Brands To Watch

By Pauline Hammerbeck

Bold packaging has five upstarts taking flight.

These guys get it. Packaging differentiates. It connects with consumers. And it tells your brand story like no other medium can. Though they were short on big budgets, these independent brands had the vision to come into the world with packaging consumers couldn’t help but bring into their lives. It’s a strategy that’s paying off for each of them, and, with news breaking as we go to print, to the tune of $40+ million for one of them. Flag these five as Brands to Watch.
Bloomsberry & Co.
“We’re a package design company first and foremost,” says Paul Pruett, U.S. CEO of Bloomsberry & Co., the New Zealand-based chocolate company that launched in the United States late in 2005.
Bloomsberry offers milk and dark chocolate, certified all-natural and powered with a high cacao content. But the brand’s bold wrappers—more than 50 unique designs—and the witty personality they display are undeniably a bigger draw than what’s inside.
Take the company’s new Easter-themed bar. The wrapper has a photo of an Easter-bunny-head locked in a frozen, toothy smile. A hot pink word bubble extends from the chocolate rabbit’s mouth to pose the question, “Do these ears make me look fat?”
Other designs are more progressive. The phrase “Oral Pleasure, Here for a good time, not a long time” is boldly printed along the face of a Kelly green-colored package.
On the whole, though, Bloomsberry designs are more quirky than risqué, striking a range of universal themes to support a “giftable” positioning for the brand.
“People like the process of choosing designs and associating them with various people,” says Pruett. “It makes a huge emotional connection with the consumer.”
The bars are oversized—3.5oz each—nested in foil and a paper wrapper, and then set in individual paperboard boxes. Pruett says the packaging has played a “huge” role in selling the brand through to independent boutiques and specialty gourmet stores, along with national chains like Borders, Bloomingdales and Whole Foods.
Bloomsberry’s “wink, wink” personality also gives it a much hipper vibe than most chocolate companies, opening the door to expand to other formats. This month, the brand is launching its best-selling “Emergency Chocolate” milk and dark chocolate bars in 1.05oz sizes as bite-sized indulgences.
True to form, the bars bear cheeky copy—For immediate relief of chocolate cravings, lovesickness, exam pressure & extreme hunger—front and center on the pack.
Castor & Pollux Pet Works
It’s easy to draw the David versus Goliath comparison when you consider Castor & Pollux Pet Works competes against mega brands like Pedigree and Purina.
The Oregon-based company launched a secret attack on the $16 billion pet food sector in 2003 with Organix, a pet food line that was among the first to be certified organic.
“We were focusing on high quality natural and organic food in a [category] that had yet to see high quality products,” says Shelly Gunton, co-founder and CEO.
The only question was how to prompt consumers to give the brand a try.
“We knew right out of the starting gate that we were not going to have the budget to do traditional advertising, so we invested what we thought was an inordinate amount of money on packaging,” says Gunton.
Castor & Pollux had launched premium pet toys and accessories in 2001, and those products bucked conventional pet-product packaging forms: They took cues from the laundry and vitamin aisles and—in the case of the custom, fire hydrant-shaped shampoo bottle—from beyond.
Food freshness and safety demands kept the company’s Organix pet food line in more conventional packaging. But the company used bold color blocks and a vertical logo orientation to convey the brand’s premium nature, and focuses on details like a die-cut window shaped like a drumstick to call out the organic, free-range chicken in its treats. Last summer, it launched a resealable tub—the Go Organic Kit—stocked with introductory samples of Organix dry and canned food and treats to ease curious consumers into an organic pet food buy.
The strategy certainly seems to have worked. Castor & Pollux toys and treats and the company’s organic and natural pet foods brands are national through PETCO and available at Whole Foods and other specialty retailers. The company has doubled revenue every year since its founding, finishing just over $12 million in sales last calendar year.
Yet, as a relatively small company in a large industry, Gunton still retains the David mentality. “We’re still teeny on the pet food side of business,” she says, explaining that the brand will counter that by continuing to put money into product and, as its next launch (a Doggie Day Pack in a suitcase-style tin) will attest, into its packaging.
Honest tea
Honest Tea just sold a 40 percent stake to Coca-Cola (we got word as we were going to print), and it blurred our rule to profile private companies in this story. We realized that, if anything, the news makes this the preeminent Brand to Watch.
When it started bottling organic tea in the co-founder’s kitchen, Honest Tea was looking to do more than sell drinks. It wanted to stake out a new business model, to create healthier beverages with a consciousness about the way ingredients are grown.
Over the next 10 years, Honest Tea has meticulously held fast to that model. That’s why it uses organic cane sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup. Why it brews its tea with full leaves, not tea powder or syrups. And why its labels have always paid graphic tribute to the cultural origin of its leaves.
Sweating the details has come with its challenges. Back in 1998, the brand launched with two-piece front and back labels that conveyed a wine-like quality and played up the purity of the brew. But when a labeler crashed in 2007, the brand conceded that, rather than make a capital investment, it would be smarter to go with a more conventional wraparound style.
For most brands, it would have been a matter of swapping the old for the new. But co-founder Seth Goldman composed 600+ words on his blog to explain the change.
“After a great deal of redesign work and even more personal angst,” he wrote, “we finally came up with a look for a wraparound label that we think is consistent with our brand’s look.”
Such transparency and consideration are hallmarks of Honest Tea, particularly as it relates to environment.
When the brand introduced its Honest Kids line in flexible pouches, for instance, it believed them to be fully recyclable. But the foil liner on the bottom proved them wrong.
Stuck with a package divorced of its values, the company stumbled on a way for the pouches to be reused. It partnered with Terracycle, which makes consumer products out of garbage, and began collecting and repurposing the empties into accessories that will be sold at Target later this year.
Even with Coke as its largest shareholder now, the brand insists it will continue with that same leadership and vision—no exaggerations or false promises—and that it will go on turning out “honest” tea.
Mrs. Meyers Clean day
Named for the founder’s mother, Mrs. Meyers Clean Day offers a line of uncomplicated home cleaning products with simple ingredients and single-note fragrances that celebrate the values of a woman who raised nine kids on an Iowa farm.
The brand’s take on cleaning? It is necessity, not necessarily fun (as Martha would have us believe), but keeping tidy is easy with a “sensible pair of shoes, a little elbow grease, and the right soap”.
The brand holds an equally no nonsense opinion of packaging. The look is authoritative, with heavy text, color-coded labels that convey scent and bottle forms that are pleasantly basic (an instance where stock forms make sense for a brand).
That’s not to say there haven’t been some tweaks. Mrs. Meyers commissioned its supplier for a custom design when the cap wouldn’t stay on its original laundry detergent bottle. But when the bottle maker showed the “swoopy, Tide-like concept” to Sharon Werner, whose Minnesota firm had helped name and design the brand, she told them it was all wrong.
Make the new bottle like the old (a classic vinegar jug), she said, but with a bigger handle to fit fingers better and an enlarged mouth that would better fit the cap. “That’s the bottle Mrs. Meyers would use,” she explains. “A basic bottle, but more thoughtful.”
“Thoughtful” could also describe the merchandising. Mrs. Meyers has successfully lobbied retailers like Whole Foods and Ace Hardware to display the brand’s products as a whole on shelf. Savvy marketers recognize the approach as a “brand block” but there’s also a more purposeful motive: it conveys the idea that you can use a single scent across products to clean your entire home. Now, that’s straight Midwest practicality.
So how would Mrs. Meyers explain the concentrated formulas, earth-friendly ingredients and recyclable packaging—in short, the fashionable nod to all things green? Werner says it’s simple. “It’s not about being trendy. It’s the way the world should operate,” she says. “That’s how Mrs. Meyers would be”.
Pangea organics
Named for the prehistoric super-continent, Pangea Organics is a brand with the Earth at its core.
An “ecocentric” line of soaps launched in 2001 by a 23-year-old making product in his garage, Pangea expanded but kept focus on handcrafted, organic, (largely) fair trade and cruelty-free wares—no petrochemicals, parabens, GMOs or other ingredients on a green activist’s target list. Unlike some environmental personal care lines, which claim proprietary formulas, Pangea listed every ingredient on the box.
It was a great start, but not enough. The brand had been using recycled materials but, according to founder Joshua Onysko, the packaging looked like “a 23-year-old with 11 maxed out credit cards designed it.”
Four years into the launch, Onysko turned to IDEO to revamp the line.
Redesigned, the new packaging now gives visual life to the organic ideals of the brand, with minimalist, slightly altered stock forms, rough hewn boxes and apothecary-style bottles—all unified by an earthy brown.
But a closer look reveals more. The concept celebrates the idea of packaging having life beyond its original use. Post-consumer materials inform the bottles and boxes with zero waste, without glues or dyes. Recyclable HDPE bottles are screen printed, not topped with extraneous labels. And recycled newsprint is turned into molded fiber shaped into plantable clamshells and boxes: embedded amaranth and sweet basil seeds sprout once they’re buried in soil.
“We used lifecycle analysis to design the packaging,” says Onysko. “[We asked ourselves] where did it come from, how was it made, what was the impact, where is it being shipped from, does it leach into the product, how long will the consumer have the package, what will they do with it when they’re done, what will the world do with it when they’re done.”
It’s a simple philosophy of maximizing the positive, and eliminating the negative—one that’s projected to be rewarded by 22 countries and 20,000 retail locations to the sum of $20 million in 2008.
Though, Onysko says he’ll continue to seek more sustainable options. In fact, he’s turning to biomimicry for packaging inspiration. The practice uses nature as a guide and has turned out innovations like super-strong biodegradable glues inspired by the way mussels cling to rocks under water.
And while there’s no real news yet for Pangea on the biomimicry front, for Onysko, such explorations are the ultimate tribute to the Earth.