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Part II: On Being 'Labeled': Avery Dennison in a Sticky Wicket

Drew Letendre

This is a continuation of my previous blog on ‘endorsements’: a case in point on the pitfalls of ‘light’ image management in the B2B realm.

Avery Dennison, is a B2B company best known — incongruously — through its retail office products business and its unofficial moniker ‘The Label Company’. That appellation, ‘The Label Company’, was not, to my knowledge, homegrown. It was not a premeditated strategic coinage, like BASF’s ‘The Chemical Company’. It was, rather, a kind of unsolicited, composite endorsement of the sort one gets on LinkedIn. Famed for the iconic ‘Hello, My Name is _________’ adhesive lapel sticker, Avery Dennison Corporation is really a material sciences company, with a strong focus on sophisticated adhesive products and technologies, with a wide range of highly specialized industrial and retail applications. Over, the last decade, the Avery-branded Office Products business (the binders, highlighters, labels, etc.) constituted only 8% to 12% of Avery Dennison’s overall business. But it was (and, I would argue, remains) The Company’s public face by default. Throw light on Avery Dennison and 88%-92% is reflected back as retail, as Avery — way out of proportion to its true surface area. The whole has been understood largely through the fraction — disproportionately obscured or refracted by it. Now, in 2013, The Corporation has sold off this entire business, throwing its branding challenges (and opportunities) into high relief.

Highlighting Labels Can Put You in a Binder
Avery Dennison could have moved out from behind the shadow of its founders’ — Stan Avery-heritage retail business and messaged ‘corporately’, more in the spirit of, again, BASF — surely another materials science business, if ever there was one. But by not following a similar course, it may have left a vacuum for ‘endorsements’ from parties that glommed on only to what they knew (because they didn’t know any better, because Avery Dennison perhaps didn’t do enough to re-educate them). In fairness, Avery Dennison has tried in recent years to re-brand and re-position around the differentiating concepts of ‘intelligence’ and ‘identification’. And, to be sure, it is a pinnacle achievement to reach ‘category brand’ status, to have a brand virtually synonymous with a product type (akin to Kleenex, now a noun or Xerox, now a verb). The challenge, however, with being ‘The Label Company’ is that labels — as conventionally understood — long ago ceased being the innovation they were in Stan Avery’s day. And, let’s be honest: such honorifics are hard to demure or dispense with, even at the price of establishing a broader kind of market relevance. This, in part, informed a long-held conviction that Avery Dennison ‘begged for’ repositioning.

As the category goes, so goes the category brand — and the business ‘behind’ it.
However, it is not just Avery Dennison that needed repositioning, but labels as a product category that required it — and nobody was in a better position to do that or had more to benefit by it, than Avery Dennison. Therein may be the missed opportunity. As a result of quiet, persistent decades of R+D innovation and manufacturing evolution, the simple adhesive label underwent a series of functional transformations. In less than a century, it went from simply sticky (‘Hello, My Name is…’) to ‘smart’ (RFID), from a mere surface for the ‘graphical display of information’ to something richly informative and increasingly interactive. The label evolved from an artifact-product into a range of materials, applications, and technologies. Yet, in spite of that impressive trajectory, labels — and with them, Avery Dennison — seem ‘stuck with’ a different, frankly obsolete, image. Perception lags behind reality. The point is that, because Avery (Dennison) is a category brand, and thus identified with a product type, its fortunes as a brand — and indeed, as a business — would rise or fall in part, with the perception of that type of product…and did.

Proof Points
As I was writing this — and as if to make one of my points for me — an article appeared in the San Fernando Valley Business Journal, August 19, 2013-September 1, 2013, titled: ‘Avery Dennison Peels Off Labels,’ by Elliot Golan. Here is the key excerpt : ‘On July 1, the Fortune 500 label maker completed the sale of its office products division to CCL Industries Inc. of Toronto, a printing and label company.’ (Emphasis, mine)…’the Fortune 500 label maker’. Golan’s catchy title quietly implies that AD is more than labels, which is true enough. But his statement just confuses matters because Avery Dennison didn’t ‘peel off labels,’ it peeled off OP, of which certain kinds of labels are just one part. I’m not sure if he is using these interchangeably. That would be odd, to say the least: a bit like a business that sells apples and oranges, but uses ‘apples’ as shorthand, to refer to both. The truth is that the company remains very squarely in the world of ‘labels,’ in the broader, more sophisticated sense I was ‘arguing for’ above (adhesive materials and solutions, let’s call it). Perhaps it was nothing more than the author or editors becoming too enamored of a punning title to bother about the confusion it might sow. Suffice it to say, however, it is sloppy and confusing, and it corroborates the points about the importance of disciplined brand image (and brand language) management to help fend off third party inaccuracies.

When all is said and done, Avery Dennison’s brand image problems come down to these two: it has too often been ‘mistaken’ for an office products company (Avery) when it is much, much more (so, the ‘victim’ of a partial truth); and/or it has been pigeonholed as a mere label manufacturer, in the most reductive sense (another truth, but a trivial or trivialized one). Make that three: it is now strapped with an image and name that ‘belong to’ a business it is no longer in, making its image problems that much ‘stickier.’

Concluding Thoughts
While spinning off a business is usually a brand story for the ‘Spinnee’ and not the ‘Spinner,’ perhaps AD should ‘think out of the package’ and seriously consider re-branding. Having divested its most visible branded asset—the very brand it was built on, and through which it has been historically perceived—begs important questions: What is ‘Avery Dennison’ now? What is it going to be? What, if anything, does Dennison (I won’t call it a brand) bring to the table (if ever it brought anything other than the persistent after image of an acquired paper company)? And is its current corporate tag line, ‘Inspired Brands, Intelligent World’ enough to answer those questions and clearly identify a company that’s left the supply room to other vendors, while betting on ‘retroflective’ signage, retail tag technology, and self-adhesive roll materials to carry its future?

No pun intended: what does all this ‘roll up to’?