Market not to be sneezed at

You don’t have to need it to enjoy it. James Knight looks at the role design can play in making specialist food more appealing to a broader target audience

Specialist foods targeted at allergy sufferers are coming out of the medicine cupboard and on to the supermarket shelf. Until recently, if you had a wheat, gluten or dairy intolerance, the chemist or doctor’s surgery were the more likely destinations for the weekly food shop. But the market is starting to emerge from the shadows.

According to British Nutrition Foundation research, 10-20 per cent of adults claim to be intolerant or allergic to foods. Proven intolerance is much lower, around one in 100, but this perception of intolerance in the mind of up to a fifth of consumers indicates the presence of a considerable market.

And manufacturers and retailers are waking up to the potential of this market. Last week’s launch of Sainsbury’s new Freefrom range, the first supermarket own-label wheat, gluten and dairy-free range, with packaging designed by Parker Williams (DW 4 July), and an earlier launch of Incept-designed Glutano wheat-free chocolate bars (DW 13 June) show these products moving into the mainstream.

But does packaging design for these products reflect this growing shift towards the mainstream? How do designers deliver the complex medical information that needs to be communicated while balancing taste and value messages? And what role can design play in widening the target audience beyond those who must eat specialist food?

Freefrom brand manager Chris Bradley says specialist grocery products don’t have a reputation for outstanding packaging design, but he thinks the rapid expansion of product development has powered the packaging revolution.

The 60-strong Freefrom range includes products as diverse and unexpected as toffee, fish fingers and iced desserts and Bradley says that greater choice demands a more integrated packaging strategy in keeping with the look of the mainstream market.

Parker Williams creative director Tamara Williams says the Free-from packaging is designed to be as attractive as possible. ‘It’s about presenting food in a scrumptious manner; making you taste and smell with your eyes,’ she says.

Gluten Free Foods sales director Ellis Ward, who looks after the Glutano brand including Big Break and Break Bar chocolate bars, agrees it’s important to deliver mainstream cues.

‘I wanted to create a feeling of normality again,’ he comments. ‘For so many years products for specialist foods looked bland.’

Incept director Alex Arenson was responsible for Glutano packaging design and says the quality of the product demanded a more accessible wrapper. The brief was ‘to vamp [the chocolate bars] up as much as possible’.

‘It looks about as close to a Kit-Kat as it can do,’ he continues. ‘The previous look wasn’t as fun as this or as contemporary. There was a lot more white, which suggested a medicinal feel.’

In addition to ensuring the product doesn’t look like it belongs in a hospital waiting room, it is vital to display product information. ‘You have to be very clear about labelling and communicating the specific benefits,’ says Williams. ‘A lot of back-of-the-pack information is now headline news on the front.’

She stresses the importance of functional design, which carries through to the brand name itself. ‘Avoid clever names,’ she continues. ‘Say what it is. Don’t try to be too smart.’ This informed the name Freefrom, allowing gluten, wheat or dairy to be suffixed where appropriate.

Incept’s solution was to display information prominently. Arenson highlights the use of the phrase ‘Glutano Wheat-Free’ on the side of the pack as a kind of corporate mantra. This tag operates alongside two prominent tick-boxes reiterating the absence of wheat and gluten. There is also a circular icon of a corn ear with a cross through it. This triple-whammy leaves the consumer in no doubt as to what they are about to bite into.

For Ward, the funky revamp of the Glutano brand is intended to appeal to the specific niche market of those already diagnosed with dietary conditions. But Bradley sees the foods as having three distinct groups of consumers: a ‘home base’ of people with certain food intolerance; those with allergies who perhaps should be avoiding certain foods; and the more general health-conscious eater.

Freefrom’s primary aim is to bolster loyalty among the food intolerance market and lure consumers away from other supermarkets. But beyond this lies the holy grail of mainstream cross-over. The idea, Bradley says, is that Freefrom products could be enjoy-ed at a dinner party if only one person has an allergy or intolerance.

Bradley identifies high price, poor taste and obscure product information as barriers to mainstream consumption of specialist food. Packaging has a role to play in clarifying product information and making the food look mouth-watering he says.

‘The 21st century is big business for health food,’ adds Williams. ‘There’s a huge, huge market for people avoiding gluten.’

The perception of allergy or intolerance presents a powerful marketing leverage. Perhaps if the packaging can draw the audience in, there is the possibility that some mainstream consumers may even start to diagnose allergies they never knew they had by trying these ranges.

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