Mar 10, 2015

Trust me, I'm healthy…(2)

The new packaging codes for snacks

It’s well documented that modern lifestyles are changing the way we consume the nutrients we need. Many of us have switched from a regime of three proper meals a day to a situation where ‘grazing’ on several (smaller) meals and snacks is the norm. By 2011, the number of calories Americans consume as snacks had increased to 580 calories per day, the equivalent of a fourth meal.

But with the recent surge in diet-related health problems, the nutritional quality of what we snack on has been put under the spotlight.

‘Salty snacks, sugar-sweetened beverages and many other foods consumed as snacks contain far too many calories, and are helping to fuel the epidemic of obesity and diabetes,’ according to Dr. Barry Popkin, professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina.

On the other hand, studies by nutritionists have also shown that eating more frequently has been associated with reduced body fat and improved appetite control, weight control, lipid metabolism and insulin sensitivity.

There is no real conflict between these two sets of findings, it simply depends on the nutritional value of the snacks being consumed.


Responsible snacking as recommended by Nutritionists includes:

1) Balanced snacking, with carbohydrates, proteins and fat equally represented. Balancing the content of these macronutrients will increase the likelihood of including enough of the micronutrients, i.e. vitamins and minerals.

2) Consumption of Fresh Fruits and Vegetables. These foods provide fibre, vitamins and antioxidants. Moreover, as low-calorie, high-water-content foods, fruits and vegetables can be reliable, filling snacks.

3) Nutritional values cannot be separated from portion size.

It’s pretty clear that we aren’t going back to a three meals a day culture, so the nutritional quality of our snacks is going to have to get a lot higher. This is already happening of course, but a fascinating question for those of us involved in branding and packaging design is this:

What signals do consumers actually look for? Which brands do they trust, and what drives that feeling?

Consumer research by The Big Picture identified some insightful trends in the packaging language of healthy snacking. Particularly interesting were the design codes favoured by Millennials, that much-researched group of young people who threaten to change our definition of what it means to be a consumer.

I recommend watching the full webinar here, but what instantly fascinated me was the look and feel of the packaging identified as representing the new codes of this growing category.

the big picture

With just a handful of exceptions, none of the examples are from recognised, established brands. Nor do they use any of the codes employed by these brands: In place of colourful, corporate logos in a recognisable ‘badge’ shape, supported by a familiar hierarchy of information (product, flavour, claims) and an idealised visual, we see a more integrated and transparent approach.

Branding comes in no-nonsense informative typefaces, or quirkily hand-crafted lettering, and blends seamlessly into the product story.

Brand names often evoke both a benefit and an attitude: Rude Health, Urban Fruit and The Collective are already half way to a lifestyle statement, and their designs position them as something fresh, new and different. You can get dried pineapple from Whitworths too, but wouldn’t you rather associate yourself with the quirky coolness of a giant bowler-hatted cartoon character? I know I would.

urban fruit

The phenomenon of placing more trust in new brands over established ones is part of a general societal trend, in which authorities of all persuasions, from governments, businesses and above all bankers have shown themselves to be self-serving and untrustworthy. It hasn’t changed our desire to have shiny new things, but it has shifted our idea of who we want to buy them from. We’re looking for new role models, and that means new design codes.

In a recent project for a client in The Netherlands we encountered this trend first hand. This market is unusual in that the term ‘responsible in-betweens’ has been a category of its own for decades. For the Dutch the term ‘snack’ applies almost exclusively to deep-fried products, bought from takeaways or served at home once a week, when they’re fed up of being responsible.


Meanwhile in the in-between market consumers have been losing their ‘nutritional confidence’, starting to doubt if some products are as good for them as they always thought. This doubt has been fuelled by the usual factors of media coverage about fat, salt and sugar content in processed foods and the link to poor health; but also by an ‘enormous variety’ of messages being trumpeted by brands on-pack.

In our work and the subsequent research, it became clear that consumers place more trust in ‘non-trumpeted’ but implicit messages of health: A calm and simple explanation, or even better a dialogue, about the facts behind each product, and a sense of quiet confidence in their pack design.

But this way of thinking isn’t easy for traditional brands, who are fixated on making consumers an aspirational promise, photoshopped fantasy ‘moments’, and out-shouting their rivals on shelf. New Challenger brands often manage to capture something far more aspirational by simply being themselves.

It’s this human touch that big brands need to get back to, because especially when it comes to health, consumers are starting to prefer their food without the make-up.

Originally published on LinkedIn.