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Food & Beverage Companies: Time to Go from Bland to Brand

If you’ve walked the health and beauty aisle at Target in the past few years (back when leisurely strolling a retail store was an everyday occurrence), you’ve seen the rise of a particular brand aesthetic.

Lots of whitespace, sans serif type, an absent logo, soft modern colors. Designers and marketers have dubbed this aesthetic “blanding” — a sort of no-brand branding. Lots of successful brands have adapted this style: Brandless (the exemplar), NativeHey Humans and others. Target’s newly launched Favorite Day brand of 700 (!) indulgent food and beverage products is another example.

The personal care and natural food/beverage categories are ripe for the blanding approach: The aesthetic is right for wellness or better-for-you brands because the whitespace and cleanness echo an old-school pharmaceutical look that implies health and purity.

Why Brands Embrace Blanding

Brands favor this blanding style because it plays well on social media, it’s scalable for different digital channels and screens, and it’s easy to systematize. Blanding is essentially a kit of parts: Pick a sans serif typeface — or, if you want to parrot Goop, a quirky, cute serif — add Pantone’s color of the year, no need to design a logo, and you’re cooking.

Online, this less-is-more bland style pairs with perfectly imperfect lifestyle photos — all midcentury modern and luxury décor and rose gold and other visual cues that appeal to Millennial shoppers. Millennial consumers especially like to curate their lives, with products that have a complementary look that they can display on a bathroom vanity or kitchen counter. For that reason, blanding is purpose-built for Instagram, which is highly visual and focused on beauty. Consumers get to associate with that vibe and imagine themselves immersed in the images they see in their IG feeds.

Too, there’s a sort of faux consumer confidence that emerges among lookalike blands. “If my snack bar looks like my deodorant looks like my vitamins, then it must be good.”

Because it’s a) super popular right now, so a proven creative concept, and b) really easy to pull off without hiring a high-fee design agency, many startup and direct-to-consumer brands have adopted the blanding approach right out of the gate.

But there’s a real challenge for these companies. As a FastCompany article puts it, “Blands are like teenagers. They dress the same, talk the same, act the same. They don’t have a defined sense of self or, if they do, they lack the confidence to be it. It’s a school-of-fish mentality where the comfort and safety of the familiar outweigh the risk of attracting too much attention.”

Blanding is simply a visual style. It’s not branding. And without a capital-B Brand, your product risks becoming a commodity. By Brand, I mean a mission or purpose: a wrong that your company and its community strive to remedy, a higher calling, a better way of life for your customers.

Blands recede into the swirl of other similar products on the shelf; brands — especially Beloved & Dominant brands — stand up, stand out, and stand for something. And to do that, you have to use your own voice.

Graduating from Bland to Brand

I get the appeal of blanding. When done well, it can be quite attractive. It’s why so many charismatic entrepreneurs in food and beverage start-ups leverage the style: Their product looks great, their packaging looks great, and by association they look great.

My sense is that this design trend would have passed already were it not for the pandemic, which forced emerging DTC and ecommerce brands to rapidly ramp up their consumer presence in the first six to eight months of the quarantine.

You can get away with a bland for a while, but as the brand matures and starts to stand for something, this one-of-many design style becomes useless. The challenge is that just like emerging artists who haven’t yet gelled their own style, these young brands emulate their peers.

When the quarantine is over, people will go out to shop more frequently and more leisurely than they do today. And the blands will quickly start to feel like private label.

Bespoke brands understand how to stand out enough to become Beloved & Dominant category leaders. The first step is to look critically at the ecosystem of your consumers and then work to becoming a one-of-a-kind standout in their world. If Instagram frames your worldview, then you’ll land on the same visual construct that other players in your category are using.

Blanding is normcore — it’s riskless, you don’t have to stake a claim to meaning, it’s the easy path. Branding is unique — it’s risky, pegged to an idea, and demands a deep understanding of your consumer and their world.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with blanding as the tool kit that your startup incubator gives you; a beautiful package might get you into a conversation with retailers or investors, especially if you’re riding the passion of a charismatic founder.

I think of blanding as a “fake it ‘til you make it” business strategy.

But once you’ve lost velocity or aren’t selling through or can’t get meetings with new channel partners, then you’ve outgrown it. If Target wants you on the shelf but your products don’t move and then they make a private label version of your offering, then it’s time to hit “eject” and move on.

The good news is that you’ve already begun to build a following. Now it’s time to do the work to establish a strategic foundation before you get to the cool stuff like making a logo and choosing a color palette. That includes:

— Defining the brand’s mission and values

— Articulating a brand story that’s bigger than your product

— Identifying places where you want to play, outside of Instagram but in the real world of sales

In order to become a category leader you have to exit the superhighway of blanding and go offroad to seek your tribe who will love you forever and will pay what you ask in order to deliver on your mission.

Elevating from one-of-many bland to Beloved & Dominant Brand takes guts, vision, and leadership. It’s a massive, exciting opportunity because it means you’re ready to grow up and out. We can help you take those steps, so let’s connect.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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For Wellness & Better-for-you Brands, Gen X Spends the Most

Generation X: What a boring title for a group that ushered in the use of cell phones, home video games, microwaves, and cable TV. Gen X is that “old generation” now, creeping up into their 50’s, and uncool (clearly) to the younger generations. And in many marketers’ eyes, Gen X is even less relevant. In fact, most marketers do not even target this age group any longer. Our youth-obsessed culture is overlooking one of the most obvious targets.

Well, I’m here to say, we’re going to change that right now.

I’ll be honest, when I first started researching this article, I was pretty darn sure I was going to be searching for days to find data that supported Generation X’s spending muscle. How surprised I was when data point after data point surfaced, disproving my hypothesis. In fact, most research I found states that (at least for now) Generation X has the greatest spending power of all other generations – generating 31 percent of all U.S. income with only 25 percent of the population.

Generation X is a group of big spending tech fiends who were taught to break the rules.

Picture this: my friend’s basement in 1981, MTV comes on the air, blows our minds seeing artists transform music over the airways, and creates a visually-obsessed culture that legitimizes cable television as a new marketing platform.

The 1980s helped shape Generation X into people who are comfortable pushing boundaries, quick at adapting to innovation, and willing to spend their money to get the goods. Yes, Generation X spends more than any other generation. Home-based video games, MTV, cable TV, and microwaves brought a new definition of easy family living and entertainment, as well as access to lifestyles many had never seen before. Keeping up with the Joneses went up a level. We had a whole world of things we could buy.

What defines Gen X?

  • Education: More educated than any generation – 35 percent have college degrees versus 19 percent of Millennials.
  • Technology: While not digital native, innovation and technology became keys to their life (think cell phones, email, and personal computers).
  • Cultural revolution: More women going back to work meant women had power and money. We saw families on TV with moms that worked high-paying jobs as the new normal. Claire Huxtable (The Cosby Show), Maggie Seaver (Growing Pains), and Angela Bower (Who’s the Boss) were different moms than we had seen before. Characters like an African American lawyer and a single mom advertising executive with a male nanny created a generation of people comfortable pushing boundaries and cultural norms.
  • Independence: An increase in single and working moms created a new, more independent youth.
  • Hope: As the first generation unrestricted by the cultural norms of the past, they believed they could have it all; and subsequently came crashing back to earth wondering about work-life balance and wellness.
  • Rebellion: Stuck between two large egocentric generations, Gen X revolted by creating grunge rock and popularizing dystopian novels like Shampoo Planet, by Douglas Copeland.
  • Materialism: A strong relationship with materialism meant Gen X was hit hardest by the Great Recession of 2008.
  • Career length: Despite the fact that Gen X currently holds a significant percentage of high-level jobs, the Great Recession, appetite for spending, and longer life expectancy means they need to remain in the work force longer to pay off mortgages, their children’s tuition, and save for retirement.
  • Age: America is a youth-obsessed culture and Gen X is no longer the youth.

What marketing trends does Gen X influence?

  • Better-for-you and wellness: While Millennials rank evenly with Generation X in their love of mission-driven brands, Gen X-ers spend significantly more on today’s do-gooder brands. Thus, making organic, ethically produced, and sustainable products a viable marketplace for everyone.
  • Email marketing: As the first group that opted out of print catalogues, email marketing became the norm.
  • Convenience: Online shopping’s confluence with social media: They are busier than heck – leading their companies, running kids around, and trying to stay healthy. Online shopping, social media, and on-demand services (such as streaming services like Netflix and meal-kit delivery systems like Blue Apron) are ever-popular with this generation.

How does all of this affect marketing to Gen X?

  • They are skeptical: They learned the hard way. These folks have been through two impeachments. They gave the world grunge music and modern marketing. They are today’s power brokers and executives. They don’t fool easy. They give trust to those who earn it. This is the generation who will research your brand in detail before committing to parting with their money. So, don’t try to win them over with glitz. Show them your true colors and they’ll respond. Gen X has a history of loyalty when it comes to authentic, transparent brands.
  • They are currently the parental generation: The youngest Gen X-er is just now entering into parenthood and the oldest have begun shipping their kids off to college. Almost every sale to a child is a sale to a Gen X-er too. If you’re targeting kids, you’re targeting their parents too.
  • They are premium focused: As professionals and parents with hard-earned money to burn, Gen X-ers put a premium on quality. They want to know that a brand is reliable, that a product is hardy, and that media is sophisticated.

Generation X is a true hybrid when it comes to marketing. As a brand owner, you are playing the long game. Simply put, ignoring this generation puts your bottom line at risk for the foreseeable future.

Diana Fryc

For Diana, a fierce determination to pursue what’s right is rooted in her DNA. The daughter of parents who endured unimaginable hardship before emigrating from Eastern Europe to the U.S., she is built for a higher purpose. Starting with an experience working with Jane Goodall to source sustainably made paper, she went on to a career helping Corporate America normalize the use of environmentally responsible products and materials before coming to Retail Voodoo.

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What Package Architecture System is Right for Your Brand?

When you add a product to your lineup — a new flavor, perhaps — how easy is it to crank out the package for the new SKU? If you’re considering extending into another category — say, from tortilla chips to fresh salsa — will your existing packaging easily adapt to the new form and the conventions of the other category?

Will you think like a manufacturer or a brand?

Marketing and brand managers often run into brick walls when they try to design packaging for new units. They need more flexibility in packaging as the brand grows; they want a design that’s future-proof. They feel stuck within the constraints of their existing design scheme. They want … well, they don’t know what they want.

How to Know When Your Packaging Isn’t Flexible Enough

In the beginning, when you’re a small brand with a handful of products, it’s easy to develop a consistent packaging system that encompasses your identity, your product’s attributes, and category signals. And it’s easy to match that packaging to your other brand visuals like the website and social media profile. But as you add flavors, special ingredients, or line extend into new categories, for example, packaging design gets more complicated. You need to add copy, claims or certifications.

Then, as you further expand, complexity rises. All of a sudden, your packaging isn’t navigable from less than two feet at retail; consumers can’t tell the difference between vanilla, vanilla bean, and vanilla chocolate chip varieties. You have so many offerings that even color-coding to identify them becomes ineffective.

And when you cross into new categories, what works on the chip bag is illegible on the lid and face of the tub of salsa. Plus, every competitor in the salsa category leads with red, and your hallmark color is blue.

Like your company’s R&D, your packaging design needs room to allow for innovation.

Three Packaging Architecture Systems for Food & Product Brands

Developed as a system, your suite of packaging can accommodate new products and new categories to varying degrees. Let’s look at three key types of packaging systems in BFY food, beverage, and products:

1) Type: Rigid

Examples: RX Bar, Kashi

( RX Bar Image Source:

A rigid packaging system incorporates a set library of visual elements — logo, nutritional callouts, flavor/variety naming, product photography, colors — arranged in a fixed way. From product to product, nothing changes except what’s necessary for the consumer to navigate the category.

This system is the most commonly used because it’s simple to execute: a design agency can hand off the visual assets and layouts and the brand’s internal team can easily develop the designs and add SKUs. Rigid packaging systems are often the first set of “clothes” that a BFY brand puts on when it launches, when there isn’t money for beautiful food photography and custom typefaces. It’s plug-and-play.

The disadvantage, however, is that a rigid system doesn’t flex for significant innovation, like a cross-category line extension or a sub-family of new products within the brand. It works best when you’re playing within a single category or a few closely related ones (such as Kashi cereal, bars, and grain-based frozen meals). It can also be difficult for consumers to navigate when you add varieties that are similar to one another, i.e., oats and chocolate vs. oats and vanilla. The shopper will have to pick the product up off the shelf to read the copy or detect the minute difference is coloring to find the variety she’s looking for.

2) Type: Flexible

Examples: 365 Everyday Value, Udi’s Gluten Free

( Udis Image Source:

Every private-label brand on the market uses a flexible packaging system, which relies on a fairly standardized architecture by category but allows for modifications to meet category conventions in a group of products. Flexible packaging systems are ideal for brands that cross disparate category lines.

The more categories the brand plays in, the simpler the system should be. The logo, the product name, variety, ingredient icons (like the gluten-free “bug”), and that’s it. It has to be simple so it can easily scale.

The benefit of a flexible system is also its downside: It’s harder to execute because the rules are looser. It’s more difficult for an internal team that doesn’t have serious design chops to adopt the brand look consistently from tortilla chips to body wash; it’s harder to maintain the design quality and integrity across all the brand’s offerings.

3) Type: Bespoke

Examples: Newman’s Own, Bob’s Red Mill, Califia Farms

( Califia Image Source:

A bespoke packaging system incorporates a master brand, with a set of design standards for each subsequent category. This works best when the brand is well established and widely recognized, so consumers can easily make the shift across categories. It involves a suite of master brand elements that can be rearranged and still be recognizable.

Over the life cycle of a highly successful BFY brand, it will start with a rigid system, then move to a flexible system as it crosses into multiple categories, finally ending up with a bespoke system when it has achieved category dominance. For example, Califia Farms built its reputation on almond milk, and it retains its core brand identity as it shifts into juices and coffee beverages.

Which System is Right for You?

The right packaging system is primarily a function of your product line, but it also depends on your organizational approach to innovation. If you don’t have a handle on your team’s culture, a partner will struggle to help you.

Does your team think like a manufacturer rather instead of a brand? In other words, “We will only make stuff that can come out of our factory using the exact equipment and procedures we use today. Line extension to us is really flavor extension: simple ingredient swaps in our core products.” If so, a rigid system is your best choice.

Does your team operate like Willy Wonka? Is everything you make satisfying and delicious? “I would love to stay and talk but I am inventing 15 things again tomorrow and cannot be troubled by tactics, systems, or reality.” A flexible system will allow you to pivot from one category to the next quickly.

Does your team see itself as stewards of the brand? “We need a plan that will allow for innovation beyond what we can predict right now. We want to future-proof our brand, but it needs to map to our values and why we exist. We need a system we’ll never have to guess at.” In that case, bespoke is the way to go.

Need help making the best choice for your brand? Let us know.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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How to Translate Brand Strategy Outcomes Into Shelf Science

In today’s busy world with packed schedules and cluttered retail environments, it is rare that a consumer will stop to pick up a product by a brand they’ve never heard of before or one that’s not already on their grocery list. But how can your brand’s presence on shelf change that?

Given that shopping is a necessity, consumers are always making split second decisions when it comes to food and beverage product decisions. For this reason, your package design is your lead sales person. Packages are working hard in the field every single day to make your brand well-known and profitable. Use this powerful opportunity to both shout on shelf and tell your story in a more conversational tone.

At Retail Voodoo we are always asking ourselves, “Does this package design concept adhere to the 30-10-3 rule?” These are the three stages we define as singular moments a package has to engage a consumer:

  • At 30 feet you need to define the category.
  • At 10 feet you need to make your brand name and story known.
  • At 3 feet you have the opportunity to whisper in the consumer’s ear.

This white paper demonstrates how engaging with consumers on each of these levels is key to establishing their trial purchase.

Once consumers have the chance to actually try the product, all of these pieces should come together for them and ignite the consumer’s individual desire to share your product and brand with other people in their circle. Learning how to achieve engagement and what is important for your package to achieve at each stage will help your package fly off the shelves or into digital carts time and time again.

What Your Packaging Should do at 30 Feet

This is the initial opportunity for your package to attract attention and stop consumers in their tracks. This is a critical stage because here your package has the shortest amount of time to make the most impact.

There are four ways to successfully halt traffic at 30 feet:

Logo or Wordmark

Whether you have a brand mark that everyone knows implicitly (i.e., Nike swoosh or the Apple logo) or you are wanting to make your brand more well-known in the category, using the brand’s logo as the attention-capturing element is always a great choice. This allows your package to define itself as a leader in your category at an instinctual level. A simple, clean logo that is staged properly checks the trustworthiness box for most consumers. When shopping, people will think, “That brand looks confident in who they are and expects people to remember their name.”


Oftentimes, powerful and eye-catching photography is a great way to stand out in a shelf of many colors and lots of typography. If it makes sense for your product, queuing appetite appeal can be very successful when shoppers have a split second to make a food choice (especially for center aisle purchases like snacks).

In the case of Sahale Snack’s packaging, we created a gorgeous cluster of nuts and fruit that is mouth watering – and visible across the store. When shopping, a consumer will think, “That product must taste absolutely amazing.”

Distinctive Product or Flavor

Another effective way to use your brand to define a retail category is to make the name of the product or unique flavor be the loudest element on pack. This is especially true if you are the first to market on an innovative product or flavor in your category. Take the opportunity to make that known.

Wedderspoon is an example of a brand whose innovative product needed to be displayed. They want to bring Manuka Honey to the masses. So when creating concepts for their new label design, we knew that it would be important to let the words “Manuka Honey” sing louder than their brand name.

An example of a success story in the flavor department would be Dry Soda Company. One of the main factors that set this brand apart from the rest of the crowd in the quickly expanding  sparkling beverage refrigerator are their foodie flavors. By having stylized illustrations of those ingredients be one of the most visible elements on the bottles, consumers can instantly see from afar that their flavors are more than just the typical lemon lime. When shopping, a consumer will think, “That is a product or flavor I have never seen before, and I am intrigued enough to try it.”

Product Benefit

If your product provides a critical benefit to your target audience that can set you apart from your competitors, shout it from the rooftop! A perfect example of a brand successfully doing this is Halo Top ice cream. Hale Top has won lots of new and repeat fans by displaying the low-calorie count large and in charge on their pints. This works because they targeted a consumer who wants to eat an entire pint without ruining their diet. At Retail Voodoo, we call this managing indulgence. When shopping, a consumer will think, “That product delivers on a functional benefit I am incorporating in my diet or lifestyle and is worth my money.”

How to Position Your Product at 10 Feet

Now that the consumer has spotted your package from across the aisle because you helped them navigate the category at 30 feet, you need to keep their attention or risk losing them to your shiny shelf neighbor.

Shout Your Clear Points of Difference

At 10 feet you have a high-level opportunity to talk to your consumer about who you are and why they should believe in your offering. This second level of messaging at 10 feet is where your package has a bit more time to speak, but don’t get crazy and try to say everything about your brand and product on the front of pack. An example of an ideal amount of content on the front of pack would be Loma Linda. To contrast that, brands like Dr. Bronner’s, while utilitarian in their approach, make the consumer read way too much to reach the information they need. When shopping, a consumer will think, “This brand looks different and may be a better choice than my current brand.”

Emphasize Readability

At Retail Voodoo we frequently say that your logo and product name need to be completely legible by middle-aged eyes and quickly understood by a fifth grader. This is where you use size, scale, and depth of field to create a logical reading hierarchy for your consumer. You will want to educate them on the other items that were not your 30-foot hero item. For example, if your logo was achieving shelf shout at 30 feet, at 10 feet you will want to talk about product, flavor, taste, and benefit. When shopping, a consumer will think, “This brand feels transparent and trustworthy because they are communicating clearly.”

Your Final Chance to Spur Purchase: Packaging at 3 Feet

The consumer is holding your package in their hand and hopefully is moments away from putting it in their cart. How do you entice them to purchase? Understanding that a consumer has a set of unspoken communication needs from your brand is the first step.

Invite Them Into Your World

By picking up your package, they have given you have permission to connect with them on a deeper level. Sometimes this leads to making them laugh through clever illustrations or copywriting, or it could lead to helping them understand the science behind your product. This should be an educational moment woven with your brand’s tone and voice. Yakima Chief Hops for example utilized their back of pack to tell a deeper brand story and allow consumers into their hop fields through storytelling. The consumer will think, “This brand really understands my life and values.”

Get Them to Flip It

Unless the consumer is already a power user of your offering, they will read the back of pack before purchase. Ultimately, this is where your brand’s message and voice can truly come to life by living harmoniously with whatever promises your ingredients are making about your product. At this stage the consumer will look at the nutrition facts panel and ingredient deck. The consumer will think, “Not only does this product map to the types of foods I am looking to consume, but their ethos are in line with mine as well.”

Leverage Communication Hierarchy

Anything that exists at the 3-foot rule should be subordinate to the items that drive the 30- foot and 10-foot rules. But this doesn’t mean that all elements are  equal. Your brand’s tone and voice, product offering, and consumer need state will inform decision-making. Knowing what your consumer is most interested in and designing a purposeful user journey that grabs their attention is as important at 3 feet as it would be at 30 feet. Take the back-of-pack design for Living Intentions as an example. We leveraged both copy and an infographic to help the consumer feel comfortable with what the claim “Activated” meant. Making sure that the front-of-pack claims were explained with clarity took precedence over emotional storytelling. The consumer will think, “I now fully trust this brand to deliver on their promises.”

Now that you understand the importance and purpose of all three stages, know that what you choose to do here visually all depends on what your brand feels is most important for the consumer in driving purchase intent. In determining what your brand’s 30-, 10-, and 3-feet elements should be, we find it helpful to make a hierarchical list of what you need consumers to know in order from most to least important before you ever start designing. This provides an easy way to map back to intentions when you take pen to paper to design the pack.

Each brand has its own strategy and unique selling proposition, but it is how and in what order you portray those on pack that can help great products reach multiple digit growth in sales.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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Take A Holistic Approach to Your Food Packaging System

It happens all the time in big CPG companies, but it’s surprisingly common in the better-for-you space too. Brands with a solid lineup of products and a loyal following extend into different categories. Sometimes marketers have identified a real, strategic opportunity to expand the brand’s reach. Sometimes, they’re just chasing trends, adding the healthy ingredient of the month or, heaven help us, pumpkin spice flavoring.

Either way, perhaps you find yourself in a situation where your flagship product is doing fine, but the line extension and new products are not meeting velocity hurdles. Your leadership team wants a band-aid fix — a packaging redesign — for the underperformers. And they want it quickly.

Slow down.

Packaging Is Only Part of the Problem

Before considering a one-off design tweak of a handful of products, it’s essential to understand why they’re troubled. Generally, lackluster performance if a subcategory comes down to one of three problems:

1) The packaging of the line extension is incompatible with the brand’s overall look and feel, so consumers don’t recognize the connection. Bringing these products under the larger brand umbrella is an easier fix because you can leverage the strength of the flagship — letting people know it’s the same brand they trust, but a different product.

2) The brand overall has lost its way. When marketers look at the product, they’re missing the bigger picture of what’s going on with the brand. Instead of asking why the product isn’t doing well, ask what’s going on with the brand. When the brand is healthy and the packaging is driven by an underlying strategy, its equity shows up whatever category you’re in. Customers hear that call to the deep when they see the brand in another aisle; they feel that familiar emotional response. They think, “this makes sense” instead of wondering, “what is this?”

3) The extension — the product itself — is incompatible with the brand’s ethos and promise. This signals a deficiency in your company’s approach to innovation. And it’ll take more than a packaging refresh to boost sales or overcome the loss of consumer trust in a product that’s so off-target.

A Systems Approach to Packaging

Overhauling your lackluster sellers alone, without looking at your entire lineup, poses serious risk to your brand equity.

When clients come to us with this we’ve-got-to-fix-this-now extension problem, it’s almost always budget-driven. Products aren’t meeting sales goals, and the sales team’s panic rises up to the C-suite.

Instead of taking a piecemeal approach to solving a packaging problem, we advocate a systematic approach. System thinking considers how your brand promise connects all your products across all categories with all your core customers. Changing one element of your brand’s visual identity on a single product affects how customers perceive your entire line. System thinking reveals opportunities that naturally arise out of the brand’s interconnected web of existing products and customers.

For a good example of a holistic approach to food packaging, take a look at Kettle brand. Going beyond the original kettle-cooked, plain potato chip, they’ve made just about every line extension play you can imagine in the snack space. Additional flavors? Check. How about Fiery Thai and Chili Lime. New formulations? Got it. Some chips are prepared in almond or avocado oil. Category expansion? You bet. They have added tortilla chips. Look at their entire line, and you’ll see that the Kettle brand mark dominates. On every package. There’s no mistaking these products for Frito Lay’s.

Inconsistent Packaging = Confused Consumers

Marketers often make the mistake of outfitting their line extensions in packaging that focuses on product attributes — flavor profiles, for example. Instead, the brand should remain front-and-center, just as it is on the flagship line. There should be no question in consumers’ minds that this is all part of the same family.

Because there’s so much noise in the store environment, it doesn’t take much to distract the shopper and make her think, “Hmm, I’m not sure if this product is from the same company I know.” Inconsistency in a packaging system makes it difficult for the consumer to make the connection between one product and another, especially in different parts of the store. You risk damaging not just your relationship with consumers, but also with retailers, partners, and investors.

If your brand isn’t crystallized in people’s minds — across your entire suite of products, across every category and every channel — it loses its position of prominence. A piecemeal approach to packaging refinement will produce a piecemeal customer experience.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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Outdoor Brands Need to Move Past Promises of Performance

As more people discover the serenity and beauty of the outdoors, the audience for outdoor products has shifted beyond the extreme outdoor athlete and rightfully started expanding to include more women, more urban dwellers, and more diverse people looking for some good times rather than a fierce 20-mile backpacking expedition through rugged terrain. With this new audience momentum, there is a real hunger in the marketplace for brands to use imagery and language that feels approachable and authentic. Momentum is shifting beyond performance promises and niche-sponsored specialists.

Brand identity is more than a logo or wordmark. A well-executed identity needs to be supported by brand values, brand mission, and the brand’s “onlyness.” The identity is the tip of the spear in winning the tribal audience all brands crave, but if the spearhead isn’t attached to anything it’s pretty useless. Identity can be a key differentiator in the clamor for consumers’ attention.

Outdoor Brands’ Top Performers: Identity & Messaging Analysis

Patagonia and The North Face have been clawing at the top of the mountain together for years. Both brands have enormous recognition, innovative high-performing gear, tremendous quality, and loyal followers. As a Design Director evaluating the two brand identities side-by-side, I would argue from a pure design perspective, The North Face is the winner. The simple Helvetica typography coupled with the abstracted representation of half dome from Yosemite is classic design. I love it!

However, Patagonia has done a much better job amplifying their mission with clarity to consumers and therefore their logo means so much more than a quirky slab serif typeface with a silhouette of a mountain range. Seeing the Patagonia wordmark on a hat or shirt immediately makes me think of “Cause No Unnecessary Harm” or reminds me of their commitment to being an environmental company first that happens to make outdoor gear.

The North Face tagline, “Never Stop Exploring,” may be exciting but just doesn’t elicit the same emotions. Don’t get me wrong — I’m a super fan of both brands, but Patagonia stirs me and inspires me.

A quick visit to the home pages of both companies illustrates another powerful brand moment and how messaging and language can further build meaning into brand identity. The North Face features a fairly expected picture of an outdoor athlete clinging to a steep wall with the headline, “Athlete Tested, Expedition Proven.” Clearly a strong argument for quality and performance, but with so many brands meeting increasingly stringent metrics of performance I’m left asking, “So what?”

Take a quick trip to the Patagonia website and the home page has a stunning image of a dam with an equally sparse yet powerful headline, “The Dam Truth.” Clearly standing behind their mission you are left with no questions as to where the brand is going. It’s provocative and satisfies many consumers’ yearnings for more than just a coat that can measure up to being walloped by a snow storm. I’m hooked.

Outdoor Disruptors to Keep an Eye On

Beyond the titans of the outdoor industry, marketing disruptors are proving the new outdoor audience cares about having a good time and wants to look good doing it. The North Face’s expedition-tested jacket isn’t that important to this crew. Enter Poler. I ran across this band of camp vibe disruptors a few years ago. Their visual identity is fun, hand-drawn, and not entirely fixed. All their visual expressions amplify their mission — enjoying good camp vibes with your friends. They are essentially pushing lifestyle over performance and don’t take themselves too seriously when they claim, “The world’s highest standard of stuff.”

The Poler website is filled with lush photo essays of friends adventuring in the outdoors, on road trips, sitting around the campfire, or cooking bacon over the camp stove. There are no features with intrepid mountain climbers or surfers on colossal waves — the elite athlete doesn’t play in their brand visuals or their brand narrative.

As mission and meaning become ever more critical in the race toward differentiation and attention, new brands are beginning to enter the marketplace in less traditional ways. A few years ago a company in Utah held an event they dubbed a Questival. The event is a 24-hour adventure race with tasks like “watch a sunrise,” “catch a fish outdoors,” or “donate blood while wearing dracula teeth.” Cotopaxi, the company behind the endeavor, is something of a hybrid event company, gear company, non-profit partner, etc. They tout the tagline “gear for good” and 10% of all profits on the outdoor, adventure gear supports various causes around the globe.

The simple silhouette of a llama head serves as a great symbol for their Questival event as well as the company identity. The llama — a hardy pack animal from the mountainous regions of South America — helps communicate their commitment to global adventure and is imbued with so much more as the company moves forward with its mission of bringing people together for Questival events and doing good. A brightly colored backpack from Cotopaxi is much more than another highly performing piece of gear — it signals a lifestyle.

Ultimately, brand leaders and brand disruptors are showing us that marketing outdoor gear never goes out of style! The demand is high and consumers are hungry. Highly technical gear and quality continue to be valuable, but consumers are looking for more. A unique, differentiated identity is imperative — one that’s shaped around mission and brand pillars that carve out a unique space for the brand to own and amplify.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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Diet Coke’s Rebrand: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Article after article has praised Diet Coke for making this “bold” move. However, most fail to recognize the flawed strategy behind the design and potential dangers in some of their design and messaging decisions.

Diet Coke’s new look aims to attract health-conscious millennials by adding four new flavors, modernizing the typography of the Coke logo, adding color and illustrations to the package, and introducing a slimmer 12 oz. can.

Although the brand seems to have good intentions, Diet Coke misses the mark in our books. This is a classic example of a brand attempting to target a particular audience without really understanding said audience and using faux innovation to cover up gaps in their brand strategy.

The Good: What They Got Right

The move to a sleek, slimmer can heightens the illusion of a “diet” soda being a healthier choice. This move, reminiscent of Sparkling Ice, gives off a lighter, high-end feel. Additionally, in most of their messaging the brand leaves out the word “soda” completely. Reframing the brand as a sparkling beverage instead of a soda positions it to seem healthier and more adult-friendly. The brand seems to have taken a page right out of DRY Sparkling’s book with this move.

As we all know, bottled water sales now far outpace soda sales in the U.S. and sparkling water is rapidly approaching that milestone as well. Strategically introducing four new fruity flavors to the Diet Coke line potentially threatens to grab market share from millennial LaCroix lovers. Targeting this booming demographic – although not necessarily revolutionary – is a smart move. Millennials hold tremendous buying power, so it would be foolish for a brand to ignore this influence.

“From the vector illustrations to the ‘fresh’ new flavor names, they’re screaming at a Millennial and Gen Z audience saying, ‘Hey, remember Diet Coke, the original diet beverage? We’re not a normal soda, we’re a cool soda.’” – Kat Simpson, designer at Retail Voodoo

Unfortunately, we’re not sure those “hip” new flavors (like twisted mango) will be used for what Diet Coke intended. Instead, we feel they’re just one step away from partnering with Smirnoff. These “feisty” flavors scream college party mixer. From their messaging, it seems like they’re trying to give consumers “what they wanted.” but it feels more like they are trying to re-engage those consumers that have already grown out of the soda phase of life. Although we don’t see the new flavors being consumed in a way Diet Coke intended, we can see them being used a bit more than the classic flavor is being used currently. But hey, at least we can see the flavors being embraced on some level – even if it’s not the intended one.

The Bad: What They Got Wrong

In terms of identity, Diet Coke failed to meet our expectations. The design and messaging changes feel disjointed and misleading. The flavor illustrations feel like an afterthought and destroy the only interesting new element of the can: the stripe.

“You can start to believe that the reduction of graphics and exposed can is like wearing a bikini after a diet, but those illustrations stop any dreamy visions you have like that.” – Eric Wyttenbach, senior designer at Retail Voodoo

The flavor naming conventions try to be young but just seem confused (twisted mango, zesty blood orange, feisty cherry, ginger lime). What’s so feisty about cherry Coke? They really feel like party drinks, not healthy and refreshing alternative beverages. And although as we stated before, this might potentially give a bump in sales, it won’t be among the target demographic nor will these flavors expand Diet Coke’s reach into new realms as this redesign intended.

The Ugly: The Bottom Line

A pretty new package, strong advertising, and fun messaging might be enough to briefly drop Diet Coke back into this audience’s consideration set. But when this audience takes one look at the label and sees that aspartame is still present, they’ll place it back on shelf and avoid it like the plague.

“News flash: Millennials and Gen Y are label readers.” – David Lemley, founder & chief strategist at Retail Voodoo

Although messaging and design updates attempt to communicate health, the brand still uses the harmful ingredients that repelled these consumers in the first place. Ultimately, Millennials will never replace their LaCroix (or any sparkling water for that matter) with soda.“This feels like a disingenuous move driven by a desire to pander to younger audiences and health-conscious consumers, but I predict both audiences will see through it and shun the can as a poser.” – Jacob Carter, design director at Retail Voodoo

Diet Coke’s VP of marketing is quoted in AdAge as saying that they didn’t want to change the formula for fear of risking their current loyal audience. They ignore the fact that nutrition and ingredient labels are important to most young people. Looking on-trend doesn’t matter when the product is full of unhealthy ingredients. If Diet Coke really wanted to make a bold move, they would have removed aspartame fully.

Diet Coke’s redesign is a prime example of why diet soda sales continue to fall. Brands focus on the exterior appearance of their products without addressing the real issues lurking beneath the surface.

Diana Fryc

For Diana, a fierce determination to pursue what’s right is rooted in her DNA. The daughter of parents who endured unimaginable hardship before emigrating from Eastern Europe to the U.S., she is built for a higher purpose. Starting with an experience working with Jane Goodall to source sustainably made paper, she went on to a career helping Corporate America normalize the use of environmentally responsible products and materials before coming to Retail Voodoo.

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The “Old” Versus “New” Design Language of Healthy Brands

Up until the last several years, there was a specific formula for the package design of natural and healthy food products. The target market of conscious consumers was small and looked for a very particular set of design cues to signal the niche natural food category.

However, nowadays, these brands are making healthy living more accessible to the average consumer. The claim of all-natural or organic is no longer a differentiator because it’s all over the shelves. Natural is no longer a luxury – it’s an expectation.

So, how do brands redesign their brands and packaging to stand out among these cluttered shelves of sameness? As the target market has expanded and evolved, so has the design language. These new cues speak to consumers in new, disruptive ways. For the brands not speaking this language fluently yet, it’s time to make some bold changes and reimagine the way they communicate their product’s benefits on-shelf.

Bob’s Red Mill vs. Lark Ellen Farm

Bob’s Red Mill used to scream healthy. Only the stereotypical health nuts would go straight for their bags when they saw them on-shelf. Now, it just screams outdated and makes you feel like it has been sitting on the shelves for a few months. The natural colors now feel dull and flavorless. The picture of the elderly Bob used to signify longevity, now it translates to all of the negative connotations of the word old. Instead of thinking, “Wow, if I eat this, I’ll grow to be that old someday,” people think, “Wow, only old people eat this.” Quaker Oats went through a large rebrand to make their mascot Larry appear younger for this exact same reason.

Bob’s Red Mill used to signal healthiness because it had a lot of information all in one place. The cluttered design and small text told the consumer there was a lot of health talk going on. With all those words, they must know what they’re doing – right?

For a consumer who is not naturally inclined to pick up a healthy product, this high density of information on-package can be a huge deterrent. It triggers the thought, “I don’t have the time to learn about this!” so they just grab the comfortable, unhealthy brand that doesn’t make them read or think too much. More modern natural brands have positioned themselves now to be far less overwhelming. To show their transparency and the simplicity of their ingredients, they don’t make consumers work to get the answers or information they need. It’s a reduction in information and increase in simplicity that communicates benefit and lifestyle clearly in-store.

Lark Ellen is the perfect example of this level of simplification. They have three clearly marked areas of information – the most important ones being readable from a few feet away. It also helps that it feels bright and lively while maintaining a healthy vibe. The hand-drawn ingredients contrasted with the window to the real ingredients shows whimsy and transparency. The playfulness of the illustrations is an invitation rather than a distraction.

Lay’s Natural vs. Uglies

You see the Lay’s logo, and you immediately think unhealthy. It’s hard for the brand to have any semblance of health because of its reputation for salty, fatty snacks. The illustrated farmland in the background originally signaled to any shopper it was more natural than the usual, regular old chip. Showing cues of farmers or farmland is one of the oldest tricks in the “Make This Product Look Natural” handbook. However, that’s about it. The packaging differentiated the natural product from the traditional just enough. Nowadays, health-conscious consumers skim over this package—it blends into the product line and doesn’t offer any value besides “natural-ish.”

Uglies, on the other hand, educates the consumer through creative copy and visual storytelling as to the value of the product beyond just a chip. Many natural products originally look funky and weird before they’re manicured for consumption. It used to be common practice to hide this by showing the prettiest, most perfect chip on the package, which left the concept of authenticity at the wayside. But now, there’s this celebration of ugly. That’s why this packaging works so well. It’s embracing natural for what it is and finding joy in telling that “imperfect” story. Not only that, but it also promotes the reduction of food waste and makes ugly food more appealing to the average consumer. The simple colors, unique typography, and cute illustrations work together to communicate a trial-worthy product.

Adams vs. Wild Friends

Adams—western, wild, natural. The gradations of color and old western style typography gave you a sense of nostalgia to simpler times. When this packaging was designed, the big “100% Natural” probably jumped out at customers from the shelf. Now, we just expect to see that label. Most consumers hardly even notice it.

In stark contrast to that aesthetic, Wild Friends nut butters jump from the shelf into the consumer’s cart because of the vibrant colors and friendly illustrations. It makes the customer feel youthful and playful. There’s an immediate whimsical feel when you view this packaging. Whimsy is a cue many natural brands use to help consumers understand they can feel good about what they eat while also having it taste great.

It’s uplifting – you can tell by the craft design cues that whoever makes this product feels a sense of pride in their product. Wild Friends tells their origin story upfront in a relatable way. This squirrel acts as a mascot of clean, delicious nut butters and leaves an emotional (and therefore long-lasting) impression on consumers.

Mountain House vs. Patagonia Provisions

Mountain House was one of the first brands to pioneer the category that answered the consumer need for portable, practical, and tasty backpacking food. At the time, they had a great idea. They put beautiful photos of a place anyone would love to set up a campsite, large and prominent on the front. It was all about the activity of the consumer and did not say too much about the product itself or the lifestyle associated with it.

As this category of packaged goods continues to expand to accommodate a wider audience of backpackers and people looking for more from their snacks, Patagonia has stepped up to the plate. Being a premium brand known for having a triple bottom line and a deep understanding of their consumers, Provisions was a natural brand extension for them to move into a new outdoor category: food. They come with a promise—one they don’t have to shout from the package because they use purity of color and youthfulness to communicate it. The vintage style illustrations and simple typography communicate the natural and pure elements of their food, rather than drool-worthy photos of mountains. In the case of Patagonia Provisions, if you took the Patagonia name and logo off the package, their packaging looks like a kick-starter, “the food chain needs fixing,” kind of brand. It harkens back the same feeling you get when you look at something from the Audubon society, but with more joy and celebration about the ingredients.

The natural category used to rely on complex packaging. It needed to scream “outdoors” or “natural” or “healthy” from the shelf, and need to explain itself far more than it does now. And as the natural sector has evolved, so have the design cues. Healthy and natural foods have become far more accessible to the average customer, which means the packaging must speak on that same wavelength. Simplicity translates to transparency and makes information easy to understand and find. Bright and vibrant colors evoke joyful feelings of youth and vitality. Illustrations and unique typography show how the product amplifies and enhances the consumer’s lifestyle. And finally, this concept of a celebration of natural builds an emotional bond with the consumer and feels extremely authentic. Understanding these changes and anticipating the next evolution of design will keep your brand ahead of the curve in the healthy food category.

Diana Fryc

For Diana, a fierce determination to pursue what’s right is rooted in her DNA. The daughter of parents who endured unimaginable hardship before emigrating from Eastern Europe to the U.S., she is built for a higher purpose. Starting with an experience working with Jane Goodall to source sustainably made paper, she went on to a career helping Corporate America normalize the use of environmentally responsible products and materials before coming to Retail Voodoo.

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Making the Most Out of Your Trade Show Investment

While the benefits of participating in trade events are well-documented, trade shows can be an expensive investment. Standing out and delivering a memorable impression on the floor at Expo WestFancy Foods, or even Outdoor Retailer can seem daunting. And yes, the pressure to deliver on ROI goals – while ever-present – can be elusive at best. As a strategic consulting firm and long-time attendee of these shows, we’ve seen a lot and learned a lot over the years. Through it all, we’ve emerged with a point-of-view on how to get the most out of these investments.

Before we dig in, a little context might be helpful. It’s hard to argue with the efficiency of these events. The ability to meet in person with current and future buyers, suppliers, and team members from around the country makes for a powerful argument to attend. That said, I’ve yet to meet a CMO or brand owner that doesn’t wish they had “just a little deeper pocket,” or more time, or just a few more resources in which to compete. Since many exhibitors are smaller (think 10×20-foot size booths), private meeting space is a premium and often these brands don’t have the budget to update their appearance as frequently as they would like. It goes without saying, show floors are crowded with high competition for attention and attendee quality can be mixed (more samplers than buyers). Okay, so what’s the big reveal?

To Quote Simon Sinek, “Start with Why”

Why does your company exist? What are you solving for and how do you deliver tangible solutions? Once you know your “why,” your team can confidently talk about your brand, what you do, and how you make a difference. After dozens (if not hundreds) of conversations later, we’ve learned that exhibitors’ needs can be distilled down to just a few key things:

Make progress with existing accounts – That means writing business, connecting face-to-face, getting in front of issues and problems, uncovering new/future opportunities, and connecting socially to further solidify relationships. Foster these connections by reaching out before the trade show and having conversations to better understand their mission and vision.

Open new accounts – Nothing is more important to the company and gratifying to salespeople as opening new accounts. Sales leadership needs to set goals, acknowledge progress, and celebrate the wins.

Encourage team building and support – With sales reps distributed around the country, trade shows become an economical way to get everybody in the same room. These events are a chance to align teams on strategy, current product, and service talking points. This knowledge-sharing and dose of camaraderie all make for a well-functioning sales organization.

The other stuff – Trade shows are a great opportunity for assessing competition, identifying trends, and taking advantage professional education and development opportunities. While you’re at it, be sure to schedule time to get out of the booth to engage in panel discussions, lectures, and networking events. Stop by the press office to distribute any press releases, and encourage reporters to stop by your booth. Leverage social media (especially Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn) – most conferences have a specific hashtag you can track – to contribute to discussions and hot topics at the conference. Participating in these ways establishes you as a leader in your category.

The Basic Block and Tackle

Determine who you’re targeting and set your goals – Who are your best customers and your most desired prospects? Media, brokers/distributors, and other industry analysts should also make this list. Knowing who you’re for and who you’re not is a critical step in being efficient with your time and message. And if it isn’t obvious, capturing leads is why you’re here. Whether you use a lead retrieval device or the traditional pen and paper method, having a system you know you can rely on is very important.

Plan your engagement strategy pre-event, onsite, and post-event – Start early by defining your selling strategy and key messaging, and researching trends and competitors. It’s important to engage marketing early in the planning process as well. Start with the company website, blog, social channels, and email. Establish campaign cadence pre-event, during the event, and after. Empower your sales reps to be social by equipping them with content they can post online throughout the event.

Get your story baked (not fried) – It’s important to remember the value of a good first impression. Everybody on the floor needs to be on the same page. I’m often surprised of the lack of basic product information and the amount of inconsistency between salespeople at the same booth. Remember your “why,” and be proficient with your product and service talking points.

Invite interaction and make your booth approachable – Duh…Your booth strategy, design, layout, and messaging all need to work in harmony to attract your prospect, engage the uninformed, position your offering, and above all, set the table for a selling conversation. According to CEIR (Center for Exhibit Industry Research), 80% of what visitors remember the most about their visit to a booth is their interaction with the exhibit staff. Keep it simple and make it easy. And lest we forget, a well-designed booth has back-of-house function as well. From storing inventory to creating conversation spaces, smart booth design is worth the investment.

Ask for feedback – An accurate assessment of a prospect’s “intent to act” is everything. Beyond a typical qualifying conversation, if you can get attendees to fill out a quick survey, that data could prove invaluable. You can learn important information about the buyers in your industry, and also get a better understanding of why and how attendees come to these types of events. You’ll walk away with benchmark data, allowing you to make better informed decisions in the future. Also, your new customers will see that you care about their feedback – further improving their experience with your company.

Follow up with leads – It’s shocking: according to CEIR, 87% of leads captured at trade shows are not followed up on properly. Plan ahead to make sure you have a good process in place to follow up with leads. It is important that you follow up as soon as possible after the show so that your prospect feels valued and remains engaged.

Integrate and activate your social platforms at the event – There are only two forms of marketing that take place in real time — events and social media. Take full advantage of your event and combine the two to optimize exposure and extend your reach far beyond the trade show’s doors. There are many ways for you to interact on social media during your event. Here a few ideas:

  • Think of a memorable hashtag to create a buzz around your booth and encourage feedback from those that stop by. Include it on display material so that everyone sees it. Attendees will feel more involved in your brand, therefore increasing favorable relationships and loyalty.
  • Tweet to guests that have stopped by your booth with a simple thank you or nice to meet you to keep the conversation going after they walk away. This makes them feel special and appreciated – creating organic evangelists for your brand.
  • Highlight those that won a game or raffle at your booth to strengthen connections and get other attendees excited about stopping by.
  • Search Twitter to find individuals tweeting at the event and encourage them to come stop by your booth (in a human, non-marketer voice).

Other things to remember – Exploit opportunities for pre-show publicity. There are lots of overlooked ways companies can promote themselves before they even get to a show. It’s worth investigating publicity options across pre-show media and marketing material, social networking, sponsorship, speaking opportunities, and show floor activities. This will help drive traffic to your stand and encourage relevant attendees to seek you out.

In addition, the shows I mentioned earlier all have sponsorship packages to maximize your company’s exposure to qualified decision makers. These onsite marketing opportunities may include advertising in the program guide, award submissions and winners presentations, hosting user group meetings, participating in short course presentations, or sponsoring exhibition giveaways.

Start early, employ these strategies and tactics, eat right and get enough sleep. A trade show may seem daunting to some and trivial to others. But if you follow these recommendations, I’m confident you’ll get the most out of your trade show investment and see a ROI you can take pride in.

Diana Fryc

For Diana, a fierce determination to pursue what’s right is rooted in her DNA. The daughter of parents who endured unimaginable hardship before emigrating from Eastern Europe to the U.S., she is built for a higher purpose. Starting with an experience working with Jane Goodall to source sustainably made paper, she went on to a career helping Corporate America normalize the use of environmentally responsible products and materials before coming to Retail Voodoo.

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Using Values to Differentiate & Define Your Brand

Brand values impact relationships and reputation – two key business assets that are earned (rather than bought). When the marketplace is cluttered and consumers have tiny attention spans, brands must bring something more valuable to customers than their product or service. They must connect with consumers through shared principles.

Ethos can best be described as beliefs and behaviors that advance an ideology. Brands, just like people, have values they hold near and dear to their hearts. These principles form the reasons that brands exist.

In our profit-driven world, many brands consider emulating values as an afterthought. It’s easy for leaders to have tunnel vision focusing on the bottom line instead of turning their eyes internally to reflect on the company’s original mission. But just as the marketplace changes, the consumer changes. The individuals with the highest spending power care less about the “what” or the “how” and more on the “why.”

Brand values influence two important business assets:

1. Relationships build loyal customers and organic brand ambassadors

Relationships are built on trust, and trust is built on delivering on your promise. In our overcrowded marketplace, points of difference that are function- and future-based are no longer sustainable. Consumers today are tuning out marketing and tuning into those brands that represent shared values.

2. Reputation forms the basis of an enduring brand legacy

Reputation revolves around respect and legacy – both are earned, rather than bought. This highlights the importance of companies putting values first rather than profits. Since many companies fail to do this, a brand that excels at earning respect and creating a meaningful legacy will earn a stellar reputation.

Clifford Geertz, arguably the godfather of cultural anthropology, put it this way: Ethos and worldview describe how cultures create a seamless, unified system. The ethos, which is an understanding of how we should act in the world, is supported by the worldview, which is our picture of how the world really is, and vice versa.

In a sense, ethos and worldview are what differentiate one culture from another, and it is the culture that traditionally gives individuals their definition of self, who they are, what they believe, and how they should act.

Let’s take REI for an example of an ethos-driven company. Through equipping customers (and employees) for adventure, REI promotes a love of the outdoors and stewardship of nature. REI is an employee-centric operation meaning they attribute the success of their company to their workers and offer incentives for them to live out the brand promise of engaging with nature. These values translate into happy and passionate employees, which then permeates every aspect of their business to create a strong, loyal customer base.

When employees live out brand values, those principles naturally translate to the right customers.

Patagonia thrives by wearing its ethos on its sleeve as well. The company’s Common Threads initiative converted people into customers based on the shared desire to do more with less. Leading with “reduce, repair, reuse, recycle, reimagine,” they speak to consumers’ interest in sustainability and doing good for the planet. It is aspirational and inspirational. They even launched an e-commerce recycled clothing site called Worn Wear to encourage a “sharing is caring” mentality. Not only does this subtly remind consumers that their high-quality products last a lifetime and commitment to sustainability, but it also encourages storytelling around the adventures the brand equipped.

Ethos-based brands value their purpose more than their profits. They eliminate a sales-first culture and focus on things money can’t buy. They live their convictions, rather than conform to the convictions of the marketplace.

Ethos-driven brands listen more, and market less. They elevate the quality of life for their cult followers.

Shared values form the basis for all relationships. Wherever we go in business, and in life, we bring our own values along. When others share our values, this becomes a powerful and attractive force to bind us closer together. Enlightened brand owners realize that in our busy days, most of us have little time for things and people that don’t really matter to us.

For brands to matter, the customer must believe the brand is bringing something more valuable to them than the money they spend.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

Connect with David