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Debbie Millman—a designer, educator, podcaster and Expo East speaker—on why natural represents the future of branding.

Melissa Kvidahl Reilly, Writer/Editor

September 1, 2016

5 Min Read
Why natural foods are uniquely poised for success in a visual world

Debbie Millman is a writer, educator, artist, brand consultant and host of Design Matters, a podcast about design and creative culture. This year, she is also a session speaker at Natural Products Expo East, where she’ll deliver a talk entitled, “Visual Storytelling: How to Use Art and Language to Grow Your Brand.” Here, she sheds light on why branding matters to shoppers—and why the natural products industry is in a prime spot to grow.

How has the natural industry changed the branding landscape?

Debbie Millman: Historically, building a brand was rather simple. A logo was a straightforward guarantee of quality and consistency, or it was a signal that a product was something new. For that, consumers were prepared to pay a premium. Later, manufacturers transformed into marketers. Brands were designed to indicate the maker of a product. As they were initially competing against unlabeled and non-trademarked bulk merchandise, these symbols needed to simply distinguish themselves by being decorative, recognizable and culturally popular.

The counterculture of the 1970s ushered in a manufactured-brand backlash that introduced a new way of thinking about consumption, and we saw companies such as Celestial Seasonings, Ben & Jerry’s and Dr. Bronner’s providing alternative products that needed to telegraphically signal their purity and lack of artificial anything. The countercultural graphics were the polar opposite of what was conventionally seen on a supermarket shelf, in order to communicate their difference and political stance. Suddenly, successful multinational corporations were increasingly finding themselves under attack.

Now, there are forces pushing more and more people to become suspicious of or even downright enraged at behemoth corporations, and fast-moving consumer products are changing before our eyes. The visual vernacular of brands is changing faster now than it ever has before, and all-natural, organic, healthy brands look more simple, clean and elegant than they ever have before. The category no longer has to rely on previous category gimmicks in order to capture the imagination of the consumer. And that is a very, very good thing for everyone—except the mass manufacturers, who are all losing market share.

Do you have any product or brand design tips to share for natural food makers?

DM: Consider what you do every minute that you are doing it. What matters to you? What matters to your company? Tom Peters contends that if an idea for a product is meek and weak—the equivalent of another line extension—it simply isn’t worth spending time on. In other words, do we really need another bottled water? The biggest, boldest, most successful products are now coming from the most compelling need for a company to do something that will change the game. People are not looking for a different form or flavor. They are looking for a product to make a difference in their lives.

Some dynamics I have found to be instrumental in developing a more impactful and meaningful articulation of your brand to better connect emotionally with your consumer are:

(1) Understanding the brand territory: Essentially, the brand identity should be the telegraphic expression of your brand positioning, personality and cultural values. It should fit your vision and business strategies, help characterize your organization and ultimately be a beacon for consumers in their shopping environment.

(2) Investigating the brand in context: We define this by looking at the brand spectrum. Is there a balance between the brand’s emotional and functional attributes? A brand needs to have an appropriate amount of both in order to create meaning.

(3) A courageous and honest strategic focus: Creating breakthrough identity solutions that are intrinsically intertwined with a clear marketing strategy. Talking directly, passionately, and as uniquely as possible to your audience. It is a relentless persistence and constant assessment of your brand’s relevance to your key constituency.

How can natural food brands leverage design to further their mission of providing better food to consumers?

DM: Food plays both a fundamental and heroic role in our society. It is fundamental in that food is as necessary to sustaining life as oxygen. It is heroic in that the food products we offer play a lead role in so many of the moments that make up our lives.

We are constantly seduced by design. Our world is so saturated with design now that we can hardly separate ourselves from it. I am wondering if it is possible that design is now taking over the social role that music or fashion have served over the last half a century. It seems to me that design is becoming the most important influencer of our culture and our consciousness today.

There is no one better positioned to give consumers what they want now than the owners and makers of natural brands. This is the food not only of the moment, but also very much of the future. The conventional supermarket brands are dying, as are their manufacturers. Think about it: General Mills has acquired Annie’s. Colgate has acquired Tom’s of Maine. Clorox has acquired Burt’s Bees. If there was ever a signal that times are changing and consumers want something better, these signals indeed have arrived.

What can attendees expect from your Expo talk?

DM: My talk is an entertaining sociological, scientific and anthropological overview of why humans buy and brand things. I hope that the audience will be educated, motivated, entertained and inspired.

Catch Debbie Millman at Natural Products Expo East.
What: Visual Storytelling: How to Use Art & Language to Grow Your Brand
When: 11:45 a.m. - 1 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016
Where: Baltimore Convention Center, Room 302
Learn more here.

About the Author(s)

Melissa Kvidahl Reilly


Melissa Kvidahl Reilly is a freelance writer and editor with 10 years of experience covering news and trends in the natural, organic and supplement markets. She lives and works in New Jersey.

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