Competition is fierce in the beverage world, whether it’s soft drinks, beer, wine or spirits. Today more than ever, we’re living in time-deficit, habit-driven routines. As a result, food shopping – whether online or in store – is seldom considered to be a leisure activity. Instead, it’s one of life’s necessities, another task on a long list of ‘to-do’s’. Yet today’s consumers are arguably more considerate shoppers too; weighing up value for money versus taste; the tried and tested product against the temptation of trying something new.
For agencies working in this sector, creative work needs to grab the attention of the consumer throughout all necessary touch points, but particularly on the shelf. “We focus on the pack looking amazing, new and different.” says Leigh Chandler, partner and creative director at New York agency Vault49. “This elicits the consumer’s need to reward themselves – and we love that sometimes people buy for the pack itself, and taste appeal comes second.”
Focusing on creative strategy, innovative ideas and stand-out execution, mainly for alcoholic beverages company Diageo and new-to-world brands, Chandler aims to push boundaries of what’s possible. “When they founded Vault49, John Glasgow and Jonathan Kenyon were street artists, and the bold, disruptive artistry of that kind of work is a huge part of what we do. Nearly two decades later, we’re still fired up by that same dedication to hard work, collaboration, and a positive creative culture,” she says.
What makes Vault49 unique is its inhouse studio of artists, illustrators and typographers. “Other agencies outsource these specialisms, but we keep talent in house because it gives us greater control over the output, says Chandler. “We can also bring ideas to life more efficiently, taking clients along that journey.”
A fully collaborative environment means that there can be as many as six designers all contributing their own specialism to one project. With all these different minds and talents on the task, you might think there could be a risk of repetition, but Chandler says it couldn’t be further from the truth. “We’re always bringing something unique to the brand and unique to the space, in response to unique consumer insights and needs. If we do this, then no two projects will ever be the same.”
While the studio has always had a sweet spot for food and drink, it was an opportunity to design a limited edition bottle of Baileys that gave the studio its first testing ground. “We grew the account because we asked the right questions and delivered delightful work,” says Chandler. “Now we’re one of its agencies of record, designing its entire portfolio of LE Ps and innovations and from there, we grew out our consumer goods client list.”
In an age of too much choice, great branding can give a product the edge on shelf and get noticed faster, says Steph Oglesby, design director at Leeds-based design agency Robot Food. “Brands need meaning and depth – a beating heart that consumers can engage and relate with. After all, we all choose products that fit our values and lifestyle choices.”
Working almost exclusively with food and drink brands, Robot Food prides itself on its mixed aesthetic. “It’s never a one-size-fits-all approach. The benefit of a studio of our size means we’re super agile and can tailor an approach to suit, shaping and adapting our process to work effectively for each brief.”
Oglesby believes that understanding the category you’re working in and the competition is key. “We like to draw our inspiration from far and wide, which allows us to change the narrative within a category and let our brands stand apart from their peers. Our recent work on the Fuego Spice Co. is a great example of this – utilising premium semiotics and a sophisticated design aesthetic that challenged the typically novelty hot sauce market with an elevated product that’s worth paying a little bit more for.”
With only seconds to win over a consumer, design goes a long way in decision making. So how can strong food packaging persuade a consumer to choose one product over another?
“Brands need meaning and depth – a beating heart that consumers can engage and relate with”
STEPH OGLES BY ROBOT FOOD
“A brand must live and breathe its values for consumers to truly believe in it”
Helen Hartley Elmwood
“I think there are two important things that persuasive packaging design should do,” says Chandler. “Disrupt and stand out to catch consumers attention. Sometimes it’s about being simpler or more minimal, sometimes about shouting louder and being more maximalist. It all depends on the category in which you’re looking to stand out.” Chandler also believes brands should ‘delight up close’. “Think crafted imperfections and surprising details that make a consumer fall in love with what they’re holding,” she explains.
Brand owners need to understand if or not their assets are iconic. Are they creating memorable products that catch the shopper’s eye, or just relying on hackneyed packaging ideas. Elmwood’s creative director Helen Hartley says that it’s not so much a case of one product over another, more of one brand over another.
“You want to drive brand advocacy, because a focus on product tends to drive you to price,” Hartley says. “Look at the added value in a brand like Heck. It’s more than a pack of sausages because of the intrinsic common values it possesses. A brand must live and breathe its values for consumers to truly believe in it.”
To create something authentic for the limited edition Smirnoff Spicy Tamarind, the Vault49 team travelled to Mexico to immerse themselves in the culture surrounding the Day of the Dead festival. Photos and inspiration were gained first hand rather than from Google or Pinterest.
“We didn’t hold back on the design. We took a leap with the concept and executed in a collaged maximal style that was new and fresh, unlike anything we’ve ever seen,” says Chandler, who worked with the in-house production team at Diageo to layer in inks that respond to black light “During the night in bars, it takes on a completely different feel. It’s original and manages to capture the essence of our work as an agency while also being unique to the brand.”
London-based branding design agency & SMITH launched in 2007 by ex-Pentagram employees Rachel Smith and Dan Bernstein. Its main focus is branding for hotels, food and drink, covering a range of disciplines from packaging to restaurant branding, hotel signage and brand experiences. Designing packaging ranges for their existing clients was a natural extension of their brand work.
“We loved these ‘own brand’ packaging projects, and they stood out in our portfolio enough for new clients to take a chance on us with their packaging design.” reveals & SMITH creative partner Rachel Smith. “It’s all about relationships at the end of the day, and we got on really well with our first few packaging clients.”
When approaching a branding project, you need to understand the market, the competition, the opportunity and the audience. For & SMITH, its work is all approached from the same ideas-led angle, although one difference with food packaging is remembering how long you have to catch someone’s attention. “We’ve been working on some ice cream recently and we have to remember that this aisle is freezing so people hang around for even less time, and also the freezer door can mist up once it’s open,” explains Smith. “You have to adjust your design to take all of this into account.”
Over at Elmwood, its process is always one of collaboration with the client and the team from the beginning, working with a client to build the journey of the brand and understanding the business challenge.
“We base our creative thinking on consumer insights, wider world societal trends and brand truths,” says Hartley. “Our recent project with Yushoi, a range of Japanese-inspired snacks, brought this approach to life. We started with an insight: that’s there’s a conflict in the idea of ‘healthy snacking’. By contrast, Yushoi offered a unique product: better for you but at the same time, offering consumers complex layers of intense flavours.”
Working closely with the client, Hartley’s team developed an idea to visualise the intense flavours of the brands, resulting in intensely colourful illustrations. “By following Japanese design principles, we applied these to a cool black background for consistent brand blocking to stand out in a chaotic supermarket environment.”
Robot Food was recently approached by traditional family run bakery, Bells of Lazonby, to build a new brand for its innovative new vegan cake slices. “From our initial workshop, what struck a chord was the company’s wealth of knowledge and expertise within the free-from sector, as well as its undoubted passion for baking and creating the best quality products,” says Oglesby.
Creating a blueprint for the brand that defined it as the ‘Masters of the art form’, Robot Food took a close look at the competitors and found an aisle full of worthy brands with no distinguishable features and labels that were full of restrictions. Oglesby and her team quickly spotted an opportunity. “We were able to tap into a consumer need that other brands missed. One of maximum indulgence and minimum compromise, removing the boundaries of ‘free-from’ to transcend categories and rewrite the rules of indulgence.”
Positioning the brand around a ‘taste experience’, the team looked outside of the category, taking cues from the world of premium indulgence to create a new language within the free-from aisles. This led to developing its creative proposition ‘The Unexpected.’ “For this particular project, the first point of call was creating a name and aesthetic that lived up to the taste experience and emphasised the multi-layered aspect of the product. The name ‘Bells and Whistles’ delivered everything we needed and more. Just like the cakes, the focus is on what goes in, not what’s left out.”
With a proud nod to its heritage and parent brand Bells of Lazonby, without being harnessed to the past, the name firmly sets the brand up for a progressive future ahead, explains Oglesby. “Black and white creates stand out on busy shelves and signals a premium proposition. It provided us with a canvas for the brands to explore the idea of artistry and show off the decadent cakes themselves, illustrating the abundance of ingredients packed into each slice with a sprinkling of extra touches.”
For many of us, the experience of buying food is an emotional one – and sometimes ritualistic. We browse the aisles, identifying the brands we’re familiar with, filling our shopping trolley almost on auto-pilot without giving too much thought to why we pick one brand over another. Are these decisions driven by familiarity or hard wired in our psyche or is something else going on?
“Ninety five per cent of decisions are driven by our non-conscious, but clients are spending practically 100 per cent of their research budget on things that only influence five per cent of purchasing decisions,” says Hartley. “Implicit memory is important – together with the category codes and semiotics – by using all the senses to trigger human emotion. It’s an emotional response you need to elicit from people. That means embracing the notion that the experience of buying food is an emotional one, and then using all the design principles.”
Ultimately, consumers are looking for brands that enhance their lives, whether that’s best in taste, convenience, quick fix, health or shareability, says Caroline Dilloway, client services director at London-based brand design consultancy StormBrands. “Food packaging should make it easy for consumers to understand the role that brand will play to make their lives better.”
Vault49 loves to wow clients and create disruptive design, working with a range of techniques like handcrafted illustration, intricate detailing, and cutting-edge execution. “With Baileys, for example, we always strive to achieve ‘lick the bottle deliciousness’ on every pack we design. Everything is handcrafted in a way that resembles the world of treats and desserts, using techniques such as drizzling, dusting and marbling,” says Chandler.
“Other times, we focus on the pack looking amazing, new, and different,” she continues. “This elicits the consumer’s need to reward themselves – and we love that sometimes people buy for the pack itself, and taste appeal comes second. Baileys is very different to Smirnoff, which is very different to [energy drink] Runa, but all of the designs create an emotional connection. Optimism and generating joy is in our DNA.”
“Food packaging should make it easy for consumers to understand the role that brand will play to make their lives better”
CAROLINE DILLOWAY STORMBRANDS
Knowing where the brand and their product fits into people’s lives and the need the product has to fulfil, can help designers link the brand to the events that they’re part of and even become a tradition or a trusted part of your daily life that they rely on.
“Understanding where the product fits into the consumers story helps designers fulfil these needs”
Melissa Preston Hunger
Hunger’s design director Melissa Preston argues emotional pull shouldn’t be underestimated. “Certain foods and brands can evoke memories from our childhood, holidays, key events in our lives or even just be part of our daily routine – the chocolates you buy at Christmas, the cereal you give your kids for breakfast. Understanding where the product fits into the consumer’s story helps designers tailor the aesthetic to fulfil these needs.”
Specialising and working with beverages, bringing a “creatively rare, commercially right” ethos to premium and disruptive clients, Glasgow-based Thirst launched its sister agency Hunger earlier this year to focus on premium and disruptive food brands. “Being a specialist studio it is important to us to not form a house style,” says Preston. “We pride ourselves on adapting to each brief individually, rather than trying to force an aesthetic upon the client.”
“The common misconception is that there’s a need to shout to stand out, but less is definitely more.” says Dilloway. “Food packaging should be simple, single-minded and focused. Clear and concise. With a common thread that links the brand’s essence to its visual and verbal appearance.”
“The idea of iconicity is also paramount,” argues Hartley. “If a brand isn’t iconic then it’s not memorable. It’s vital to ask, do brand assets imbue meaning for the consumer and how do they generate an emotional response?”
A multiple award-winning designer with 22 years of experience in brand design and brand strategy, Hartley has worked on global and national brands, including Coca Cola, Unilever, Nestlé, and Selfridges. Hartley joined Elmwood last year from WPA Pinfold where she led the creative team for seven years.
“To generate a good commercial income from packaging design specifically is quite difficult unless you’re niche and have a focus on a market,” Hartley admits, who believes a distinctive point of view and a standout set of products and services is essential for agencies to thrive in what has become a saturated and fickle market.
“Flexibility and being ahead of the curve is key because packaging is more about being part of the wider brand world and how you talk to consumers,” she continues. “The most important consideration, as a creative thinker, is how to use your intelligence to create a brand world.”
Reimagining the world of fudge, Elmwood recently partnered with a client to determine the product proposition for Stirrd, a premium sugar confectionery brand, and then conceived the model of selling this via a monthly online subscription. Elmwood developed the central brand idea of “Take life full on” to communicate the spirit of full-on flavour and indulgence. It used expressive typography and drizzles to emphasise that the products are freshly stirred by hand and that the different flavours and textures will ‘stir your senses’ in various ways. “Stirrd came to life as a brand through Elmwood’s bespoke naming process, the name conveying the sense that the product is raw, real, handmade and emotive,” explains Hartley.
When London-based agency StormBrands started out in 1994, packaging for primarily consumer and retail food brands was at the core of its business, reflects Dilloway. “As we’ve grown and our approach has evolved to be more holistic, we’ve retained the lessons learned from food packaging and built on the realisation that media agnostic thinking, where the brand’s story is present in every touchpoint, drives the most efficacious result.”
Dilloway and her team believe reallife, real-time insight and immersion is pivotal in providing the basis for a brand’s strategy and creative look and feel. “We have a toolkit of approaches to deploy, as relevant, to reach the heart of a challenge. Typically, we spend considerable time in the market, living the lives of our target consumers through our pop-up agency model. We talk face-to-face with large proportions of an organisation in ‘temperature check’ interviews and workshops and we audit and assess the direct and indirect competitor brands and markets.”
It’s a creative approach that has led to work with Brittains Vodka and Tofoo among others. “This said, it remains true, particularly with fast-moving consumer goods, that packaging should be considered as the tangible reflection of the brand’s core values – the brand lives in the consumer’s hand,” says Dilloway.
Of course, one of the most rewarding aspects of working within packaging design is being able to hold that final piece in your hand. “We love seeing people interact with the work, collect it, Instagram it,” concludes Preston. “It’s a rare experience to see your work celebrated in comparison to other disciplines of design.”
It’s a view shared by Vault49, which challenges clients to step out of the comfort zone. “We don’t have a clean, minimal studio aesthetic; we love to tell rich stories and they’re usually vibrant and multi-layered and provocative,” says Chandler. “The final product goes into the hands of the people who buy it, and the client wants to make the consumer happy, so think about them first. If you can articulate to our client why your design will delight and benefit their customers, that’s how you know you’re on to something.” ■