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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Seize the moment

When the HFSS laws arrive, brands will need to conjure new ways of leaping off shelves rather than hiding on them, writes Brett Goldhawk

We are facing a ‘beige’ future.

Of course, sustainability is critical in packaging, and ‘better for you’ foods, messaging and encouragement are high on the brand agenda. But from a marketing and business perspective these factors don’t mean branding, personality and stand out must be parked.

We are seeing marketing teams shift away from the clear and original to the trend chasing and the dumbing down. If we don’t take a grip on branding strategy, the future of packaging may not be a pretty sight.

As can be the case too often, chasing the topical sounds smart at the time when we all want to be relevant, but relevance is a long game and not just a short play. Whilst avoiding throwing a confusion bomb into the mix is always a good rule of thumb to follow.

Take the upcoming HFSS regulations (for foods high in fat, sugar and salt). Primarily this is an initiative that will have a significant impact on brand advertising, marketing, and trusted sales mechanics like ‘bogof’ deals and prime retail aisle location placement. Essentially paid for platforms that brands rely on to drive sales. This new legislation has meant businesses have parked their brand strategy in favour of said ‘confusion bombs’ releasing a swath of misjudged new products that muddle their portfolio architecture and leave the consumer baffled as to what’s what.

Some brands might be doing the right thing as part of this initiative and reducing the level of bad ingredients in their product. Kudos to that of course. (More likely businesses are chasing down every opportunity to sell more shit).

But then why go and spoil that good move with the bad move of reformulating the packaging to land with a sea of washed-out colours, crazy sub-branding, and wishy-washy pack claims. There seems to be a trend in thinking ‘muted’ suggests ‘better for you’, when in the reality of the way that consumer minds work, it means boring, tasteless and cardboardy.

As the cost of living rises, consumers will be ever more critical in their food choices. And where one brand goes others follow and HFSS choices look like the one to avoid if you like flavour in your food.

I’ve written here before about the pitfalls of copycatting in design, and how this kills innovation in a category. And with this scenario, we not only risk lack of differentiation, but lack of overall appeal at the same time.

Being healthy and eating healthy is positive, so use the future of your packaging to dial up the good news, the fresh option, and the responsible action – and leap off the shelf rather than hide on it. Celebrate, don’t kill it. Be proud not hidden. Be the sunshine, not the cloud of ‘sorry this won’t be as good….’

What makes it even more challenging for an HFSS friendly product innovation is that it will still sit inevitably alongside the regular version. Making it pale imitation squared. We are in the bold and hyper energetic Millennial world, not the 70’s of uninspiring British era cuisine.

Psychology plays a key part in consumer purchase patterns, and packaging triggers are fundamental to that. People shop visually and want/need to recognise ’their brand’, or perhaps ’a brand’ that will guide them towards making a choice or a start point in a less familiar category. But just as important is that these new reformulated products still maintain the product truth. A Mars Bar made with date paste, raisins and peanuts doesn’t feel very Mars Bars to me.

And as bricks and mortar retail merges even more seamlessly with online retail, diluting a brand for the wrong reasons (i.e., misplaced understanding) and with the wrong design choices (even if from a right start point of action) can have serious sales impact.

Don’t play too hard with emotional triggers that work, especially as online sales will rely on graphics, designs and packaging that stand out and do themselves justice on digital devices. I can’t help but feel the ‘beigification’ culture will confuse, disappoint, and miss the long-term gains brands are after. It’s a question of right goals, wrong execution.

As part of this with brands following the ‘now’, there is a risk in creating multiple micro-categories that appeal to and chase smaller audience profiles and opportunities. Market leaders might be able to afford this, but for others, doubling down on Masterbrand messaging, packaging and stand out with longer term thinking – rather than cannibalising existing brands for potentially short-term niches – could be the smarter game.

Clarity not confusion is what builds brands. One global biscuit brand champions reducing sugar in nine of its brands and reveals lighter versions of some of those at the same time as introducing new hyper indulgent launches. Is that a strategy of values or a playing all ends of the market game? Opportunism vs doing the right thing? Packaging and brand consistency or a bit of everything?

Values matter in branding, and as part of that, in packaging too, where that can be a great storytelling canvas to land what you stand for, to share changes as well as core elements, and brand actions as well as brand ingredients. But those messages need to be credible.

If brands don’t see that opportunity, it’s another missed one in what is an important step for a strong packaging future.

Sustainability in packaging is one (hugely important) thing. But sustainability in the wider business is more than just packaging material. Journeys, efforts, supply chain details, missions and goals are the sum of what is important to share and teach others about.

It’s another reason not to play down or mute the packaging and its’ potential for stand out, but to use its form, and its choices of attention-grabbing liveries, shapes and originality to be a front foot marketing weapon.

Packaging is an asset and loud and proud does not mean off key or off message. But very much the opposite. It may be a link off pack, rather than copy overkill on it, and it may be humble rather than ‘look at me’ in choice of words. But what’s important is that packaging in the marketing mix is more important than ever as a relationship builder and deliverer.

As consumers look closely at ingredients, they are more likely to see what else the packaging shares with them. And loyal customers who understand what their band is doing positively are more likely to share that on. So, the risk of turning those people away, when we all need brand champions, is not only brand dilutive in terms of identity, but self-destructive in terms of ambassador impact.

So, see the future of packaging in the round. More than just choice of material and manufacturing. More than feeling you are following compliance. And not just following category cues that are misunderstood and setting the wrong benchmark. If future advertising in some categories is going to be limited, what better time that for packaging to be your brand hero?  And heroes don’t blend in.

Ziggurat Brands




Brett Goldhawk
Brett Goldhawk
Brett Goldhawk Managing Director, Ziggurat, Brett is a global brand and innovation specialist. He leads Ziggurat, a brand and packaging design agency which has been based in the heart of London for over 35 years. Specialising in the food and drink sectors, Ziggurat has created and launched countless category leaders. https://ziggurat.london

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