Using packaging to court natural shoppers can be tricky, especially when it comes to maintaining the delicate balance of providing shoppers with enough product information without overwhelming them, not to mention creating a distinctive brand message that still fits within the industry’s regulatory framework. Nutritional Outlook spoke to leading graphic design and packaging specialists about what’s hip, what’s working, and what’s necessary these days.
Crafting the Right Message
The single biggest challenge when designing packaging for the supplement market is creating a unique selling proposition, says Kevin Smith, founder of boutique packaging, website, and graphic design firm SmashBrand (Eden, UT). “Sometimes there are ingredients or benefits that are protected by a patent or backed by some exclusive university study, but for the most part, many manufacturers are able to put the same ingredients into the product with low or no barriers to entry,” he says. “This makes the industry highly competitive and the products very difficult to differentiate.”
This is a critical instance in which package design aesthetics really matter, Smith says. “If the consumer doesn’t really know the difference between two or more products and believes that either product could address their needs, they will choose based on price and package design,” he says, adding that consumers often subconsciously assume that products that have better packaging are of higher quality. “In the end, manufacturers can command a higher price point for products…just by having high-quality packaging design.”
Fortunately, natural product shoppers tend to be well educated about the types of products they want (and don’t want). For that reason, Matt Cave, brand strategist at brand identity and package design company Edmundson Martin (Boca Raton, FL), says consumer resonance can’t be distilled down to a one-size-fits-all solution for brand identity and package design. “Natural products shoppers, first and foremost, are looking for the truth. What are the health benefits? What’s in the product? Who makes it? Are they good people? Is the manufacturing and distribution of the product sustainable?” he says.
Yael Miller, partner at food packaging and branding company Miller Creative LLC (Lakewood, NJ), asserts that supplement branding hasn’t been very progressive as a category, which should theoretically make it easier for brands to stand out if they differentiate on a fundamental level. However, he says, brands must respect consumer expectations by conveying efficacy—i.e., taking cues from the pharmaceutical category but without making drug claims—while still affording space for natural/healthful visual cues.
High minimums and expensive dies for injection-molded plastic continue to make traditional round bottle and screw-top closure designs the most cost-effective packaging option for supplements. Still, some companies are flexing their creative muscles to make the most of the adaptable aspects of this packaging format.
“Innovation can still happen by marrying the use of design on the outer label with bottle and cap color and by using less-common bottle shapes,” says Smith. “The most cost-effective design is to be creative in your approach to using stock packaging so that the end product feels very much like custom-designed packaging.”
Stock bottles and caps are available in an array of colors, and labeling deco options are almost infinitely customizable. Molly Fuehrmeyer, graphic design manager for packaging firm TricorBraun (Oak Brook IL), says packaging color selections continue to trend brighter and in some cases even include tactile features to stimulate the consumer both visually and tangibly. “Adding some kind of tactile/texture feature or matte versus gloss effect to the shrink sleeve or to the label goes that much further to capture the consumer’s attention and get them to pick the product up off the shelf,” she says. “Marketers know that if they can get the consumer to pick up the product, they have a greater chance of securing the purchase.”
For some companies, color serves a very specific purpose. Herbal extracts brand Herb Pharm (Williams, OR) recently debuted a brand-wide, color-coded packaging redesign capped off by a new logo. All products are sorted into color-coded categories according to function: Immune Support, Nervous System, Energy & Vitality, Respiratory System, System Restoration, Cleanse & Detoxify, and Optimal Well-Being. The company says the new formatting makes it easier for retailers to merchandise each product by category and also delivers at-a-glance convenience to consumers.
“We hear from so many people saying they have both a need and interest in healing herbs but simply don’t know where to start,” said Michael Gillette, Herb Pharm’s director of marketing, via press release. “With our new color-coded labels and corresponding descriptive categories, we are making it easy to match an individual’s health need with an effective, medicinal herb, while also encouraging the experienced herb shopper to broaden their use of herbs to other areas of their personal health.”
Supplements firm Vitalah (Santa Cruz County, CA) also tapped into a more inviting color scheme for the new packaging for its Oxylent effervescent multivitamins. “By using new colors and graphic elements on the front of the box, we made it easier for our customers to spot their favorite flavor at a glance,” says CEO and founder Lisa Lent.
Beyond its colorful visuals, the packaging does something unique: it balances a wealth of product information while remaining consumer friendly. Each of the product carton’s side panels describes in detail the doses and benefits of each key ingredient, including superoxide dismutase, magnesium, zinc, selenium, potassium, stevia, calcium, CoQ10, and vitamins B, C, and D3. Consumers will no doubt find handy visual graphs demonstrating how the products’ minerals (mineral chelates from supplier Albion Human Nutrition) are better absorbed compared to standard minerals.
Delivering meaningful product information in a visually appealing package is something that Lent says is difficult to achieve but important for forging trustworthy consumer relationships. “Conveying information to our consumers is a primary driver of our packaging design decisions, since packaging is the means of communication that gets closer to consumers than any other,” she says. “But, at the same time, too much text can be overwhelming and actually dilute the message we are trying to convey. It’s crucial to remember that aesthetics communicate just as words do—we can convey our core brand values visually as well as verbally.”
Also, according to SmashBrand’s Smith, the unfortunate level of health claims abuse cited by regulators, with questionable companies making unauthorized product health claims, should definitely make firms more wary to communicate product benefits the right way. “In the end, we try to focus on a big impact of one or two main and differentiated benefits,” he says. “Because there is a lot of distrust in the industry, you can actually gain a lot of consumer trust just from the packaging by not exaggerating or making unrealistic claims on the packaging.”
A New Design Direction
When it comes to on-package graphics, Jonathan Ford, founding partner and chief creative officer for design firm Pearlfisher (New York), says marketers are turning to new inspirations. “We have definitely moved away from the wholesome and earthy and also the rigidly functional,” he says. “Clean and clinical…came to the fore, but we are now just starting to see a necessary shift that creates a new aesthetic…which is refocusing on the individual body and its optimization.”
He also says that while “healthy” market segments historically paid greater attention to female consumers, more brands are using packages designed to appeal to men. Pouches, like those for sports nutrition brand Manfuel, “are still popular when targeting the male consumer,” he says. Also, “We are seeing traditional bottles, boxes”—like those designed in-house by supplements brand Nano Labs—”and vials also coming back to the fore as we emphasize attention to detail, the handcrafted, and the sense of the personal touch.”
He points to two projects his agency recently executed, for Strong Vitamins and Plenish juice, for which the goals were to express freshness and quality using visuals and simple language. “The central idea [for Strong Nutrients] uses the metaphor of birds for each product—with, for example, a swan representing beautiful cell regeneration,” Ford says. The Plenish line was designed to be “bold, simple, and focused on cause and effect.”
“Both Strong and Plenish are disrupting and cutting through the existing look and feel of the category,” he continues. “It’s not necessarily about including results or substantiation, but finding new visual and verbal ways to clearly, simply, and honestly express the end benefit to ensure relevance and resonance.”
“Aesthetic preferences have changed towards more streamlined and ‘clean’ design, versus lots of heavy color, words, and content,” says Miller of Miller Creative. He notes that gradients and shiny effects continue to be dropped in favor of “flatter” design details. “This subtly conveys honesty in marketing and less ‘smoke and mirrors’ typical of large consumer brands.”
In the end, it’s about finding a personalized way to connect with consumers. “It is the responsibility of design to create new definitions and spaces, to help brands establish and own a new visual rhetoric and positioning and optimize the communication of these brands,” Ford says. “And these two needs are now starting to pull together and be realized as we begin to see a new generation of brands finding new ways to marry product with experience and forge a new level of customer connection.”
Sidebar: Packaging Plus Technology to Connect with Consumers
Earlier this year, ZEGO (San Francisco) launched a line of allergen-free energy bars with packaging that gives consumers access to information that most never have the opportunity to see. ZEGO energy bars are made in a shared facility—an environment with an inherent risk of allergen cross-contact. Going beyond the standard “potential allergen” warning on packaging, ZEGO bar wrappers and boxes feature a patent-pending QR code that, when scanned by a smartphone app, delivers batch test results of each product’s measurable amounts of specific allergens.
This resource doesn’t just give consumers peace of mind. “Providing real-time data via a QR code not only informs and empowers purchasing choices, it also provides a mechanism for feedback, so consumers can tell manufacturers what matters most to them, and manufacturers can respond,” says Jonathan Shambroom, cofounder. “While sample testing is not a safety guarantee, our rigorous testing, transparency, and direct communication via our packaging will hopefully become the industry standard.”
Sidebar: Does Convenience Packaging Come at a Price?
Convenience packaging—single-serve and blister packs for supplements—are still trending. “People are on the go and will pay more money for that convenience,” says SmashBrand’s Kevin Smith.
These types of “planned” serving packaging formats are ideal for daily-usage supplement regimens, says Richard LeBlanc, principal at B12 Packaging design firm (Dallas, TX). “Consumers are more distracted than ever before by their daily lives,” he says. “Anything the brand can do to simplify this is key.”
The trend, however, is tempered by an overarching sense of environmental responsibility. “Most of these packaging types tend to create more waste, and especially with the market segment that cares about healthier natural products, they tend to also care about saving the landfills and waste,” Smith says.