Raising a Commodity to Star Status: Packaging That Helped Create Unique Brands
by Ted Mininni
Shelf clutter is nothing new. But so many similar products in crowded, over-merchandised categories and across multiple retail channels only serve to increase the risk that some will come to be viewed by customers as commodities. Whether you believe that perception to be true of your own brand or not, you have to agree the situation presents a unique challenge to marketers and design consultancies.
Faced with perceived product parity, you’ll find that it becomes even more critical that your packaging communicates your brand’s unique selling proposition, no matter how subtle. In such instances, brand assets that evoke an emotional response are most likely to succeed. Indeed, packaging that satisfies the consumer’s intellectual demands, and meets specific emotional needs, helps to cement a satisfying relationship with your customers and eliminates the likelihood that they will, in their own minds, commoditize your brand.
Java jive
Coffee is certainly one product category that, with its soaring popularity and the proliferation of brands, can fall into the commodity trap. According to industry experts, Americans consume 400 million cups per day, making us the world’s largest consumer group of the aromatic beans. Witness the mind-boggling number of brands of canned, jarred, and bagged coffees in every supermarket, gourmet and specialty store as well as coffee shops in every conceivable location. Coffee comes in all kinds of blends, from basic to exotic, ground and whole bean, commercial, fair trade and organic.
But even with the proliferation of specialty brands, and the dominance of Starbucks, it is still possible for coffee brands to carve out their own unique niches. Coffee is the kind of commodity item that benefits enormously from brand differentiation, and unique packaging.  
Green Mountain Coffee Roasters is an excellent example. Green Mountain got its start in 1981, roasting coffee on the premises of a small café in Waitsfield, Vermont. Before long, the company was bombarded with such demand for its product that it began to bag both its whole bean and ground coffees, becoming one of the nation’s leading specialty coffee companies in the process. Green Mountain achieved this success in spite of the fact that the company has much more limited distribution than Starbucks’ and other major food companies’ gourmet coffee offerings.
As is the case with other premium coffee brands, Green Mountain packages its whole bean and ground varieties in vacuum-sealed bags. The packaging is upscale, as one would expect, with beautifully rendered artwork and the company’s logo set in an oval cartouche. But it’s the art on the front panel that has greatest impact. The front panel on most of the company’s “signature collection” varieties (the heart of the brand) shows the pristine Vermont village and café where Green Mountain Coffee Roasters was born, with green mountains looming in the distance and an inviting cup of java in the foreground. The image of tranquil, unspoiled countryside and pure gourmet products creates an emotional response in consumers, urging them to pick up the package to learn more about this coffee. All of a sudden, life has slowed down, and a cup of coffee is something that can be savored and profoundly enjoyed.
The brand communications on the packaging speak volumes in the simplest language. Side panels provide an encapsulated version of “the Green Mountain story”. Copy instructs the customer how to brew the optimal tasting coffee, proclaiming: “For us, coffee is a passion”. The packaging invites the customer to experience what the brand describes as “an art” that delivers “one of life’s true pleasures”.
Green Mountain Coffee Roaster’s packaging brings us to the heart of the brand. By inference, this coffee is far more than a utilitarian product for daily consumption. It promises to deliver a profoundly satisfying, enjoyable experience.
Getting back to our roots
Like coffee, tea is another category that requires a purposeful effort to escape the perception of it as a commodity. Though Tazo Tea has been owned by Starbucks since 1999, the Tazo brand remains true to its founders’ vision. The company was established in Portland, Ore., in 1994 by Steve Smith and business partners, Stephen Lee and Tom Mesher. Smith and Lee were previously founders of another tea brand, and they brought with him the belief that Americans, though not enamored by supermarket tea brands, could be persuaded to become tea drinkers if the brand delivered a new experience and innovative blends.
From the beginning, Tazo was a stark departure from the more “traditional” tea brands on the market. The company’s packaging and marketing approach has been described as “new age” by some, but Tazo is just reaching back to the misty dawn of civilization to reconnect us with our ancient tea-drinking roots. In fact, the tagline “The Reincarnation of Tea” appears prominently under the logo, and the brand name itself has many translations, signifying “fresh” in Hindi and Urdu dialects and “river of life” in the Romany Gypsy language.
Tea master Smith and his team source high quality combinations of tea leaves, botanicals, herbs and fruits from all over the world to create unique, exotic tea blends. Cost has never been factored in the procurement of such ingredients since Tazo’s executives have always felt that customers would willingly pay a premium price for a premium product—and a deeply satisfying experience.
Tazo’s packaging is also masterfully conceived. It looks clean and contemporary, yet with elements like the logo, which incorporates archaic symbols, it looks ancient at the same time.
A colored seal runs vertically up the front panel of the package with old-fashioned script on it. The color on the seal; correlates to each distinctive tea blend and its historical roots, increasing the tea connoisseur’s sense of connection to, and enjoyment from, the product. For example, the Zen and China Green Tips teas feature a green seal; African Red Bush features a red seal and Honeybush Tea features a honey-colored seal. With 50 percent recycled packaging materials, highly textured “paper” surfaces (some of which resemble sandstone), unusual ornamentation and ancient iconic script as background to the typography, this tea packaging truly communicates the product’s exotic appeal.
These powerful graphic elements point to the ancient traditions, social and spiritual connections associated with the drinking of tea, reminding us that for thousands of years, tea was enjoyed with great ceremony in many cultures, and that we can connect to our past—and to each other—by imbibing this special brand.
As with Tazo Tea and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, many companies can use a differentiated brand vision, along with packaging that clearly demonstrates that unique perspective, to make an emotional connection with consumers, fend off the “commodity” perspective, and successfully carve out a substantial niche for their brands. As Marc Gobe, author of Emotional Branding once said: “People need to escape through their experiences.” BP
Ted Mininni is president of Design Force Inc., a metro New York-area consultancy that specializes in brand identity, package design and consumer promotion campaigns for the food/beverage and toy/entertainment industries. He can be reached at 856.810.2277, or visit www.designforceinc.com.
Five Steps to Success
If we answer the following questions wisely, we can create packaging that truly helps build our brands:
• How can we carry a unique vision into our packaging, the brand communications and communications hierarchy, the materials we use, our typography, artwork and symbolism?
• How can we extend our values into our packaging and drive brand growth in the process?
• How can we use packaging to invite customers to our web site, and make them eager to learn more?
• How can we use packaging to create a lifestyle image that consumers will want to be part of?
• Lastly, how can packaging evoke emotions in customers and give them a sense of connection to society, the environment, or a bit of enjoyment—an oasis—in their busy lives?