Organic foods are moving away from associations with hessian sacks, brown sandals and tree-hugging. Many of the more successful brands are borrowing the design language of premium, aspirational products as they ditch naive, rustic images and simple typescripts on plain backgrounds.
Curiously, this shift comes as non-organic food brands are jumping into the vacant space and using the cues from organic packaging to portray themselves as healthy, ethical and environmentally friendly.
This brand cross-over risks confusing consumers, but it highlights the important job for brand designers – to communicate distinctive identities and clear messages that leave no room for uncertainty.
One of the first organic brands to signal its premium positioning through design was Rachel’s Organic, the yoghurt and dairy brand. A decade ago it took the unusual step of eschewing the usual pictures of farmyards and leaves favoured by so many organic brands. Instead, it created a black background for its identity to denote its upmarket, luxurious credentials. This month it unveiled a revamped range design by FBA that introduces a new colour scheme with a white lattice design on a black background (DW 15 March).
Marketing director Steve Clarke says, ‘Black is now so widely used for premium food packaging. We wanted to evolve a new style and introduce more colour in line with modern design and the current revival of geometric patterns.’
Meanwhile, the role of packaging is changing as organic brands become more popular. Supermarkets are stocking the goods across a wide range of categories, rather than grouping them together in a specialist aisle. This means the packaging has a dual role – to stand out against other organic goods and general food products.
This can be seen in the recent revamp of Tesco’s Organic range by Coley Porter Bell. CPB creative director Stephen Bell says that Tesco’s Organic lines were previously grouped together as a niche offering, but now they are scattered around the stores. ‘Our job was to create an identity to stand out in each category,’ he says. The new packs use natural images to indicate categories and have food shots on a black background, again denoting their premium position.
People buy organic foods for different reasons, according to CPB chief executive Vicky Bullen. Some buy for philosophical motives such as ethics and the environment. But an increasing number of shoppers perceive them as offering a superior taste and, as such, the products are competing with premium lines. ‘We think there has been a big shift,’ says Bullen. ‘Organic foods have moved on and have become much more mainstream. It is about aspiration and design has to reflect that.’
Another brand to adopt premium packaging design is chocolate range Green & Black’s, which promotes indulgent rather than ethical values with packaging that features rich, dark colours and gold typography, created five years ago by Pearlfisher.
But there are still plenty of organic brands that draw from a more traditional palette of light colours and beiges, perhaps featuring a leaf and simple typescripts. As Springetts creative director Roger Bannister says, ‘There’s an element of less is more in organic packaging. There’s a simple honesty behind the products.’
However, he says that many non-organic brands are using the category codes of organic products as they attempt to portray their health and ethical credentials. ‘It will make it harder in the future for the true organic brands, they will need to shout a bit louder,’ he adds.
For Adrian Goldthorpe, strategy director at FutureBrand, avoiding the ‘design by numbers’ approach of many organic brands is essential. His consultancy worked on rebranding the Whole Earth Foods range and he praises the Suma Wholefoods brand as ‘clean, simple and pure’, and one that has stuck to its roots as a workers’ co- operative with an ethical standpoint on the world.
He fears that the organic space is being invaded by brand impostors and says, ‘There is a lot of scepticism now about what is organic and how you classify it, which is why brands use the category codes. But it is not being true to yourself. If it is going to be a brand rather than a product, it needs to stand for something itself.’
An important element in promoting organic products is the structure and materials of the packaging. Rachel’s Organic has put its products in cardboard as opposed to plastic, while Sainsbury’s said it would use compostable packaging made from starch on 500 of its products. However, the use of biodegradable packaging and a move away from oil-based packs is prohibitively expensive for many brands. The cost should come down as more brands commission environmentally friendly packaging, but this will be a gradual process.
In the long run, the growing popularity of loose vegetable boxes delivered by companies such as Abel & Cole signals a world where product packaging is pared down to a minimum. But designers are confident there will still be plenty of opportunities to ply their trade. Even cardboard boxes need branding on them.