We often say that package design is like curating your online persona: Everyone knows that there’s a messy life that goes on behind the idealized, perfect story you’re sharing on Instagram … but nobody’s got time for that.
The same goes for food and beverage brands. There’s so much that happens behind the scenes in your business — ingredient sourcing, cost analysis, manufacturing, channel strategy. But when the consumer pulls your brand into their life, they don’t think about those parts. They think about the more polished story and how it aligns with their interests.
In packaging design, the challenge becomes how to share what your brand’s all about in an authentic way. How do you do packaging in a way that doesn’t feel like you’re thirsty or a clone of another brand in your category?
Top Packaging Design Priority: Declutter
Like basements, packages tend to get cluttered over time. Strategic foundational work before the design process can help inform the messaging hierarchy and establish which communications and visuals should be first in placement priority. Establishing a mission statement, identifying your current and future audience, and other strategy exercises will naturally help you choose one simple thing you want to say first and then organize information from there in order of importance.
As the number of ingredient claims, benefits, and certifications increases, you need to decide which are important to your values and your audience’s. Where do those interests overlap? Everything else either goes on the back of the pack or goes away entirely.
For example, we’ve had many conversations with marketers about the vegan label. The truth of the matter is that the term has become political, not just a diet. People who adhere to the diet know how to sniff out vegan products; if you’re aiming for a wider universe, it’s best to make the word ‘vegan’ discoverable on the back.
The work we did for Hilary’s is an example of grouping elements and simplifying design in order to speak more clearly to consumers at retail — both in digital channels and IRL. Through strategy and research, we refocused their messaging to get back to living their mission to heal the American diet through sustainable farming, alternative grains, and plant-based protein. We helped them pivot away from strictly appeasing the vegan crowd, which helped simplify messaging and organize visual elements. By grouping icons into more digestible pods of information, the new package stands out on shelf.
Think of Your Package as a Poster
What’s the one thing that you want consumers to see from your brand as they’re scrolling their feeds, clicking through products on Instacart, or walking the grocery aisle? What will make your brand’s presence so charismatically attractive that consumers will feel compelled to go discover it?
Your package is like a poster in that it has to communicate from both far away and up close.
When we design a food or beverage pack, we follow our 30-10-3 Rule. What does your package say from 30 feet away? Is it sufficiently bold to speak from across the room and does it clearly signal product category? From 10 feet away is there a brand message or visual? Once I’m within 3 feet, am I rewarded and enticed to pick up the package because of the visual appetite appeal and the features and benefits?
A thoughtful brand strategy helps you make informed decisions about how to sequence information and how to present it to the consumer. Again, look at where the values of the brand and the consumer intersect. Those are your communication and design priorities.
Sahale Snacks is an example of a brand that works great as a poster at retail. For this premium snack company, we developed a palette of bright, rich colors and simple typography to establish an appealing, energetic personality. From 30 feet away, the shopper immediately spots the color on the shelf. From 10 feet away, the incredibly detailed, close-up product photography says all you need to know about the quality ingredients and the way the nuts are wrapped in glazed deliciousness. At 3 feet the consumer sees detailed notes about flavor profiles and the “snack better” promise. The brand backstory, product descriptions, and certification logos … they’re all on the back of the pack.
Take Category Cues into Account
There are visual tropes on packaging within each industry category, whether you are selling ice cream, snacks, or canned vegetables. In order to achieve visual pop at shelf, you need to find the right balance between embracing some of the common cues in the category while disrupting other expected norms. A robust shelf audit and analysis before design will help identify these important commonalities within a category and inform the creative brief.
There’s a constant tug-o-war between disruption and category cues. Finding the right balance is important. Behave as people expect, but then zag in a way that makes you stand out. The more you as a brand believe and live your values, the easier it is to defy category conventions; if you do that and have no values, it’s just strange.
In the ice cream category, for example, most packages include a photo of a scoop or bowl of ice cream. Halo Top, a low-calorie ice cream offering, dispensed with any images of the ice cream in favor of an enormous silhouette of an ice cream scoop with the calorie count featured larger than the brand name. The design treatment is a smart translation for a young female audience looking for a fun, alternative ice cream choice that also has a low calorie count.
The Final Packaging Details
Good hierarchy helps with shopability and legibility. Your goal is for consumers to be able to quickly understand what makes your product different. Good strategy in combination with smart design will help you organize and prioritize visual and text elements.
Unlike the online influencer who creates a fake veneer of their life, great food and beverage packaging is authentic enough to be relatable, informative enough to be useful, and personable enough to be attractive to consumers.