Is your nutrition brand a commodity, or is it a category winner? Packaging makes all the difference, an expert says.

Written for Nutritional Outlook

Competing in the explosive nutritional supplement category is difficult enough. Without a compelling brand strategy, one that woos customers via your packaging, you’re fighting with both hands tied behind your back.

Powders, tablets, gummies: any product you can make can be made and sold for less by a competing brand or private label. Search “protein powder” on Amazon, and you’ll find 5,000+ results. There’s so much swirl in this space that it’s hard for any individual brand to gain notice.

A “Capital-B” brand can help you compete online and on shelf in the red-hot world of dietary supplements and natural products. And the way you tell your story, within the confines and rules that govern packaging in this category, can elevate you above commodity to “beloved and dominant” status.

Brand Is More than Ingredient or Form

Many marketers in this space conflate product and brand. But a brand is so much more than the product—ingredients or health benefits or diet trends. Your brand isn’t a powder or a pill. Rather, your brand is this: your promise and the way that you keep it.

So many brands in this category lean on flavors (tastes like a milkshake!), attributes (grass-fed collagen!), and ingredients (live probiotics!). But it’s easy for leaner, hungrier companies to introduce those same kinds of products. Soon, everyone starts competing on price, retailers drop the poor performers, and consumers aren’t loyal to any particular brand.

When your brand stands for something—it empowers the consumer or changes the world or rights a wrong—it becomes competitor- and future-proof. It can withstand changing consumer whims or dietary trends, because people who buy the brand love it and stay loyal no matter what. A strategic foundation enables the brand to innovate without risk, gain the upper hand in retail relationships, and attract an audience who feels the brand belongs to them (and vice versa).

When your brand story is your key competitive advantage, it’s essential to leverage that story where your customers are most likely to see it: on your packaging.

Telling Your Story on Packaging

The retail shelf—both digital and physical—is likely the first (maybe only) place a shopper will meet your brand. In a crowded environment where your labels have to work extra hard to communicate a litany of information, knowing what’s important to consumers—and what can be subordinated to the back panel—can give you an advantage that creates white space in your brand block.

Brand blocking is essential in a category populated by packages (bottles or boxes) that are uniformly shaped and sized. When your product lives on a shelf you don’t control in an environment you don’t control, a unified collection of products grouped together on the shelf creates a billboard for the brand that allows people to navigate the product offering easily.

Brand blocking happens at the outer level of the “30-10-3 Rule” of packaging design, which holds that a consumer product package has three key moments at which to engage a consumer, whether in store or online. At 30 feet, it needs to define the category; at 10 feet, it needs to make the brand name and story known; and at 3 feet, it has the opportunity to whisper in the consumer’s ear.

In the naturals and nutritional supplements category, there’s a ton of information required on packaging—so the 30-10-3 Rule establishes an accessible hierarchy. Remember, brand blocking’s role is to capture the shopper’s attention within the context of the category, not to identify her specific need/want/flavor/ingredient.

Living Intentions is an example of a natural product line that uses the 30-10-3 Rule very effectively to help consumers understand that activated foods (made from sprouted and raw ingredients) and superfoods help people live more vibrant, healthier lives. The brand’s packaging balances the most compelling points on the primary display panel and relegates everything that requires an explanation to the back of pack. The design uses simple icons to communicate complex concepts like bioavailability, live enzymes, minimal processing.

Photo provided by Retail Voodoo

Design for Online

For online brands like You Are The Anser!, packaging has to look great in the digital realm—on the plain white background of an Amazon search page, on the brand’s own website, and on Instagram. While You Are The Anser! has its own direct-to-consumer platform where storytelling wins the day, the brand effectively disrupts the Amazon shelf with design cues that might feel more at home in a salon. This does two things quickly: It invites inspection and demystifies the features and benefits by making them simple, uniform, and iconic.

Wedderspoon is another wellness brand that plays perfectly online. The authentic raw Manuka honey products look like gourmet food items, while many of the brand’s competitors more closely resemble vitamin supplement products. The brand created a proprietary “KFactor” label that specifies the product’s sourcing, a label that goes beyond industry standards for origin and purity. That marker stands out in a sea of competing products in an online search for “Manuka honey.” Finer details shift from the primary display panel to other areas (lid, back, and sides) so as to not break a golden rule in CPG: Design informs price.

Photo provided by Retail Voodoo

In e-commerce, design language is more important than size of your logo, because people search by category (e.g., collagen peptide, ashwagandha, or protein bar) and filter by brand. And unless your brand has already made a compelling promise to them, they will likely shop on price and or user review.

Be Just Enough Different

As marketers, we’ve done a great job of educating customers about what a product category should look like. Women’s nutritional supplements feature pink or purple graphics, maybe a flower, or a white background to signal purity. Protein powders aimed at men come in black or dark-gray tubs with gym-style lettering. Kids’ gummy vitamins are packaged in whimsical and bright colors.

Category norms like these help shoppers narrow down their choices—but also create a sea of sameness on shelf and online. So, there’s a balancing act here, between similar and standout. It’s important to match the contemporary visual lexicon of the nutritional products category—that 30-foot level—and at the same time to step to the forefront. That’s how brands become disruptive at retail.

A comprehensive category audit can provide stark evidence of where your brand lives in the space. As you’re searching for this balance, envision a grid with axes labeled “Good” and “Different.” Look for that sweet spot where you’re just enough different from every other brand.

As more and more consumers seek products that can help them live healthy lives, nutrition and wellness brands will inevitably keep flooding the market. Most of those won’t really be brands at all—just products with features and benefits. A compelling brand story, told strategically on packaging that plays in digital and real-world spaces, will separate the winners from the commodities.

David Lemley, author of the new book, Beloved & Dominant Brands, has had a creative and strategic hand in shaping some of the world’s most iconic brands including Starbucks, REI, Pampers, Sahale Snacks, Kar’s, and Nintendo. As the founder and chief strategist of Seattle-based Retail Voodoo, David is on a mission to help better-for-you brands win customer’s hearts, minds, and souls. He partners with marketers, investors, and founder-owners to unlock the power of their brand’s promise to engage consumers, spark innovation, identify opportunity, and drive exponential growth. David has spoken and written for: National Retail Federation, BevNet, BrandPackaging, Adweek, and Nutritional Outlook, to name a few. Contact him: david@retail-voodoo.com

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Founder, President, & Chief Strategist
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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