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

April 06, 2016

This article was featured in the April 2016 edition of Nutritional Outlook magazine and was written by Kimberly J. Decker.

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, and 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.”

Origin Stories
One means of forging that connection—“especially in the food and beverage market,” Williams notes—is by taking consumers to the source. “The ability to pinpoint exactly where the ingredients were grown and harvested, sharing personal details about the growers or what the product’s significance is in that region, is a good strategy,” she says. She offers Peeze Communitea (Arnhem, The Netherlands) as “a very nice example of a tea brand sharing stories from the employees at the tea plantation where the leaves were grown.”

Organic India takes its consumers even closer to the plantation. According to Medore, this Lucknow, India–based producer of tulsi teas and herbal supplements long held the vision of turning India’s chemical system of agriculture “upside down” by devoting over 500,000 acres to organic production, creating sustainable jobs with living wages, and “helping thousands of farmers return to their sacred connection with the land,” he says. So in building its brand, the company chose not only to introduce its “authentic story to a tea category dominated by illusory, indulgent imagery,” Medore continues, but to underscore its “culture of consciousness.”

Thus, it featured images of “real Organic India farmers who look you in the eye” prominently on its packages, Medore says, “connecting a circle of harmony through the farmers who care for the land to the consumers who enjoy the organic tea.” That message is apparently registering, as distribution has expanded since launch and store managers have adopted the role of brand advocates who “embrace the authentic story, thus becoming part of the circle of harmony,” Medore says.

Green Day
It’s no coincidence that underlying the Organic India story is a distinctly “green” motif, as a brand’s environmental outlook has become an essential element of its identity, especially in the health-and-wellness sector. Yet it’s no small irony that brands demonstrate their deep-green streak by leaning on packaging—the stuff that risks getting tossed into landfill.

“Packaging is always at the center of green issues because it’s the most obvious evidence of a brand’s environmental footprint,” Nosco’s Anderson says. Innova Market Insights’ Williams points to OneCoffee, a subsidiary of Canterbury Coffee (Burnaby, BC, Canada) that makes single-serve coffee pods using biodegradable material, as an example. Not only does the company opt for eco-friendly materials, but it makes “a very clear, honest statement on its package,” she says, refusing to round its “99% compostable” content declaration up to 100%, and “combining it with other well-being claims, such as organic and fair trade.”

But choosing environmentally mindful packaging isn’t the only proof of green values. “Switching to digital printing can dramatically lower carbon footprints by reducing waste during the printing process,” Anderson offers. “And it enables companies to perform just-in-time manufacturing and reduce obsolescence.” Another way of getting packaging to walk the sustainable walk is to design it with a second life in mind. “You want to encourage the consumer to keep the container,” Anderson says.

Transparent Packaging
Whatever you do, don’t just pay lip service. As Jeff Hilton, chief marketing officer and co-founder, BrandHive (Salt Lake City), insists, being green “is important if it’s genuine. But don’t greenwash! Green concerns and initiatives have to come from an honest place or they won’t be accepted or embraced. Consumers will know. They really will.”

For that reason, he advises brands to provide substantiation to support certifications and claims for safety and potency. “Share scientific studies,” he adds. “Use expert third-party spokespeople to validate the brand. And make your science interesting and relevant to the consumer. Explain it in terms they’d understand and can recall.” Clardy agrees. “Transparency is the big story,” she says, “but so is underlying quality and adherence to standards. Any label claims must hold up to stability and efficacy standards.”

To see that principle in practice, look to Gaia Herbs (Brevard, NC). Medore says that the company’s Meet Your Herbs traceability program not only set a supplement-industry standard for robust tracing practices but “allowed an entry point into the brand’s storytelling, where the brand shared all the details of growing, harvesting, manufacturing, and testing through the prism of the brand’s values of purity, integrity, and potency.”

An ID on the package directs consumers to the website or mobile app to find “proof of careful cultivation, meticulous harvesting, appropriate extraction methods, and state-of-the-art validation and purity data for each herb inside,” Medore says. To support its statements, the company maintains a complete chain of custody for its products, from seed to shelf. Consumer research shows that supplement users embrace this vision, and studies that Medore and his own team conducted affirm that herbal-medicine shoppers in particular want “assurance in an industry fraught with questions, recalls, and an onslaught of negative press,” he says. Programs like this “let us prove it.”

Standing Out
Yet on a shelf packed with other products, the challenge of literally catching the consumer’s attention still remains. Mindy Wherley, brand strategy manager, Nosco (Waukegan, IL), counsels marketers to make the best use of what they’ve got. “Everything about a package, from materials and shape to copy and graphics, plays a role,” she says. “And with the printing technologies, advanced graphic design techniques, and vast material selection available on the market, there are many ways for brands to stand out, whether they’re being conscious of the environment or incorporating a minimalist design.”

Contrasting colors or coatings, uniquely shaped cartons, or a distinctive die cut or decorative embellishment “can bring any minimalist design or ‘green’ package to life,” she says. And don’t forget the power of the label. “Label shape could be used to reinforce a brand message,” as can strategic use of colors, clarity or opacity, gloss or matte, texture or smoothness.

Consider the case of LifeVantage (Sandy, UT), a “science-based nutraceutical company” that Anderson notes initiated a “full-grand refresh” recently, starting with its flagship Protandim supplement. The company aimed to illustrate core values like scientific support and manufacturing excellence by rotating its name from vertical to horizontal and using a clear label substrate that creates enough transparency at the bottle’s base for consumers to view the pills within. That extra space also allows for the inclusion of a “subtle” double-helix pattern in silver-blue foil “to tie to the nutrigenomics impact of the product,” adds Anderson, who credits the label’s ability to “engage both the independent distributor and end user in visual storytelling” with key aspects of the rebranding’s success.

Pauli adds that NOW Foods (Sonoma, CA) launched new labels a year ago affecting its entire line of hundreds of supplements. Extensive research taught the brand that existing customers liked the familiar bright-orange labels long in use “because they know and trust the brand,” Pauli says. But potential new customers saw the labels as outdated and not especially helpful in communicating the very category that the brand belonged in. The solution: a new, more “user-friendly” design “with an image for each category: botanicals, omega-3s, et cetera,” Pauli says. “It was contemporary and upscale, while retaining the familiar orange color. And it’s proven very popular.”

Amazing what a new "face" can do. Hilton says, "Your packaging is your face to he customer. It's how they recognize you. It's how they remember you and talk to others about you. It's that simple." So don't let your product hit shelves without being ready for its close up. As Hilton says, "Every brand has a story to tell. Either you and your package can tell it, or your competitors and customers will do it for you."

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