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Natural brands should be great storytellers

Lots of natural brands have great "stories of origin" to tell — a home remedy born in the kitchen, a thoughtful mom wanting to make a healthier mac and cheese for American families, a local candle-making partnership in Maine run by a guy named Burt. These natural brands also share kinship with what I’ll call benevolent brands — philanthropies, NGOs, local charities or any organization that looks at the world through a socially aware lens.

The combination of these origin stories and kinship with good causes should spark consumer affection as quick as it took Renee Zellweger to say “You had me at hello." But for all the natural, organic and otherwise healthy brands that have these marketing gifts within easy reach, why hasn’t this industry given us more really strong successful brands?

Caught in the tell-all web

tart with packaging, the most important ‘touch point’ by far for a natural brand to build a following. When you cram mission, features, benefits and a bunch of certification seals onto a 16 oz. facing, you hurt your brand’s chance to be seen and add to the aggregate visual assault that consumers experience every day when shopping for natural brands in the food, personal care and HBA aisles.

Most consumers — even dyed-in-the-wool "natural loyalists" — would sooner go to the dentist than deal with the information onslaught of the typical natural aisle. The idea that any segment of consumers wants to spend more time in-store, finding products and making decisions, defies logic and professional research studies.

And this packaging mess relates to the bigger question facing individual natural brands and the industry as a whole – how to keep bringing in consumers from the huge group of "less committeds" that dwarfs the loyalist segment. Without this constant inflow of new consumers, the future outlook for the industry will be dramatically different, and the life expectancy of hundreds of natural, organic and healthy brands will be foreshortened. From this perspective, cluttered packaging could well be cutting you off from your own future as a brand and business.

A page from the mass-marketer playbook

Painful as this may be for some to read, when you look at market shares of natural, organic and healthy brands, you’ll find the names of some of the world’s largest CPG companies at the forefront. Consider Colgate and Clorox, for example. When they acquired Tom’s of Maine and Burt’s Bees, respectively, each of the acquired brands was already strong in its own right.

And critically, each showed great potential to grow among average consumers shopping mainstream channels in addition to the hardcore folk in the aisles of Mrs. Greens. The packaging for both was arguably strengthened post-acquisition, but each already had packaging well on the road to the kind needed to create great recognizable brands.

3 thoughts to get your brand on the road

Whether you’re a large, medium or smallish brand, here are three thoughts to help you combat or pull back from the ruinous urge toward density in packaging:

1. Pick your brand idea and convey it in a super-simple and potent way -- both words and design. If you’re having a hard time getting to "super-simple and potent" packaging, go back to your brand idea; it’s probably fuzzy. Once you take a clear stand, you’ll be off to the races developing a distinctive visual and verbal branding system that gains you more pop on shelf. Muddy or vague brand ideas usually leave client teams and packaging agencies feeling a bit like they're muddling through, like something that doesn’t quite sit right at the end of a meal that should have been so tasty.

2. A core brand identity that REGISTERS.

“Pretty," “elegant," “distinctive," “really captures our essence,” and all those other presentation room accolades aren’t worth a hoot if the brand’s core identity or logo doesn’t project to the consumer from your position on shelf. You need a brand stamp of sorts, to cut through the environmental muck surrounding you on shelf -- one that grows in projective power the more SKUs you add to your line. And "project" means not just in front of your spot on shelf, but a few feet before the shopping cart even gets there.

P.S. If you’re one of those hundreds of smallish brands that will likely be stocked below eye level, take this idea of REGISTRATION all the more urgently to heart.

3. Beware the limits of shopper patience.

This is everything. Brands only get three seconds of advertising exposure before a consumer decides if they’ll keep reading. With packaging, it’s no more than a blink of the shopping eye.

In our experience, if your packaging fails the "blink" test, the original sin has often occurred in the creative packaging brief. It’s the old 15 pounds of sausage in the 10-pound sack problem: Too much stuff to fit on a label for human consumption, and yet there it is staring the creative team in the face. The design process becomes an exercise of problem management rather than communication opportunity. And in the end, the client team ends up looking for the design that is least flawed rather than most amazingly goose-fleshy awesome.

There’s a more nuanced pack design discussion around architecture, navigation and the like that follows. But that can be a real eye-glazer for all but the most wonkish among us. We’ll spare you…for now.

What other strategies can natural brands use to attract new, “less committed” consumers?

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