‘Healthy’ Packaging Means Healthy Sales

by Pan Demetrakakes

Health and wellness sell, and packaging helps, but it’s important to have a clear message.

If there’s anything most food and beverage marketers agree on, it’s that health and wellness are big influences for consumers. And if there’s anything they splinter on, it’s how best to cater to those influences.
Fragmented trend
Making sense of the health and wellness trend can be daunting, because it’s so fragmented. It comprises not only a lot of disparate consumer concerns, but many different kinds of products, both specialty and mainstream.
One of the biggest product niches in the health/wellness category is organic and natural foods and beverages. North American sales of organic foods and beverages exceed $23 billion. (As a category, organic is more restricted because the Food and Drug Administration sets standards for it, whereas anyone can call anything “natural.”)
Organic/natural products tap into several powerful consumer motivators: the desire to eat foods that are as fresh and minimally processed as possible; fear surrounding the high-profile scares over tainted food from overseas; and concern about the environment. Organic and natural products are especially conducive to packaging that reinforces the close-to-the earth trope.
“Organic [and] natural products tend to either use earth tones and uncoated natural stocks, often using retro structures (that is, Ball canning jars) or use a white and bright/clean colors to convey healthy/freshness,” says Lee Sucharda III, president of Design North Inc. “They often have very simple architectures.”
Gail Ritacco, vice president of market insights for the design firm Product Ventures, seconds that notion. Products going for “natural” appeal should be “things that look like they’re made with care, more farm stand looking, as opposed to mass-produced,” she says. “Mass-produced and processed does not suggest healthy.”
One recent application of this principle was with Hormel Foods’ Natural Choice line of lunchmeat and bacon. The products undergo in-package high-pressure immersion, a relatively new technology that adds shelf life without preservatives. It’s packaged in uncoated kraft-style paperboard, with a die-cut window showing the product inside thermoformed film.
“What we wanted to do was have packaging design as well as a system that would complement its all-natural positioning,” says Jim Splinter, Hormel’s vice president for marketing. “That’s why we went with the uncoated, natural kraft-type packaging.”
Worries about the Earth
The notion of organic products as being closer to the earth plays into what can be a powerful consumer motivator: environmental concerns. About two in three (68 percent) of respondents to a poll by the Abundant Forests Alliance, an advocacy group of lumber and paper companies, rated the overall quality of the environment in the U.S. as fair or poor, and 52 percent said it’s getting worse. Many Americans also have a sense of inferiority vis-à-vis other countries, according to a poll by GfK Roper Consulting: 38 percent say the U.S. is behind other countries in this regard.
Sustainable packaging is one of the hottest trends in packaging, especially with the advent of Wal-Mart’s sustainability initiative. There’s a certain congruence between consumers interested in sustainable packaging and those who want to consume organic or natural products.
“To some degree they are same audience,” says Jack Gordon, CEO of AcuPOLL, a consumer research firm. “People who tend to be environmentalists tend to be more into health, organics, nutrition, those kinds of things. But the people who are into health and nutrition and organic foods are not [necessarily] environmentalists.”
In any case, Gordon questions the average consumer’s depth of commitment to the environment. “Most people are what we call ‘talking environmentalists,’” he says. “A talking environmentalist is someone who will do recycling as long as it’s at the end of the driveway. Consumers like to talk about the environment, but if you try to charge them 10 cents extra for something that’s environmentally friendly, generally they won’t buy it.”
Nutrition is another aspect of health and wellness where a lot of people talk a better game than they play.
“There is always a disconnect between what people say and what they do,” says Kathy Sheehan, a senior vice president with GfK Roper Consulting. “Nowhere is this more apparent than when it gets to things like food and diet. Habits are very hard to change and inertia is a very powerful force.”
Nevertheless, the push for nutrition, while perhaps not deeply rooted, is nevertheless quite strong. In a survey conducted last year by Datamonitor, 58 percent of U.S. respondents said they had increased their use of nutritional information on product packaging to make purchase decisions.
“People are looking at label information with much more regularity and depth,” says Daniel Bone, a senior consumer market analyst at Datamonitor. “They’re much more engaged with the information on the package.”
Lack of info
One reason for the disconnect between what people say and what they do might be the fact that many consumers simply aren’t that well informed about nutritional information.
“Despite being more interested in nutrition, it doesn’t mean that consumers have a detailed understanding of things like micro-nutrients, Omega 3 and Omega 6,” Bone says.
The flip side of that situation is that to attract consumers’ attention, health claims on packaging don’t have to be too detailed or sweeping.
“There’s a strong interest among consumers in any product that can actually promise a health benefit, even if it’s a light promise,” says AcuPOLL’s Gordon. “None of these products are out there saying they’re going to fix something. They’re out there saying they’re going to help you with things. And those kinds of promises are, right now, enough for consumers to be very interested in those kinds of products.”
At the same time, food formulators and package designers must keep in mind that for the great majority of consumers, even those with strong health concerns, taste will make or break the deal.
“Even consumers who are really strongly into health, they still eat foods for taste,” Gordon says. “Taste is king and always will be king.” Balancing the two factors is “the $64,000 question,” Gordon says, and something that few CPG companies do well: “Make sure you have a high-quality package that really speaks to taste appeal and then you make the health claims around that.”
Carol Cady, director of transformational packaging innovation at General Mills, cited her company’s new ready-to-eat cereal and granola bars that are co-branded with the Curves franchise of women’s health clubs as an example of packaging that accomplishes both goals. The graphics show a smiling young woman jumping for joy. The message to consumers, Cady says: “They believe they’re successful in accomplishing their goal, and that’s communicated with the happy, jumping, expressive person, but it also would indicate that this is a fun way to get to my goal.”
Health and wellness trends, in their various forms, are going to gain momentum as food and beverage producers find more ways to follow them.
“It’s also making it easier for people to not have that disconnect between their attitude and their behavior,” says GfK Roper’s Sheehan, noting that, for instance, organic food is much more readily available now than it was 10 years ago. “It’s going to be a little bit of a push and pull. Consumers will demand [things like] organics and recyclable packaging, and marketers will provide them, so I think they kind of feed off of each other.”
Pan Demetrakakes is the executive editor of our sister publication, Food and Beverage Packaging. Contact him at