No name necessary

A look back at the extraordinary career of a Canadian design legend.

On Dec. 23, 2009, Canadian designer Don Watt passed away at the age of 73. He leaves behind a legacy of innovation, having fundamentally influenced some of the biggest brands in Canada and around the world, including Walmart, Loblaw, Home Depot and Filene’s Basement.
In his early career, he worked as an animator for Warner Bros. and a cockpit designer for A.V. Roe, and in 1965 he contributed to the design of the ultimate icon, the Canadian flag.
He founded Don Watt + Associates in 1966, later called the Watt Group, which was sold to Cott Corporation in 1992. In 1999, he bought the company back through a partnership with Envoy Communications and renamed it Watt International. In 2003, Don and partner Geoff Belchetz broke off from Envoy to form DW+Partners.
Don revolutionized retail, changed the way we look at packaging and left a lasting impression on those who knew him and worked with him. In 2006, he was inducted into the Marketing Hall of Legends. A legend he truly was.

In his own words
The following is an excerpt from Watt’s yet-to-be-published book, tentatively titled Fast Forward: The Changing Face of Retail.

From the chapter titled “Moving Forward, Looking Back”:

There are times when trying to understand the events of the past helps to avoid present problems. Understanding conditions and their impact on decisions – and consequences – can save current management pain and suffering.  We have seen market turbulence and recession before and it is surprising how often events and mistakes are repeated. One example illustrates it best.
In 1976, French retailer Le Carrefour created “Les Produits Libres” – freedom products, free from the tyranny of the brands. While this seems a little melodramatic (I never felt personally tyrannized), it clarified an issue in French consumers’ minds. Packaged in simple white containers, with only large black descriptive copy communicating item differences, they became wildly successful in France. These were a response to the inflation/recession caused by OPEC’s re-pricing of oil in October 1973. 
Working in Switzerland at the time, I witnessed the success of this response and showed the ad and packaging to Dave Nichol, then running Loblaws in Ontario. He arranged a meeting for us with the chairman of Le Carrefour to understand why they had taken this direction.
The chairman was very open with us, as we were not competitors. He indicated that package simplification was largely symbolic, to illustrate savings without sacrificing product quality. In terms of visibility, they dominated in every category, overwhelming national brand entries throughout the store.
This point on product quality was not lost on Dave, and we returned from that meeting to develop the No Name line. Since yellow (the highest visibility colour) had been established as the colour of saving at Loblaws, we replaced white with yellow, using black and red typography to replace pictures of the products. This “anti-brand,” commodity image flew in the face of conventional wisdom, but recognized that packaging was actually part of the architecture. It served to differentiate the line from all other brands in the store. 
Brand equity was added back, with the president speaking to customers in their homes, through weekly print advertising and television messages. We had proposed using the president as the voice of the company, when Bill Shatner, the previous spokesman, became unavailable with new commitments in the U.S. Over the objections of the advertising agency, we undertook a media buy study, which saved millions by creating an internal unit.
Later we proposed using the president on TV, with messages produced by an internal production unit. This reduced commercial production costs from $100,000 to $600 each.
Television, the attitude-changing medium, was key in changing consumers’ perceptions of the business, but how to afford high production costs in an industry with razor-thin profit margins demanded re-thinking the process, if a sustainable differential was to be achieved. Other retailers in the U.S. and Canada responded to these pressures, with “value” offerings, but without maintaining quality. All eventually declined, as customers found them to fall short of expectations.
This is an old case. When I mention it today, managers think of it as an obsession with the past, not realizing that conditions today are frighteningly similar to those that triggered an earlier decade of trading down. Developing product programs that help consumers salvage their lifestyles, in the face of eroding disposable income, may be a way of maintaining some degree of stability in these uncertain times. Are we seeing an answer to this problem? Walk through your neighborhood store and see for yourself. Then look for alternatives, if you don’t find answers there.

In their own words
Strategy asked Don’s former colleagues to share their thoughts and memories of the man himself.

Don’s business partner for nearly three decades, Geoff Belchetz is president/COO of DW+Partners in Toronto.

I met Don originally as a consultant to his business, when it was called Don Watt + Associates at the beginning of 1982. It was at that stage a family business, probably 20 to 25 people, a very successful business that he had developed almost single-handedly, with clients all over the world.
I was brought in as a consultant for around six months, reorganizing the business so that ultimately money got in the bank. At the end of it all, one of the recommendations was that he needed to have a general manager and
I suggested a search. His response was, ‘Why do I need to do a search? You and I work well together.’ And my response at that point was, ‘I’m not looking for a job.’
We ended up becoming partners and that was the start of a 27-year relationship. We never had a written agreement; it was the type of relationship that was built on mutual respect and trust. Don really believed in doing the right thing – it was the priority over and above personal self-interest. Whatever we did, we always followed the tenet of ‘do what is right.’ We didn’t really argue about things, we always resolved matters effectively and ran the business with what turned out to be a balance of opposing forces.
Don and I formed DW+Partners in 2003. One of Don’s more recent accomplishments was our work with Metro, which started off around 2005 with the revitalization of their Super C division and then moved into strategic analysis, branding and recommendations for their own brand program. DW+Partners was, and still is today, the force behind the Irresistibles brand, and we worked with them in the rebranding of Dominion and A&P to Metro, a highly successful endeavour.
Don not only understood what was important from a design perspective, he also understood that design alone is not sufficient. Certain designs will look pretty but will not sell on-shelf. He was able to bring to bear the business realities of what was necessary to take a brand or a store and turn it into an entity that would motivate consumers to visit and buy. He understood how to flow people through a store, the communication elements, how the package should be presented, how it should be supported on shelf or in the marketplace. He really got it when it came to drawing all these different facets together and breaking down the barriers between different disciplines.
It was always fun working with Don as a partner because we were always able to introduce humour and feeling into whatever we did. It wasn’t just about the work, it was about making it a good experience. Don was an inspirational person – he was a brand in himself. -Geoff Belchetz

Lee Jacobson was a senior project director and VP at Don Watt + Associates from 1980 to 1984. Today, he is  president of Lee Jacobson Consultants Brand Producers, a marketing and communications firm
in Toronto.

I worked with Don during a period that Ron Vandenberg, a colleague from those years, calls “a golden moment in time.” Don was enjoying the success of his work with Swiss multinational Nestlé on the re-branding of Nescafé instant coffee, using what would become his signature photographic package design.
Don’s mantra was “the package is the product.” When talking about the image on the Nescafé package, a bright red mug nestled in a mound of coffee beans, he explained, “People aren’t buying brown powder in a jar, they’re buying the expectation of a steaming cup of rich coffee.”  But he was always quick to point out that the product, and the company, had to deliver on those expectations.
Equally important was his role in the rescue of the troubled Loblaws supermarket chain through his work on store design, product strategy and communications. The partnership with Galen Weston, Dave Nichol and others in the Weston businesses would become a model for what Don called “strategic design,” helping businesses succeed by creating, responding to and capturing market opportunities.
Some reduce Don’s work to billboard-sized photographic murals, bold colours and a love of large Helvetica type. But that is a mistake and only a small part of what he pioneered. Don’s fundamental contribution was understanding and creating a whole range of signals that build a brand. His groundbreaking work in new product strategy and innovations, for example, turned private label programs such as Loblaw’s President’s Choice into significant competitors to national brands. While these innovations were recognized by the Harvard School of Business, more important for Don, they appeared on the bottom line of his clients’ balance sheets.
Don was a gentleman – unflappable and kind, with a love of travel, good food and wine. He was loath to express anger and was unfailingly polite and upbeat. He always retained his patience and wry sense of humour. On a business trip we once rented a Nissan Maxima. Don took one look at the car and, ever the marketer, deadpanned, “I wonder if they make a Minima?”
There has been a great deal of discussion lately about “design thinking,” the concept that business can profit from using the designer’s sensibilities and methods to understand customer needs and create market opportunities. Heralded by some as “the next competitive advantage,” design thinking is really what Don Watt practiced and preached his entire career. For those of us who had the good fortune to work with him and learn from him, it’s enormously sad that we will have to continue without him. But his example, energy and optimism are a legacy to an entire generation of designers, business leaders and design thinkers. -Lee Jacobson

Ed Shikatani began his career working with Don and considered him a mentor. A founding partner of Shikatani Lacroix Design, he now runs his own design studio, Shikatani Creative, in Toronto.

I considered myself very lucky to have been hired by Don right out of art college. His design philosophies, creative talent and international reputation inspired me throughout my years at the Ontario College of Art. To me, there was only one place to work when I graduated.
Don was a half-full versus half-empty kind of guy – he always had a positive outlook towards things. I don’t think I ever saw him freak out about anything during my five-year stint there.
I’ll always remember a funny story from the early days, when a new designer started with the company. One lunch, when Don was out of the building, another designer unrolled toilet paper all around the office that ended up
on Don’s desk with a message: “I’m your newest employee, come up and meet me.”
The thought crossed my mind that this stunt had gone too far but it was too late: Don discovered it and followed it to its source. I thought, “Oh crap, someone’s getting fired today,” but Don took it all in stride, as he did with many other stunts we pulled. The place was an absolute blast to work; he really treated us well.
I remember him as always knowing something about everything, it didn’t matter what the topic it was, he was just one of those guys that was always in the know. -Ed Shikitani