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How consumers’ changing tastes drive new food and beverage packaging looks

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Food and beverage brands change their package designs to keep up with shifting consumer tastes, new labeling rules and often just to stand out on the supermarket shelf. Sometimes the brands that are first to transform their packages lead the category into new trends, like the South Beach meals that brought bright white boxes to the freezer section, and Kettle Chips in matte finish bags, which one recent report calls a growing trend in the snack section.

A recent report from Datamonitor called matte finishes a new hot trend, and Director Andrew Streeter told last month that more chip and snack brands are likely to switch from glossy bags to show up better under bright supermarket lights and to appeal to consumers’ cravings for more natural brands. Additionally, matte finish bags may provide an old-fashioned look that appeals to shoppers’ sense of nostalgia, printing executives said.

In the Next forecast from Sterling-Rice Group and New Hope Natural Media, branding experts include clean white packaging as one of the hot trends when it comes to natural and organic products, as evidenced by products including Nulo Naturals Pet food and Tazo Tea.

Trends in food and beverage packaging are cyclical, often out of necessity — the changes that work become trends, which means suddenly everyone’s doing it and the original products no longer stand out on their looks alone.

When Meghan Labot’s team at Spring Design Partners took on the task of designing the packaging for Kraft Food’s South Beach brand meals, the frozen dinner case was dominated by Swanson and other big brands, with shelves full of reds and oranges. When South Beach launched in a white package with teal accents, it stood out right away.

Fast forward a couple years and white boxes dominated the diet-meal freezer section, she said.

“These design tricks are cyclical, everyone can latch onto them, so if you don’t tie it to your brand, it has no lasting power. When we think about innovation and trends in packaging design, we want to find things that are really tied closely to the brand. If it ties to your brand, it’s brilliant. If it’s just a trick to stand out, then it’s just a trick, and you will have to find another in a few years.”

Labot questions whether a change like switching to matte packaging is enough to convince consumers that the product inside is more “natural” than the glossy bag sitting on the next shelf, especially in time when the word “natural” means less and less to consumers.

“As consumers demand more authentic natural products, things are tightening up around natural claims,” she said. Many brands are starting to take natural claims off their packaging, and trying to figure out how to convey a natural aura about the product inside without using the word.

She cites Kashi cereals as a brand that succeeded in using package design to take its wholesome message to a wider audience when the brand grew beyond natural food stores and entered mainstream supermarkets.

Kashi’s white boxes and clean designs highlight familiar ingredients and sometimes include nutritional information and attributes such as “non-GMO” on the front of the box.  Putting more of that information on the front makes sense in an era when consumers are looking past the tired “natural” claims and picking up boxes to read the back, including nutrition labels, she said.

Those labels may soon be the impetus for a slew of new packaging redesigns. In February, the Food and Drug Administration proposed new Nutrition Facts labels that will require brands to make several changes, including emphasizing portion sizes, portions-per-package and calorie counts by both serving and package.

Those changes come as consumers are already much more savvy about label reading, Labot said. “Because we know consumers are looking at it, and shopping behavior is looking for validation in that space, we need to make every single component work as hard as it can to communicate the brand,” she said.

Design changes that come about as a result of new labeling rules driven by consumers’ growing quest for more information about the food they’re buying are are likely to be the kind of trends that have staying power, she said.

“There are gimmicks and bells and whistles,  like QR codes and UV ink, that are interesting. They get our attention and they’re fun to use, but I think it’s an overstatement to call it a trend. A trend amounts to a cultural phenomenon. I think a trend is more along the lines of how the medium is used to communicate with consumers. As the culture changes, as things happen, it changes how we respond to brands. That’s how trends start to emerge.”