Don Watt: "You realize how easy it is to be stalled in promoting your ideas unless you talk to decision makers at the top."

"You realize how easy it is to be stalled in promoting your ideas unless you talk to decision makers at the top."

“My mother was a watercolour painter. When my father was away in the military, she would paint things. I liked doing that, too. I did cartoons for school yearbooks, and I first thought I'd like to be an animator.

I graduated from the Ontario College of Art & Design in industrial design and worked as an illustrator. I worked at A. V. Roe on the Arrow and the “flying saucer,” a secret project for the U.S. army. The flying saucer was an aerial jeep that had three engines in it along with a bazooka. But with the technology of the time, it didn't fly well. It's an idea that should be resurrected.

Even though I was trained in 3-D design, I decided hard product design had too long a development cycle. I then did some animation work in California for Warner Bros.–I worked on Bugs Bunny. But animation was much too detailed. I later got a job as a designer. I found I really liked the idea of doing packaging. I liked the constant turnover.

I want to get rid of ugly. Wherever I look I see a bad line, a dumb colour, a dumb shape. It would be so easy just not to have that. I've always resented people making things look bad for people who don't have money.

At Rolph Clarke Stone, they had these guys sitting in offices doing painfully accurate renderings of their work for clients. I thought, “Wouldn't it be simpler if we did things the way we did in animation?” You'd sketch out figures and do very rough storyboards.

Very quickly, these roughs represented about 90% of our work. The client could see part of something he liked from one idea, part of something else he liked. But more than that, this was involving the client in the process.

I formed my own business, Don Watt + Associates. Shortly after, Nestlé came to me saying Nescafé instant coffee needed work done on packaging. I said, “Why don't we just put a red mug sitting in beans?” People don't usually put a coffee mug in a pile of beans. But the signal to do this was that 70% of people surveyed didn't believe instant coffee was real coffee.

For seven years, I went to Switzerland, or some other market, for one week every month. Every country has its own act. You have to understand what their act is, then try to achieve your objectives. I carry a Canadian passport. I could carry an American passport–my mother was American. But you learn that it is much easier to be Canadian.

In Switzerland, I used to shop at Migros–the whole store was filled with private-label product. The Loblaw people had an interest in this. But I said the products had to be superior to the national brands. We couldn't be inferior.

At Loblaw, Dave Nichol and I worked closely together. I suggested to the ad agency–which came up with the “More than the price is right” slogan–to put him on television, because he was so quick on his feet. Bill Shatner was great, and the money we were paying him in the first year was tolerable. But by the time the second year came around, his fees doubled for half the work.

Dave Nichol got so comfortable, we'd write a script, he'd read it as he walked down to the studio, then throw it away. We built a personality around him as opposed to a faceless corporate being.

Television is an attitude-changing medium. Right now, people are experimenting with television screens in stores in such a way that it doesn't disturb the shopping experience, but enhances it.

Designers have learned to play with colour to make a statement. Yellow is the highest-visibility colour. To get the Loblaw pricing message across, we used No Name yellow. We convinced the consumer that yellow meant savings.

A brand is a series of tangible and intangible factors. To have a good brand, you need a good product, but a good product may not become a good brand. It's the intangibles that make you want it as part of your lifestyle.”

Timeline: Don Watt
Schomberg, ON, and Phoenix, AZ
Born Feb. 9, 1936, Regina, SK
Retail guru; brand builder

1957: Graduates Ontario College of Art. Finds work as industrial illustrator at A. V. Roe, then as animator at Warner Bros.

1966: After jobs as agency creative director, starts Don Watt + Associates. Lands account for redesigning Nescafé brand.

1973: Works with Loblaw Cos. on revamping grocer. Designs stores and packaging; builds No Name, President's Choice labels.

1999: After selling Watt Group in the early '90s to beverage maker Cott Corp., buys company back with the help of Envoy Communications.

2003 : After falling out with Envoy, founds DW+Partners as consultancy specializing in retail branding and design.