product brand names), but you may struggle to find other examples in the mainstream world (Coke and Diet Coke are variants so don’t count).
Both Heinz Baked Beans and Heinz Tomato Ketchup are operating in ‘categories of one’. Competition isn’t fighting Heinz through differentiation; it is forced down to copycatting. Heinz, with its dominant presence and rich, long heritage is just too strong.
From a design perspective, Heinz marries its definitive products with brand identities that are textbook case studies in the long-term management of iconic brands.
If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it. Tend to it. It’s this custodian mentality that keeps these definitive brands alive and well.
In 2009, Heinz retired the pickle from the Ketchup label, where it stood for over a century. An illustrated tomato replaced it.
How many consumers even noticed that move? Have you? If you haven’t, it’s because the overall integrity of Heinz’s brand identity system is so carefully maintained. Maintaining the iconic shape of the label, choosing illustration over photography, carefully crafting any tweak to the classic typography to make it look even more classical-cool.
The case for baked beans is similar. The development of the design has stayed loyal, increasingly going back to its roots and making the best of them – identifying what is truly iconic and adding the playful touch of illustrated saucy beans spilling out of the holding shape.
There’s a lot of retro-style design in the world of marketing. Much of it is simply derivative. What effective retro does, is to recreate the past by identifying the timeless elements, distilling and elevating them to create something at once fresh, familiar and rooted in a long-standing truth.
If you want an iconic brand, get your iconography right. Then celebrate it across your communications channels to the point of worship. Heinz’s marketing leaders know they are custodians of a heritage dating back to 1875. When they introduce change, or extend their product ranges, they do it with reverence.
The delight of creating meaningful innovation against strict and well-argued constraints is all too rare in the marketing industry and the briefs it produces. More often we meander between “revolution” (eg the 2009 Tropicana fiasco) to meaningless tweaks, which slowly dilute the integrity of the brand (eg bursts, gradients, condensation marks and other offences).
“What we’re looking for,” marketing managers often tell agencies, “is an evolution rather than a revolution”.
Tough luck. There is no evolution in design. Evolution moves at a glacial pace. It’s a truly bad metaphor to hide your fear of change behind. You change or you don’t change. Just make that change count. Make sure you identify what made you great, and give it the respect it deserves.
By respecting the heritage of your brand you are showing you respect the audience who remained loyal to it and the product that made it great in the first place.
A 19th century Heinz Baked Beans trade card reads: “The beans are actually BAKED, not boiled. The quantity for each can is weighted to insure uniform proportion of beans and sauce. No such flavour found in any other.” That may read a bit quaint today, but communicating this level of care must have been truly differentiating at the time.
A lot of the things that made the mass production of food revolutionary during the 19th century are taken for granted today. They are hygienic, table-stakes, no pun intended.
The level of care and consideration people expect from food today is represented by brand design, which communicates a certain promise. Loyalty to a design heritage is a way of showing you still care about your original promise, that your product can always be trusted to deliver in the same way its audience expects it to.
It would take a major cataclysmic event to topple Heinz from its double-leadership position. As long as any extensions are managed carefully, it’s set up for many more years of growth. And as Western diet, for better or for worse, expands into emerging markets, its success is almost inevitable. “The Inevitables” is Warren Buffett’s nickname for his favourite kind of company investment. A well-suited match, then.
Finally, here’s a top tip: it’s a little known fact, but the 57 mark on a glass Heinz Ketchup bottle is placed on the ideal spot to hit the bottle so the Ketchup comes out faster.
Just another design gesture in a long history of mutual respect between product, brand and a loyal consumer following.