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.

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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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