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Strategy, Design, Testing

The Complete Guide to Food Packaging Design

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Better for you food packaging design

Ready to launch the next best food product? Whether you’re a brand new company or looking for a package refresh, this article is the package design framework that a food brand needs. In this complete guide, you learn how to create a food packaging design that captures a category.

Grocery chains don’t settle for shelf mediocrity. Limited space means touch decisions are necessary for which food brands to promote and which to discontinue. In the words of the Godfather, “this isn’t personal, it’s strictly business.” 

In an industry where patents rarely exist, required food label changes limiting flexibility, and private label brands offer cheaper prices, how do you make your food brand stand out?  

A great food packaging design can be the difference between having a long term relationship with a grocery chain and peddling back to an e-commerce only strategy. If you want your food product to live where most commerce happens, you need a food packaging design that performs. 

In today’s market, even produce needs to stand out. (produce brand)

The Food Package Experience

Great, you need a premium packaging design, but how do you design food packaging that looks good but the consumers love? It starts by understanding how shoppers identify, handle, and decide which product to take to the register.

Because of legal restrictions in the food industry and shopper awareness, this CPG industry requires careful consideration for each element of product packaging. It needs to draw the consumer in, hold their attention, and create alignment between the product and a shopper’s expectations. 

A winning design isn’t one that receives the most medals and awards. The genuine success metric for product packaging is how many times it rings through the register. To win on a grocery store shelf, you need more than a designer with a talented artistic ability. You need packaging, messaging, and design elements that influence and resonate with consumers past the point of consideration.

Your food packaging should take consumers on a journey from interest to engagement. It should take them from excitement to satisfaction. How do you achieve this goal? Each product is unique, but there is one thing that all food brands must understand.

Your packaging cannot miss. Every element needs to be strategized, designed, and tested for performance. Now, let us travel down the road on how to design food packaging. 

How to Design Food Packaging

Most brands find a co-packer that can simply get the job done. Brands put trust in these packaging facilities to choose the best fit for the product. Unfortunately, this path gives an unqualified decision maker more responsibility than they can handle.

Without doing your own research and formulating a package design strategy, your results will be a guess. The Food industry is far too competitive to let this common mistake happen. If you want to perform on a shelf, you need a different package design approach.

Package Design Strategy

Before considering your package design options, first, determine an accurate buyer persona, understanding the inner details of their life. This should be a part of every brand strategy, but needs further evaluation of each new product.

Perform Market Research

Why do big brands dominate big markets? Because they dominate the data. They say knowledge is power, after all.

At the big brand level, data pulled from market research is critical to every level of decision making. The data drives all decisions related to product development, packaging, and marketing. Fortunately, not every brand needs budget breaking data to create a well-defined brand, differentiated from the competition.

All it takes is a little ingenuity and elbow grease.

Leverage all information at your brand’s disposal. This includes industry reports, online discussions, social media, and competitor reviews to understand the current packaging zeitgeist. At SmashBrand, this groundwork is a fundamental part of how we approach the design process. Our research involves store visits, informal discussions with target consumers, surveys, and more.

The goal is to get a finger on the pulse of what your target market wants to see. Our aim is to identify the primary pain points in the competitive space. This information forms a hypothesis about strengths, opportunities, threats, and risks in the service of research-backed package design.

Find Your Target Audience

What matters to your intended consumer? Are they a mom whose kid is screaming in the grocery store? Maybe a Gen-Z who is deliberate about each food purchase?

What encourages your target audience to make a purchasing decision? The primary goal of market research is to identify open areas in your industry that competitors haven’t touched. This presents opportunities to reach untapped markets not yet loyal to any of your competitors.

This differentiation is important, as packaging design has unique challenges when compared to other marketing mediums. Given that packaging rests directly next to its competition, consumers draw direct comparisons between each product.

And they don’t spend long doing it—usually only 5-15 seconds—making it essential that the product stand out. In fact, eye-tracking studies show that shoppers never see a third of the displayed brands. Add in further research that being seen quickly correlates with purchase intent, and the value of standing out becomes clear.

But since retailers place competition closely to your products, it’s important that brands gather all comparable data on their rivals. We need this information to understand which strategies are standard and which are disruptive.

Begin with a combination of in-store tours and online research of your competitors. Help your design team by taking photos and notes about your experiences. Check online reviews to gather valuable insight into the preferences of your market.

Understanding Your Consumers Concerns

Here are a few of the concerns that CPG brands need to meet in order to satisfy their prospective customers.

Safety Concerns

What long held and emerging concerns does your ideal customer have? Does your product address them? Don’t hide from those tough to have conversations. Instead, take them head on and solve the unspoken concerns of your audience.

Health Concerns

Does your food product solve a health related concern the shopper has? Amplify the message that your product is the right decision for their health objectives. Here is an idea – show off how “clean” your product is with clear packaging.

Calorie Concerns

There will always be consumers concerned with the calories. It is not enough for a high-sugar food to proclaim their low fat gospel. Nor is it enough for high-fat foods to puff their chest at their low carb profile.

Consumers are too smart for that. Careful consideration needs to be made to calories and macronutrients on your food label. Embrace your low calorie (or high calorie) food product. Just be sure that you spoke that message to the right audience.

Deux had the wrong target audience when they appeared on Shark Tank. This “healthy” and enhanced “functional” food got beat up by a group of calorie concerned consumers. That being said, they have embraced their younger demographic, who is less concerned with calories and more concerned with superfoods.

Product messaging done right will lead to an increase in conversions but done wrong leads to shelf pullback where discounters buy your product for pennies on the dollar.

Social (Culture) Concerns

Farmers from the 1800s might find it odd that we make a food purchase because of a desire to associate with a group of people. But in an introverted society, we seek social acceptance in strange places.

While hipsters may have started the social coffee experience, brands like Death Wish Coffee created their own community. Death Wish found a hardcore demographic to build a coffee culture that connects people and gives back to communities

Taste Concerns

Flavor matters, period! Even the healthiest shoppers make a portion of their purchasing decision based on food taste. Find a balance between just enough hype to excite the customer, but not so much that it creates an experience mismatch.

Tough job, but we must do it if you want your food brand to continue performing on grocery shelves.

Perform a Competitive Analysis

After understanding your food product category and determining your buyer persona, it’s time to see how your brand stacks up. Seek to identify where competition is weak or missing. This learning and insight exposes market opportunities not addressed by current products and can reveal tremendous opportunities.

Packaging is unique because it “lives” on cluttered shelves. The packaging must work within a limited time that shoppers spend making their purchase decisions. Given this reality, the first challenge is clearly to be seen and considered—creating an opportunity to sell.

Retailers typically position your product next to its primary competitors. Consumers will rarely view and consider your product in isolation. If you want to get noticed, remember this important point…

The most relevant norm is nearly always competition. It is critical you gather directly comparable data regarding competitive packaging, including that of all the leading store brands. You cannot be unique and disruptive without knowing the entire competitive landscape.

If you are doing this yourself, start with a combination of in-store tours and online research. Photograph your visits enabling the design team to see where products live “in the wild”.

When researching online, collect as many images and product reviews as possible. The insights you can gain about likes, dislikes and opportunities from amazon reviews will surprise you.

Product Packaging Options

The innovations within the food packaging industry happen faster with each passing year. Do not depend on what you’ve seen in the past. Rather, talk to vendors about what new capabilities they have.

When you work with a package design agency like SmashBrand, we take care of this job for you. 

These days, there are hundreds of plastic and cardboard options to choose from. There are also unique sustainable packaging options if appealing to an eco-friendly demographic. Somewhere within this fast moving industry, there is a packaging material perfectly built for your product.  

But it isn’t just the material where you have options. The innovations in resealable packaging, reusable packaging, and flexible packaging are out there. Packing with a post purchase utility offers food brands a way to stand out, creating social conversations about their product. 

Front of Pack Design

They have said that you have three seconds to catch someone’s attention. That time is now shorter thanks to smartphones and our more distracted society. You are mistaken if you think your front of pack design has 3-seconds of the consumer’s attention. 

The importance of stopping consumers in their tracks and capturing interest is an important factor for both start-ups and companies with strong brand awareness. Not only do you need to stop consumers in their tracks, you need to get that product into their hands. Maybe, just maybe, at this point you have the 3-seconds you were looking for. 

The job of your front package or label panel is to connect with the consumer. The message your packaging delivers doesn’t need to be overly descriptive. Messaging needs to be short, punchy, and stimulates a special moment in the consumer’s mind. 

Designing For Other Panels

After reviewing your front panel, your potential customer secretly says, “I feel we have a strong connection to you, but I’d like to know more about you”. Additional product panels help build consumer trust by answering the questions in advance and creating solutions to problems not yet considered. 

A creative food packaging design has high expectations for all aspects of the box, bag, or bottle, including the side panels, rear panel, top panel, & bottom panel. Everything from the UPC code to the nutrition facts design is important details that require careful consideration.  

Food Label Design

No package? No problem! There are still customizable options for a food label design. Consider adding special label features such as peel back and double sided information for your food label design.

Define Your Food Packaging Parameters

Ok all you creatives out there, this is where we need a reality check. Unfortunately, while hopeful of making all of our package design dreams come true, the operational side of the business may set us straight. The finance department may have a different idea about what a packaging strategy entails. To satisfy your CFO and accountant, we will look at other important considerations in your product packaging.

Here, we cover the parameters for designing your packaging and yes; we have a more research to do. Brands must define their parameters before they can begin building toward them. These parameters likely include:

  • Project goals
  • Packaging requirements
  • Total budget
  • Project timelines
  • Project constraints

To help define this framework, brands should ask themselves a series of questions:

  1. How many SKUs are there?
  2. How many components are we packaging together?
  3. How do components correlate with one another?
  4. What materials are the products made of?
  5. What is the weight of each component?
  6. What is the retail price of each SKU?
  7. Is there a specific budget per SKU for packaging manufacturing?
  8. Do you know geographic compliance laws for packaging and labeling?
  9. Are there specific shelf requirements? And what type of shelf will house the products?
  10. What type of lighting will a store use?
  11. Is your packaging designed to sell? To warn? Or to display?
  12. Is there any product information that we must legally include on the packaging?
  13. Are display windows necessary?
  14. Should your packaging be easy to dispose of, or should it be sturdy for future repurposing?
  15. Does the packaging need to be recyclable?

While extensive, this line of questioning is only part of the consideration that goes into quality packaging design. Much like step one, this step of the design process is about understanding how to get your products from the factory floor to the retail shelf.

The Food Packaging Design Process

Now that you have data and packaging parameters figured out, it’s time to bring strategy back into the picture. Let’s move to the preliminary design process. 

Ideally, your designer understands your desire to create a powerful brand, competitive in crowded marketplaces. Hopefully, she has experience with food product branding besides general design skills.

Don’t take this decision lightly. It can make or break the entire project. We’ve written extensively on this topic, so make sure you know what to look for.

Design is about more than slapping a shell on your product; the team should understand how to bring the product to life, articulating the quality of the product through packaging design. It’s this positioning, this attitude, that allows businesses to unlock untapped opportunities existing in their markets.

To convert shoppers into customers through effective packaging design, your package needs to follow several fundamentals.

Design with the store in mind

Packaging doesn’t exist in a vacuum—the realities of the physical store environment play a large role in design.

  • Consider how retailers and customers don’t always face goods correctly on the shelf after holding them.
  • Pay attention to how hanging tags block products on the shelves below them.
  • Notice how building lights cause reflections or shadows. 

While we cannot control some of these factors, it’s vital that brands understand their effects when coming up with packaging designs. These aspects may end up influencing the packaging substrates used, whether using dual PDPs, and where to place the most critical messaging on the packaging.

At SmashBrand, we test your package design in a simulated retail environment, mimicking the experience a shopper has with your product on the store shelves. 

For example, we’ve examined brands in the packaged, sliced deli-meat category whose products advertised “more product for your money” in the top left corner of the packaging. Unfortunately, the retailer’s own sales tags concealed this copy from the consumer. 

Without clarifying the cost of the product was due, in part, to the volume of food the customer received, it appeared the product was expensive for its category. How many customers over the weeks and months decided against purchasing because of this simple oversight? Ouch!

Differentiate and stand out

Standing out on the shelf in high-volume retail is difficult, when a single store has over 30,000 products for consumers to browse. Making an impact in this market means being bold and trying different strategies than other brands on the shelf.

Don’t be afraid to break the rules, push your brand, and move outside of your comfort zone. Brand differentiation is key for standing out, and most products end up blending in. 

But remember, differentiation must have purpose—being different for the sake of being different won’t produce results. Make sure your unique positioning actually matters to shoppers in your category.

For example, think about how a kid (and mom) felt the first time they read “limited edition toy inside” on a cereal packaging design. This message addresses both the parent and the child, helping to establish more product value for a nominal cost. 

Sometimes standing out requires more than a single feature. With the rise in sustainable packaging, finding other purchase drivers that reach this customer profile reinforces the value of the product. A triple threat in this category would be:

  1. Eco-friendly packaging
  2. Reusable packaging 
  3. Multi Purpose Packaging 

Position and communicate these product features well and you will beat out the average “natural” product.

Dial Back Your Corporate Tendencies

These days, customers choose a product based on what the brand reveals about their character. We understand this synchronicity as brand resonance. Consumers prefer brands that have personality, originality, and real people behind them. 

Because of this, we’re in the middle of what could be called a “counter-corporate” movement in packaging design. 

Bland stock images, generic taglines, and any other overly manufactured styles are out. Instead, consumers prefer brands that express themselves; they prefer charming, opinionated, and quirky brands that are transparent on the shelf. 

This means brands must avoid dedicating packaging space to self-serving corporate claims, obvious calls-to-action, and shopworn promises that consumers hear from every company. They must approach the packaging design process with a human mindset and ensure the packaging connects with shoppers on a deeper level.

Dedicate space in your design to include elements catering to your target market’s broader interests, including activities or social causes. Customers also appreciate brands that show their humanity and include warm, inviting designs in their packages.

Finding The Right Purchase Drivers 

People can love your brand and believe in your mission, but that is not enough for a brand to succeed. Without the right purchase drivers, your product will sit on the shelf marking down the days until their expiration date arrives.

Besides a strong brand identity, your message needs to create purchase intent. An extension of your branding is to include messages that matter, but speak them uniquely that is more impactful than the competition.

Clarify your value proposition

To start, what does your product stand for? Make your value proposition blatantly obvious so that your target demographic cannot miss your message. While you shouldn’t scream “HEY, NATURAL SHOPPER!” On the front of the package (or should you), there are ways to communicate this message properly. The correct pattern interrupts move the message from the package to the mind, seemingly at the speed of light. 

purchase drivers

Staying on the subject of packaging design for natural products, it may be a single ingredient that brings home the uncured pastured bacon for your natural food item. However, in a category where natural ingredients are common purchase drivers, you may need a unique way to format that message. 

Nonverbal Drivers

Many brands forget the synergistic relationships between what we see and what we read. Traditionally reserved for brand identity, nonverbal drivers through graphic design increase message strength that words alone may not accomplish.

Great packaging uses both verbal and nonverbal drivers to influence a consumer’s purchase decision. At SmashBrand, we believe it is necessary that we test product messaging with and without non verbal drivers.

Package Design Testing

Food brands at every level can perform package design testing. Even with a penny-pinching budget, you can test your packaging through digital ads, product demonstrations, or simply asking how people feel about a design. But not all package design testing provides the feedback you need in order to compete in tough environments.

Let’s look at some of the ways that you can test your food package design.

Consumer Validation Testing

The last step involves validating your proposed designs with representatives from your target market. Reach out to your product’s specific audience and let them know what you’re doing. Set the stage by:

  1. Identifying where they are (e.g. the cereal aisle in the grocery store)
  2. The context of what they’re doing (choosing a new cereal brand)
  3. What they’re looking for (low sugar, healthy options).
    Under this framework, present the packaging design to them. Gather specific feedback, allowing you to fine-tune the attractiveness and messaging of the package.

From here, let’s take a quick step back and assess the goals of packaging design:

  • Attract customers
  • Associate specific products with specific brands
  • Effectively communicate what the product is
  • Demonstrate what makes the product unique over similar competitors

With these goals fresh in our minds, the value of consumer validation testing becomes clear. Customer feedback is a simple way to measure the effectiveness in a setting that resembles the actual buying experience.

The best outcome from this process, of course, is discovering that nothing needs to change. However, we’ve seen brands discover costly design or messaging mistakes through this process. Through our package testing methodology, we saved them a tremendous amount of money and hassle. Getting in front of this problem before it hits the shelves prevents friction between the brand and the retailer.

We strongly recommend that brands perform some type of consumer testing process before sending their products to the shelf. This process is simple to do and maximizes design potential while minimizing risk. It’s also important to note that the best consumer feedback comes from aim, third-party sources, not affiliated with the brand.

Consumer testing relies on unbiased feedback.

Package Design Testing Free of Subjectivity

At SmashBrand, we take a different approach to package design testing. When you work with our package design agency, it is the actions of the consumer that determine the total purchase intent. It is through our package testing process that calculates the effect a design has on brand recall.

We don’t want subjective opinions or how they “feel” about a product. Sure, it’s a start and narrows down some factors, but we must remove potential mismatches between what someone says and what they do. Only a simulated buying environment with an accurate competitive landscape provides the data we need to compete against the top food brands.

Repeated the Testing Process

Rinse, wash, repeat. Testing once is not enough. Through iteration, you can get your product packaging closer to a straight line from the shelf to your ideal consumer.

Launch & Distribution

You’re finally ready. You’ve followed each of the above steps, performed all necessary research, and are ready to launch your product. If you’ve performed each step, your brand has a leg up on the competition, but realize that the challenges aren’t over yet. Stores give a new product a six-to-nine month incubation period to prove its value, so smaller brands typically only have one shot to get it right.

It’s difficult to get your product on the grocery store shelves, but be persistent and don’t give up. All brands initially pound the pavement to prove themselves, generate consumer interest, and make the right connections. Attend trade shows in your market to network with distributors, suppliers, and marketing professionals who can help.

Using a broker may be helpful when trying to break into large national retail chains. If you’re trying to make it into smaller gourmet shops, the owners will be more willing to hear direct pitches from producers.

Some companies, such as Whole Foods, often introduce small brands on a regional scale, testing out how they’ll perform. These can be viable options for brands hoping to break into the market.

Food Package Design Agency

Our passion is to help our clients bring new brands to life or to invigorate their existing ones. We put our heart and soul into every project, designing standout brand experiences that embrace innovation, creativity, and game-changing ideas.

We’ve owned successful brands and know what it takes to compete in crowded markets. Regardless of your product, our team has the knowledge and insight needed to make yours win.

Discuss your project with our team.