Best Seller: Telling a Brand's Story though Dietary Supplement Package Design

April 6, 2016

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover—and for the most part, they’re right. But a book’s cover can say a lot about what’s on the pages within, and the same is true—or at least has the potential to be—of the packaging around a supplement or functional food.

Sure, the text on any bottle or box will tell you the obvious details about contents, ingredients, net weight, expiration date, lot number, or so-on. But there’s a subtext going on here, as well, wherein subtleties and nuances of the package—from the shape of the label to the color of the cap—convey a story not just about the product inside but the health-and-wellness brand behind it.

In an age when shoppers yearn to connect with the stories underlying everything they buy, that’s a strong selling point. Moreover, it’s one more piece of evidence that a package does more than keep a bunch of capsules in place. As Brent Anderson, packaging advisor, Nosco (Waukegan, IL), puts it, “Since it’s necessary to use packaging to ensure a product gets to its destination in one piece, why not take advantage of this space for branding and storytelling?”


Captive Audience

With so much of our lives lived in “the cloud” these days, celebrating the importance of the physical package almost feels like a throwback. But we haven’t yet entered a “post-packaging” world. Websites, online engagement, and savvy marketing may be “necessary to flesh out a brand story,” says Todd Pauli, partner, The Shelton Group (Chicago), but packaging still plays the “most critical” role in telling that tale. “You’ll rarely hold the consumer more captive than when he or she is at the shelf, holding a product and trying to decide between several supplement brands,” he says. “In that moment, packaging makes all the difference in the world.”

The difference boils down to a package’s capacity to elicit emotion. Beyond just enumerating features, benefits, and nutrition facts, packaging “helps a consumer connect with a brand on an emotional level and feel comfortable with a purchase,” Pauli says. And when a package communicates this emotion clearly, it “will continue to enforce the consumer’s connection with the brand well after purchase.”

Like, for example, when that consumer reaches into the medicine cabinet every morning. “Packaging lives alongside consumers in their homes,” Anderson notes. “Any time a customer picks up a container to take their daily supplement, they interact with the brand through its packaging. That’s a great way to reinforce brand identity and engage customers over time.”


Distilling an Identity

Yadim Medore, founder & CEO, Pure Branding (Northampton, MA), considers the package “an expression of the brand, just like the physical body is an expression of the soul.” That’s pretty heavy for a pouch or pill pack, but Medore maintains that “if packaging doesn’t align with that essence, there will be a major disconnect between what the brand stands for and the meaning conveyed at the shelf.”

Which raises the question of what a brand stands for. If a health-and-wellness company hasn’t solved that riddle before settling on a preferred package, it may want to go back to the drawing board. Putting package before purpose is like putting “the cart before the horse,” Medore says. “You have to understand who you are and what you stand for before you can begin expressing the brand through packaging.”

That’s why the branding exercises that Medore and his team conduct with customers are “holistic endeavors that look at the brand opportunity through the lens of five forces,” he says: organization, offering, trade, category, and participant. “It’s the interplay between these five forces that allows the brand opportunity to emerge in a dynamic and organic way.” And the earlier that opportunity emerges, the more self-evident subsequent branding decisions become—“because they’ll be about asking, ‘How does this decision support our brand strategy?’”

Pauli agrees that putting first things first is fundamental. “A brand has to be clear on its story before it starts telling it,” he says. Only after a brand has identified key messages about its origins, strengths, distinctions, mission, and meaning can it distill those messages into what Pauli describes as a “brand identity document upon which everything else is based.” Building the story first and the brand collateral thereafter “ensures that the brand communicates the right story across the marketplace and produces the work more efficiently, which is easier on the budget,” as well.


The Elevator Pitch

Alas, even the best planning doesn’t change the fact that a brand’s package doesn’t have much time in which to get its story across. Pauli emphasizes succinctness. He says to think of the package as “your product’s ‘elevator pitch’: A consumer should be able to pick up the package and know what the product and brand are about in a very brief amount of time.”

How brief? Lu Ann Williams, director of innovation, Innova Market Insights (Arnhem, The Netherlands), cites what she calls the “3–30–300-seconds rule.” That is, during the first three seconds of a consumer’s encounter with a product package, the goal is “all about capturing the consumer’s attention,” she says—usually via front-of-pack space. “In this limited time, shoppers quickly judge a product based on the brand name, graphic design—colors, fonts, images—shape, material, price, et cetera,” she says. That’s a lot of information to deliver, “but many brands successfully reach consumers in whichever category they fit.”

Assuming the first three seconds click, the next 30 find consumers turning to the package’s back, where “mainstream brands will typically have more information about the product,” Williams continues, “while brands with a unique story will share that in a few sentences. An example appears on Coldpress (London), a cold-pressed, high-pressure-processed juice brand that Williams thinks “has a great way of explaining quickly”—and graphically—“on the bottle what it and its process is about.”

Once a package makes it to the coveted 300-second mark, it must continue engaging consumers in the comfort of their homes, where brands might keep the conversation going with “an attached booklet,” Williams says, “maybe inside a wrapper, or by referring to their website or video channel.” And how do you know you’ve made it? When your package—and, by extension, your brand—becomes part of your consumer’s day.


Stories that Sell

Lauren S. Clardy, president, NutriMarketing Group (Santa Rosa, CA), understands how critical that first, fast, strong impression is. “It’s key,” she says. “You have less than six seconds to tell the story from a visual point of view.”

But if the story doesn’t resonate, or if it doesn’t rise above others, no amount of exposure will make it stick. That’s why Nosco’s Anderson insists that brands must communicate “a story of uniqueness—what makes this product different from products within the same segment”—and one of “authenticity” that “highlights one or more areas in which your company and product stand out,” he says. “These can include aspects of sourcing, charity, quality, personalization, or sustainability.”

Pauli agrees that quality, as well as transparency, scientific support, “natural” cred, and “an overall contribution to a healthy lifestyle, all remain important stories brands try to tell.” But Medore cautions against focusing too narrowly on the nuts and bolts. “Too often we find our clients coming to us with functional, feature/benefit, or science-led stories,” he says. Such messages may be the bread and butter of the supplement industry, but “we know from our extensive consumer research and just from listening that a brand cannot be successful crafting its storytelling around those functional benefits alone. It’s just noise, and everybody is competing with the same language. Ultimately, a brand connects emotionally by standing for something and connecting on a much deeper human level.”