In just a few days, a simple trip to the shops in cities, towns and villages across England will never be the same again for consumers.

Under the guise of saving the planet and promoting sustainable lifestyles, every shop in the country will soon be bound by law to levy a 5p charge on each carrier bag they hand over the counter to customers.

The effects of the carrier bag levy have already been felt across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where the use of single use bags has dropped by as much as 90%.

But while the environmental lobby breathlessly celebrates its victory over “throwaway culture”, few have paused to consider the new law will affect the brands of retailers.

A distinctive bag has long acted as a hugely valuable branding tool to major chains, acting as a mobile marketing vehicle on high streets across the country.

Raising brand awareness

The abundance of a certain shop’s bag on busy shopping streets can not only raise brand awareness, but also alert other shoppers to sales.

However, the use of carrier bags as a simple, blunt advertising instrument has been thrown into disarray in the parts of the UK where the carrier bag levy is already in force.

From Lidl bags for life hanging off the back of trolleys in Asda, Next carrier bags being pulled out of customers’ back pockets at the tills in John Lewis, stores no longer have ownership of the bags that people carry their products away in.

Losing this key branding activity, not only has an immediate negative impact on brand awareness on the high street, but can also have implications on consumer perception, with premium quality goods being taken away in value range carrier bags.

Upping the bags for life stakes

Some have already spotted this trend and started upping their game in the bags for life stakes. The distinctive ladybird design on Tesco hemp bags can now be glimpsed in any given situation.

In the past, people would visit luxury stores and buy a cheap item simply to get hold of a carrier bag. Now both Fortnum and Mason and Harrods cut out the middle man by selling their own branded bags for life.

Beyond retail, producing hemp and tough plastic bags is such an easy task that even charities and political parties can muscle in on using bags as a mass marketing tool, increasing their visibility and consumer reach to new levels.

Embracing the ban on free bags was also a ploy used by stores such as Marks & Spencer to earn brownie points by flaunting their green credentials.

For some businesses, it is possible that being seen to be doing something moral will outweigh the loss of exposure from the removal of plastic bags – especially if the proceeds are very publicly donated to deserving causes.

So, brands must decide on which strategy to adopt as the plastic bag is phased out of British life. A clever design to make a branded £2 hemp bag more of a fashion accessory – or a ready-made platform from which to preach green credentials to trendy young shoppers?

Some brands have already seen this new era as an opportunity. Those without a plan will soon find that mumbling “that’ll be 5p” at a customer as they hand them the same old flimsy plastic bag will cause them to fall behind in this particular sack race.

  • John Illsley is a valuation director at brand valuation consultancy Intangible Business