August 24, 2017

Food Packaging Design – The Playbook For Success

Food Packaging Design – The Playbook For Success

We’ve worked closely with many brands, from huge, national companies to tiny startups getting their foot in the door, and own several of our own globally-distributed consumer product brands. When it comes to spending time in stores, at food shows, and reading about the latest industry updates, nobody on the market can beat our expertise.

With that in mind, I’ll lay out the fundamental steps necessary to create a brand that attracts attention, generates interest, and drives sales. Of course, these are just the “best-of” hits of the strategies we’ve been developing since 2001. There’s plenty more that goes into providing competitive advantages to our partners.

It’s a tough market out there. Current statistics estimate that 9 out of 10 new consumer products will fail within the first year. Usually, this has nothing to do with the product itself, only how it’s presented. This is because the majority of all purchasing decisions are made at the shelf—meaning that your brand packaging needs to support your customers’ experience from the minute they set foot in the store. A well designed package accounts for what consumers see, think about, and react to when walking through the aisles. More than anything else, this customer experience determines the sales performance of a product and the overall profitability of a brand.

Step 1: Market Research

Why do big brands dominate big markets? It’s because they dominate the data. They say knowledge is power, after all.

Data pulled from market research is critical to every level of decision making at the big brand level, driving all decisions related to product development, packaging, and marketing. Fortunately, not every brand needs to break its budget to create a well-defined brand that differentiates it from the competition. All it takes is a little ingenuity and elbow grease.

Brands should leverage all information at their disposal, including industry reports, online discussions, social media, and competitor reviews to understand the current packaging zeitgeist. This groundwork is important, and it’s 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 here is to get a finger on the pulse of what your target market wants to see and of the primary pain points in the competitive space. We take this information and form hypotheses about strengths, opportunities, threats, and risks in the service of research-backed package design.

Competitive Analysis

The goal here is to see how your brand stacks up. You want to identify where competition is weak or missing. This learning and insight exposes market opportunities that are not addressed by any current products and can reveal huge opportunities.

Packaging is unique because it “lives” on cluttered shelves, and has to work within the very limited time—often only 5-15 seconds—that shoppers typically spend making their purchase decisions. Given this reality, the first challenge is clearly to be seen and considered—and to consistently create an opportunity to sell. In fact, years of Eye-Tracking studies have shown that shoppers never see at least one-third of the brands displayed. Research also shows that being seen quickly correlates quite highly with purchase.

Your product will typically be positioned directly next to its primary competitors. In other words, your packaging will rarely be viewed or considered in isolation. If you want to get noticed remember this important point. The most relevant norm is nearly always competition—and it is critical that you gather directly comparable data regarding competitive packaging, including that of all the leading store brands. You cannot be unique and disruptive if you do not know the entire competitive landscape.

If you are doing this yourself, start with a combination of in-store tours and online research. You should photograph your visits to enable the design team to see where your product will reside ‘in the wild’. When researching online you should try to collect as many images as possible as well as product reviews. You would be surprised how much insight you can gain about likes, dislikes and possible opportunities from amazon reviews for instance.

Target Audience

How does your brand measure up to the competition? The main goal for your market research is to identify open areas in your industry that your competitors haven’t touched. This presents opportunities to reach untapped markets that aren’t yet loyal to any of your competitors.

This differentiation is important as packaging design has some unique challenges when compared to other marketing mediums. Given that packaging rests directly next to its competition, consumers can draw direct comparisons between each product. And they don’t spend long doing it—usually no more than 5-15 seconds—making it essential that product stands out. In fact, eye-tracking studies have shown that shoppers never even see a third of the brands on display. Add in further research that tells us that being seen quickly correlates highly with purchasing, and the value of standing out from the crowd becomes clear.

But since your competition is placed so closely to your products, it’s important that brands gather all comparable data on their rivals 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. You can also check online reviews to gather valuable insight into the preferences of your market.

Some questions you will want answers to are:

– What is the primary driver of purchasing decisions in this product category?

– Where are the products typically purchased?

– How will consumers discover, and learn about, your brand?

– How is your brand currently perceived?

– In what ways do customers misunderstand the competition’s products?

– What do people like about the brands they’re loyal to?

– Is your target market informed, or do they require guidance?

– What are the primary pain points faced by shoppers?

– How will you address these pain points with your content?

– How can you position your products around the things they find useful?

– What type of voice, style, and language will your market appreciate?

With this information, you can craft specific buyer personas to represent different segments of your target market. This type of segmentation can be valuable for getting inside the heads of your customers.

For example: Tom (24) is a recent college graduate working as a software engineer. He is interested in beverages that boost productivity, and he’s always looking for new drink options that will make him more efficient without giving him the jitters or making him feel unhealthy.

Remember, these personas are simply fictional representations of how your buyers might look. Create one for each segment of your audience so you have a concrete plan for structuring future marketing efforts.


Have you finished your market research? If not, hold off on beginning the next steps until your homework is done. Plenty of brands fail because they assume they can just “wing it” on their market research, but then they end up having to start from scratch. Take your time and do it right.

Step 2: Define Your Packaging Parameters

So, you’ve finished your research and made it to step two. Now what?

Next, we’ll review the parameters for designing your packaging. But before we get into that, we have a bit more research to do. Brands must define their parameters before they can begin building toward them. These parameters likely include the following:

+ Project goals

+ Packaging requirements

+ Total budget

+ Project timelines

+ Project constraints

To help define this framework, brands should ask themselves several questions:

– How many SKUs are there?

– How many components will be packaged together?

– How do components correlate with one another?

– What materials are the products made of?

– What is the weight of each component?

– What is the retail price of each SKU?

– Is there a specific budget per SKU for packaging manufacturing?

– Do you know geographic compliance laws for packaging and labeling?

– Are there specific shelf requirements? And what type of shelf will house the products?

– What type of lighting will be used?

– Is your packaging designed to sell? To warn? Or to display?

– Is there any product information that must legally be included on the packaging?

– Are display windows necessary?

– Should your packaging be easy to dispose of, or should it be sturdy for future repurposing?

– 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 all about understanding how to get your products from the factory floor to the retail shelf.

Step 3: The Design Process

With market research and packaging parameters figured out, you can move on to the actual design process. Ideally, your designer will understand your desire to create a strong brand that can compete in crowded marketplaces, and she will have experience with food product branding in addition to 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 just slapping a shell on your product; the team you choose should understand how to bring the product to life and articulate the quality of the product through the packaging design. It’s this positioning, this attitude, that allows businesses to unlock the untapped opportunities that exist in their markets.

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

Differentiate and stand out

It’s not easy to stand out on the shelf in high-volume retail, where a single store may have over 30,000 products for consumers to browse. Making an impact in this market means being bold and willing to try different strategies than those of others on the shelf. Don’t be afraid to break the rules, push your brand, and move outside your comfort zone from time to time. Differentiation is key for standing out, and most brands end up blending in. But remember, differentiation must have purpose—being different only for the sake of being different won’t produce results. Make sure that your unique positioning actually matters to shoppers in your category.

Present a clear hierarchy of information for hurried shoppers

When shoppers are in a hurry, they gravitate toward the brands that present the most pertinent information in the most organized fashion. Understanding this visual hierarchy is the easiest way to position yourself to appeal to shoppers who grab and go. Be choosy about what to include. Prioritize the design elements and copy that are critical to your brand positioning, and don’t overload it with excessive clutter.

This informational hierarchy has three levels:

Attract // Attract the attention of the customer.

Interest //  Quickly gain the interest of the customer.

Deliver // Deliver a message to convince customers that they want and desire the product and that it will satisfy their needs.

The elements you include in your product should provide clear information about what makes your brand different and relevant to the target market. It shouldn’t just suggest it—it should smack them across the face. Focus on attracting the customer first and worry about generating interest and message delivery later.

Dial back your corporate tendencies

These days, customers choose brands based on what the brand reveals about their character. They 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 brands that are charming, opinionated, quirky, and transparent on the shelf.

This means that 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 that the packaging connects with shoppers on a deeper level. Dedicate space in your design to include elements that cater 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.

Clarify your value proposition

All brands must know how they want to be seen by shoppers and how their own products compare to the others on the shelf. These considerations play a large role in packaging design. Value brands, for example, should suggest that their quality is comparable to big-name brands at a cheaper price. But those with premium or private-label offerings must work to continually elevate what premium means, what it looks like, and why customers should care. Remember, the biggest competition is the product next to yours on the shelf. The shopper is deciding the value of your brand based on how your product and packaging stack up against those nearby.

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, how hanging tags block products on the shelves below them, and how building lights cause reflections or shadows. While many of these factors can’t be controlled, it’s vital that brands understand their impacts when coming up with packaging designs. These aspects may end up influencing the packaging substrates used, whether or not you use dual PDPs, and where the most critical messaging on the packaging should be placed.

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, this copy was concealed by the retailer’s own sale tags hanging from the shelves above. Without making it clear that the high cost of the product was due, in part, to the high volume of food the customer received, it simply appeared that the product was excessively expensive for its category. How many customers over the weeks and months decided against purchasing because of this simple oversight?

Step 4: Test & Refine

The final 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 identifying where they are (e.g. the cereal aisle in the grocery store), the context of what they’re doing (choosing a new cereal brand), and what they’re looking for (low sugar, healthy options). Under this framework, present the packaging design to them and try to gather specific feedback that will allow 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 of packaging in a setting that resembles the actual buying experience. The best outcome from this process, of course, is to discover that nothing needs to change. However, we’ve seen several brands discover costly design or messaging mistakes through this process, saving them a tremendous amount of money and hassle by getting in front of it before it hit the shelves.

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

Step 5: 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 in turn, your brand already has a leg up on the competition, but realize that the challenges aren’t over yet. Stores generally 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 not easy to get your product onto grocery store shelves, but be persistent and don’t give up. All brands have to 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 also 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, will often introduce small brands on a regional scale to test out how they’ll perform. All of these can be viable options for brands hoping to break into the market.

Questions? We’re here to help

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 stand-out 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.


by Kevin Smith
SmashBrand helps brands create, optimize, and launch successful products, services, and customer experiences. Our data-driven process is the key to accelerating sales and minimizing risks.

We use a strategic combination of market research, design, and consumer testing to solve complex brand problems more effectively, create differentiation, and forge more meaningful connections with customers.

Let's work together.

Tell us a little about your project, and we'll be in touch right away.

Your Details

Don't worry, this is for our eyes only, but we want to be able to reach out to you and chat.


Your Project

We help brands solve complex problems to cut through retail clutter to accelerate their sales and growth while minimizing any risks. Tell us how we can help you.

What type of Project are you enquiring about?

What is your budget? $40 - 80k

What is your timeline 4 - 10 Weeks +

Submit Away

Thanks for taking the time to share your project. We'll take a close look and get back to you as soon as possible.

Prepare for a quick response!