A Design for an affordable life

How good design can lift people’s moods and improve brand recognition during the cost of living crisis

Michela Graci

Strategy Partner Coley Porter Bell


We thought we’d had some difficult Christmases during the Covid-19 pandemic years – isolated from friends and family, what was usually a time of communality and gathering turned into a more solitary celebration. The health crisis may have eased, but this Christmas has a new set of challenges for many people; this time it’s not a virus that’s curtailing our Christmas joy, but rather a cost-of-living crisis.

With the UK government’s own statistics showing the areas where people were feeling the price rises most – with 94% of people seeing an increase in their food shop, 82% in their gas or electric bills and 77% in the price of fuel – it’s clear most people are being impacted. Of course some will be affected more than others – one in six people are currently worried they can’t afford to feed their families with one in 11 turning to food banks.

This creates a challenging environment for brands this Christmas. A time traditionally focused on indulgence and celebration, brands won’t want to alienate customers by pushing overt extravagance while some are struggling with the day-to-day. However, many customers will continue to want to treat themselves and their family at this time of year so associated with opulence and merriment. Indeed, even for those feeling the weight of the cost-of-living crisis, many may still want to ensure their festivities feel a little bit special, albeit more restrained than in previous years.

Which is why design will have an important role to play in creating premium affordable experiences. Through pack design, grocery and supermarket brands can instil some sense of occasion and indulgence, in particular moments, so that everyone can feel they are still enjoying some treats.

Premium affordable can help brands bridge the gap – employing premium design at a reasonable, and responsible, cost. It can introduce a little bit of room for escape, to get away from the doom and gloom but still within a budget. With the help of consumer insight, it takes you closer to the reasons and importance of premium for shoppers. Despite shrinking budgets people want to treat themselves and design is the conduit to convey quality. Through design, brands can create the mood that entices people – it can drive choice and attention.

We worked with Tesco on their Finest Christmas range – a prime example of affordable premium. From a design perspective this had two strands – for the Christmas Finest range to feel noticeably different to the year-round Finest products and to deliver festive excitement with affordable, elevated quality.

The design cues of premium affordable must stretch across the whole brand ecosystem – a 360-degree approach. So, it’s not just packaging design for products on the shelf, but also across the retail environment on and offline – wherever a customer might encounter the products, the design and visual equities should be consistent.

In the area of premium affordability, design must excite and slightly disrupt – it has to convince people that it is worth paying more for this product than a budget, or traditional own-label product. Design must demonstrate that this is one step up – and a step that is worth taking to add a little extra in people’s lives, without breaking the bank. There is a real role for clarity and the claims being made to drive this trading up to premium own label, which often centres on reinforcing the sensorial experience.

The creative strategy behind a design should consider a number of truths – the human/emotions, the context/occasion, the brand and the consumer truth. Research will help identify consumers’ attitudes and needs and the brand promise should be embedded in all the work.

The context truth is around a sense of occasion, and this can be achieved in several ways. Cadbury has done this, and used product design, with its Dairy Milk Advent Tablet Calendar – a 270g chocolate bar featuring 25 segments with the ‘one chunk a day’ positioning in the lead up to Christmas. It fits with the Christmas anticipation, an affordable extra with that nod to a personal treat.

For brands trying to find a way to grow as shoppers’ belts are being tightened, the affordable premium category is an obvious direction of travel. A moment of joy and uplift, an acceptable special moment, when times are hard. And it can work in the opposite direction. Recessionary habits are often adopted by people who don’t have the same immediate pressures on their purses, and this also plays to the strength of affordable premium – as a steppingstone when trading down.

The emotional attachment to hosting at Christmas – the connection between serving up delicious food and love – is strong. So even in a cost-of-living crisis, where tables may be less bountiful or numbers may be reduced, the connection is still there. Christmas is the time we all make a little bit of extra effort while turning to the comfort and joy brought by food – it offers a comfort blanket in testing times.

The role of design is to offer positivity and optimism – to bring people together with a sense of reassurance. At this time of year, it’s about injecting a sense of specialness and promoting the magic of Christmas. Design can’t solve the cost-of-living crisis, but by understanding the role of brand and products in people’s lives, by being connected to people’s current mindsets, it can make sure that brands stay relevant.

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cost of living