By Don Douloff
It’s normally folly to judge a book by its cover, but in the world of packaged foods, the “cover” is crucial to selling the “book.” Packaging creates eye appeal, fosters brand differentiation and often sells an experience – and more and more, it draws inspiration from a wider variety of sources.
“Packaging is influenced by fashion, demographics, architecture, home decor, media, the rise of the millennials,” says Ava Abbott, founder and managing director of Slingshot design agency. Abbott notes that the artisanal/small batch craft beer movement influences package design. “Food brands look the part, with packaging reflecting ‘tactility’ – products are photographed, for example, “on an old piece of wood” and can incorporate visual influences such as “country wedding, fall fair, shabby chic.”
Manufacturers, adds Abbott, are “trying to create an emotion,” among consumers, which translates as, “I wish I were at that table.” Slingshot’s retail packaging clients include Rolling Meadow dairy and Solar Raw kale chips.
Abbott has seen a trend among some major brands – seeking to “downplay mass market” and “realizing that people want small-batch” – substantially reducing the size and, thus, prominence of their logo on packaging. “It’s a lessening of the importance of the brand and places more importance on the product,” she says. Abbott cites, as an example, P3 Portable Protein Packs from Planters and Oscar Mayer.
Another trend is experiential packaging designed to stand out in a crowded competitive landscape, observes Sarah Grundy, vice-president of Creative at Fish out of Water Design, who cites Sobeys supermarkets’ higher-end Sensations private-label products as an example. For that label, she says, Sobeys is moving away from a rigidly consistent look in favour of a “category-specific view of purchase triggers.”
An example is the Sensations line of barbecue sauces featuring whimsical typefaces and illustrations (a hula dancer for the Hawaiian-style Huli Huli flavour, for instance) and a name (Spirited Mickie), size (375 mL) and shape mimicking the mickey-sized booze bottle familiar to Canadians. “This tells a story and creates an experience around the product,” says Allan Dougall, vice-president of Strategy and Client Service at Fish out of Water, whose packaging clients include McCain and Cloverleaf.
Manufacturers are even making the packaging itself part of the experience. Biodegradable, fibre-based, plantable packaging, for example, caters to Canadians’ concerns about the environment, notes Dougall. Examples include Bloom Everlasting Chocolate, whose seed-infused packaging can be used to grow the bar’s featured flavour ingredient (when planted, the mint chocolate pack grows mint plants or the rose-infused chocolate pack grows roses).
Dougall points to WowButter, a peanut- and nut-free spread made from roasted soybeans, which features peel-off stickers under the label that can be placed on sandwich containers to indicate that the lunch is made with WowButter, not peanut butter – a boon in schools where peanut-borne anaphylaxis is a grave concern. “The packaging itself adds value and serves a use tied to the product itself,” adds Dougall.
“Packaging still has the power to disrupt buying patterns and decisions,” says Jean-Pierre Lacroix, president of Shikatani Lacroix branding and design agency. “At the purchase moment, packaging is still where it’s at.” Lacroix notes that in a marketplace in which 180,000 new products are launched each year, “shelf visibility and differentiation is the key battleground” of packaged goods. Lacroix cites the “blink factor,” wherein consumers seek out “visual shorthand” cues such as colour and shape, as the force driving unique dispensing devices and packaging shapes (consider the upside-down ketchup bottle).
Lacroix, whose roster of about 20 packaged goods clients includes Kraft and Campbell’s Soup, notes that the success of private-label products has forced national brand manufacturers to create a bigger separation between the two categories. It’s also pushed them to up their game in terms of packaging graphics and the quality of photos and substrates. Packaging design is becoming much more simplified, with “extremely bold and simple” graphics. Manufacturers are “reducing the clutter of product messaging,” highlighting one feature instead of four or five, says Lacroix.
This increased simplicity has arisen from a need for packaging to perform across multiple channels, especially if it’s being scaled on mobile devices, says Jean-Paul Morresi, partner, Creative, at Watt International Inc. Also finding favour among packaged goods companies is high-impact, high-contrast, high-saturation colour, which helps products “jump off the shelf,” notes Morresi, whose packaging clients include Canada’s Own and U.S. supermarket chain Market 32.
“Consumers are increasingly associating the quality of the packaging with the quality of what’s inside,” adds Morresi. Moreover, “consumers’ aspirations continue to grow. They want the product to represent what they want to become.” He explains that manufacturers such as Coca-Cola have used one-to-one personalization by experimenting with wrap-around labels bearing people’s names. “The product reflects the individual.”
Differentiation in form and structure – such as flex packs – is also helping products stand out on shelves, says Morresi. Technology, too, is playing an increasingly large role, and he notes that a coming trend could see UPC codes embedded invisibly into packaging graphics.
Another potential trend, according to Lacroix, is new technology embedded in packaging that indicates the safety of food. This goes well beyond best-before dates and “is a way of putting consumers’ minds at ease.”
“Consumer attitudes are pushing back on brands that have tried to lead them versus respond to them,” says Chris Plewes, vice-president of Creative at Glenn DavisGroup branding and design agency, which services clients such as Weston and Kraft Heinz. “Consumers are seeking a balanced and attainable lifestyle, a shift from dieting to positive, balanced eating. They demand brands that offer real food that’s affordable and convenient, versus the choice of only over-processed and cheap or clean and expensive.”
Through packaging, brands are “responding with cues of authenticity, relevance and smallness. Big brands are striving to appear genuine versus over-marketed with ingredients and processing that feels dated,” explains Plewes. In terms of eye appeal, this translates to “ultra clean, simple design, with a more ‘transparent’ tone of voice, more of a what-you-see-is-what-you-get visual language.” Designs are simple and iconic, and minimize the verbal “selling” and “maximize the brand’s visual, intrinsic promise in a bold, confident way.”
Finding favour, continues Plewes, is authentic branding – show me, don’t tell me. “Be your true brand self regardless of where you sit in the wholesome spectrum. If you are not so healthy, celebrate enjoyment versus apologizing.Consumers are cynical to fakery.” As a result, messaging is relevant and accessible, “food I can relate to, [that] my kids will eat and I actually crave, too; food that has mass appeal and does not try too hard, and [is] not too niche,” says Plewes.
Plewes points to several current trends, including matte finishes, natural materials, and windows showing the food; eco-friendly plastics and more economical packaging solutions; typography that appears more naïve or plainspoken versus contrived and polished; and photography that is natural and under-styled.