Put a Wrap On It: The Rise of Packaging in Fresh Food

01.15.19 / Eric Wyttenbach

As consumers become more in tune with how and where their food is grown these days, the perception of food packaging has shifted — thus opening the door for brands to radically innovate in design and messaging to entice new buyers.

Shoppers are looking more closely at certifications to ensure products are made with trusted ingredients and best production practices before placing selections into their shopping baskets. Informed by news stories about food and nutrition, they have become more savvy as they shop the center of the store — and the trend has been spreading to the perimeter and into fresh products.

What about produce? Most consumers buy fresh produce in market-style bulk volumes and they have to rely on faith that those products are, in fact, pesticide free, organic, fair trade, etc., as labeled on the shelf tag. Even with those little PLU code stickers on each tomato and signs on the bin of loose-leaf baby kale, there is something not entirely comforting to the consumer that that sticker tells the whole story.

The Rise of Branded and Packaged Fresh Food

And that’s the reason why we’re seeing a rise in packaged produce: Branding, packaging, and graphic design help consumers confidently purchase these products.

Today when I go to my local grocer’s produce section and pick up a pack of baby greens, I’ll see a clean label made with soy-based inks on recycled paper applied to a crystal-clear container made from recycled plastics with the words “Washed 3X,” clusters of certification icons, inviting graphics, and typography — telling me all the right things to ease my anxiety about the product’s origins and safety. The packaging gives me confidence that I’m making a smart, safe choice.

The power of graphic design in produce is exciting. Brands like Organic Girl are leading the charge in fresh packaging and winning consumers over as their go-to choice based on convenience and trust. Designing food packaging has changed the way consumers shop, turning them into label readers with choices instead of label gawkers. Branded produce is bringing life and interest to a formerly quiet department.

The New Fresh Perimeter: 4 Insights

The fresh footprint is getting bigger at retail; it’s not just fruits, veggies, meats, and gallons of milk. Packaged fresh now includes items like snackable cheese trays, hummus and pretzels, meal prep kits, green juices, and more. I’m seeing marketing trends and shopper tendencies that will continue to shape this new fresh packaged category, including:

Farmers’ markets are shaping shoppers’ expectations. Shopping at farmers’ markets is a wonderful experience that makes us feel good about what we are buying and who we are supporting. The opportunity consumers have to speak and deal directly with the source provides a transparency that is hard to match. The trend of fresh in grocery echoes this experience, from the way food is being packaged to the way the retail environment is designed.

Design conveys authenticity. Packaging that shows off the actual food — with windows and clear substrates instead of photographs — takes us right to the farm when we interact with the package. Consumers care about the origin of their food across the fresh category, not just in produce. So a pack of fresh pasta might use classic typography, elegant colors and clear windows showing off the product to make the product feel like it came right from Italy.

Packaging enables convenience. Grab-and-go products especially communicate the freshness and convenience of a healthy, quick meal. Pre-made salads, portion control cheese plates, and serving-sized fruit cups provide alternative meals that consumers can feel good about — and that feel-good messaging (i.e., high protein, low sugar, all natural) is reinforced on the label or wrap.

Sustainability is a concern. Pre-made dinners and delivery meal services are also driving the fresh trend in packaged foods. But as the fresh category adopts bags, boxes, and wraps, a big concern is overpackaging and recyclability. I expect that consumers will quickly start to question how these packaged-fresh brands give back to the environment and their investment in sustainability and fair trade initiatives.

Yes, a consumer might feel weird buying fresh produce in a plastic container. But they’ll feel better about it knowing that Organic Girl puts extra effort into using recycled plastic in their packaging and making their packaging recyclable (consumers who don’t have access to recycling facilities can send their empty packaging back to the brand’s office). That might seem silly, but it absolutely backs up the brand promise of 100% organic, high quality, great-tasting products. To convince a shopper to choose branded spinach over a bundle with a PLU twist-tie from the bulk bin, it’s not enough to tout the quality of the product. Organic Girl goes all-in on purity, nutrition, and sustainability.

I’m not advocating for the produce department to look like a plastic festival. But consumers (and I count myself among them) are adopting a different shopping mentality that emphasizes content over value and that opens up so much potential for innovation in packaging design. The future of fresh may be packaged, but the foundation is more about transparency and education so consumers can make better decisions.

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