Mismanaging a Brand’s Visual Assets: Why Danone’s Dumex Brand Failed in Vietnam

By: Mathijs Aliet, Founder and Owner, Square44

Visual Brand Assets are the Signature Elements that together form a Brand's Visual Identity

Without running the risk of starting off with too much brand design speak or technical lingo, visual brand assets simply are signature design elements that together form the visual identity of a brand. These are often those pieces that people spontaneously remember about a brand with. When you think of Coca-Cola you most likely will recall the color red, the signature font type and perhaps the iconic shape of the bottle. When you think of Heineken the color green comes to mind as well as the red star and maybe the smiling 'e' in the logo typeface.

Visual Brand Assets Drive Recognition and Simplify the Shopping Process

“JP can you buy me some Chips when you go to 7-Eleven?’
“Sure Willy, which one do you want?”
“Just get me the big orange one!”

An often-heard conversation at the Square44 office that highlights the importance of the element of color when it comes to buying a snack, such as chips, for instance. Without recalling a brand name or even a flavor name, shopping often takes place on autopilot and identification where recall in the brain happens based on such visual elements.

When planning a Brand Redesign treat Visual Brand Assets with Great Care

Most marketers in charge of a brand are nervous about relaunch projects, especially when it comes to a redesign of packaging. We don't want to alienate existing consumers, perhaps change too much so they think it’s not their brand anymore. The concern is a valid one as no one wants to add a disaster story of a badly managed relaunch to his or her resume, for example that of Tropicana’s failed relaunch that ended up costing Pepsi about 50 million dollars.

However, as a result, many relaunches often take a very conservative approach—sometimes too conservative where you'll end up with a design in which you'll hardly notice a change and a solution that doesn’t move the needle.

Avoiding alienation often is an essential part of a brief, especially when you deal with a brand that is highly successful already. So how to manage a relaunch well? By paying attention to how many visual brand assets you change at once and how far you take the redesign of such elements.

How Risky is it Really? Let's examine the Failure of Dumex in Vietnam

Besides the example of Tropicana, for those who have been following what happened in the Vietnamese Infant Formula market, the picture below shows a short 8 year visual history of what Dumex looked like in Vietnam. On the left an image of what the brand looked like in 2005 in its early prime and on the right what it looked like at the end of 2016, just before the brand was removed from the market. In between you'll find the various transformations the brand underwent.

The first thing an expert packaging designer will notice is the many dramatic visual changes to almost every single element on the pack in what we would consider a relatively short time frame. There where most brands only change their packaging design every 2-3 years and mix subtle changes with larger ones over time, Danone made many frequent changes each time and some very significant ones as well.

The 2 Big Mistakes Danone’s Dumex Brand Made When They Relaunched

Two major design mistakes were made that initiated the dramatic decline in sales, before the Fonterra milk crisis and the Vietnam price ceiling issues put the final end to the brand.

1. Too Much Change in Brand Color Usage

Whoever has done packaging design in Asia understands the importance of the color gold. Although very literal, many consumers love the color gold as they believe it is premium, aspirational, exudes quality and within the infant formula milk category and it represents credibility! When Dumex changed its cute pastel colored packs (most left design in above photo) to a pack with a lot of gold on it (2nd from left design in above photo) the brand really took off.

In an unfortunate attempt to create a global brand design look (following the color codes of the Aptamil brand) the decision was made to change the brand's color to blue everywhere (3rd design from the left). The result? Complete disaster for Danone’s Vietnam business and a big decline in sales, which the brand never really recovered from. Admitting mistakes is difficult, but the brand attempted to correct the issue (see the 4th design from the left in above line-up) by relaunching and bringing the color gold back—but it was just too late, the damage was done.

2. Too Much Change in Brand Logo Usage

The use of branding on any infant food brand’s packaging can be confusing. To avoid competition with breast milk, legal restrictions apply on the advertising of baby food products targeting babies up to a certain age. These restrictions require manufacturers to use different brand names for early-life products which may not be advertised. This often results in a mesh of additional layers and meaningless sub-brand names or descriptors added to packs to create differentiation between stages that can and cannot be advertised.

In most cases your master brand would visually lead and remain consistent (Dumex in this case) and whatever legal sub-brand is required would be made as small as legally required (Dugro in this example). However, when we look at what Dumex did, we see that when the brand adopted the global design (design #3 in above photo) it almost completely removed the Dumex brand mark from its pack, instead hero-ing a rather meaningless Dugro descriptor. Alienation occurred, which, combined with the fact that the brand underwent a major redesign, resulted in massive brand switching as loyal Dumex buyers could not find their brand on the shelf anymore. Again, we see Dumex try to do a 360 and bring the Dumex brand back in much bigger form following new relaunches (design #4 and #5) but again it was too late and the damage was done.

So, what happens when you make big changes to Key Elements too Frequently?

You put doubt in the consumer’s mind as you force them to ask themselves the question if that new looking brand is still the same product they used to buy, or a completely new product. Especially when purchasing happens on auto-pilot without giving too much consideration to what product you bring home—if you can’t find what you’re looking for from memory—you’ll go for the next best thing you remember.

A relaunch where you change too many key elements too drastically makes the shopping process significantly harder and can result in a massive drop in sales due to the confusion you as a brand owner create. Just imagine a dad going to the store with the mission to buy that gold Dumex pack with the number 2 on it and it’s no longer there—he can only find blue packs. You force shoppers that are already loyal and happy with your brand to reconsider purchasing your brand when you change too many elements. Is it the same product? Why does it look so different? Is this a cheaper range? Is it a copycat? Is the other range out of stock?

The Result of the drastic changes Danone made?

"Danone exiting Vietnam due to dismal Dumex sales"

A small headline in the business section of some local Asian newspaper, but for those following Danone’s Dumex brand more closely, an unfortunate ending to what once was a blooming business and a flagship for the company in Asia. After having sold its Chinese business a year earlier to China's Yashili international holdings, now the Vietnam business is being closed down due to strong sales declines.

While the Fonterra milk crisis or Vietnam’s price ceiling issues are mentioned as reasons behind the brand's spectacular decline, when you examine the timing of events that took place more precisely, you'll find that the more destructive unmentioned factor can be found in the way the brand's visual assets were managed, creating a large degree of alienation and tremendous confusion among Vietnamese shoppers.

What important lesson should marketers, brand managers and packaging designers draw from this?

  • Treat your visual brand assets with great care! Pay attention to your distinctive visual assets from the moment of inception of a brand and at every stage of change. It’s ok to change elements, but be careful about changing too many things too much and too often.
  • Evolve key signature elements with care. Consider a step-change rather than a revolutionary change, and if you are lucky enough to have multiple strong visual assets your brand is remembered by, don’t change all of them at once!
  • Prioritize key visual elements based on what your consumers are looking for, not based on what internal harmonization or cost efficiency efforts are taking place.

Sure, it's nice to have a global brand with a consistent look, but is it more important than maximizing the commercial opportunities for your brand in local markets? Looking at how the Dumex brand came to its end, my answer is no!

Mathijs Aliet
Mathijs Aliet is the founder and owner of Square44, one of Asia’s most commercially focused branding and packaging design agencies. With a background in marketing and an ability to think creatively, Mathijs reinvented the agency model always trying to do things more effectively! With a passion for design solutions that not only look amazing but also perform commercially, the agency’s motto of “Effectiveness” decorates the walls, reminding all Square44-ians of what makes great brand design.