Over the past several years, we’ve seen an enormous shift in consumer preferences for food and beverage products. Increasingly, shoppers, most notably younger ones, are walking away from large brands perceived to be processed, artificial or mass-produced in favor of options they feel are more authentic, local and “real.” This war on Big Food has led many leading manufacturers to purchase smaller organic brands: The Campbell Soup Company has Bolthouse Farms, Kashi belongs to Kellogg’s, and General Mills has Annie’s Homegrown. Others have made well-publicized changes to product formulations, such as removing artificial colorings and preservatives. Still, growth in smaller brands continues to far outpace that of familiar big brands — look at craft beer versus Budweiser, Bud Light and Coors Light.      

Since packaging is each brand’s embodiment and primary touchpoint, it has an enormous impact on consumers’ perceptions. Thus, it presents both an important opportunity and obligation to send the right messages about product quality, authenticity and health. With that thought in mind, this article focuses on how pack appearance, branding and messaging can work together to convey this message. In addition, we share new research on reactions to healthy food claims, conducted in partnership with leading academics from INSEAD and Vanderbilt University. 


While shoppers may rationally claim that features, benefits and specific logical claims drive their purchase decisions, behavioral science and in-store observation tells us that packaging works primarily within a “System 1” world of fast, automatic and intuitive thought and reaction. In other words, shopping decisions are largely driven by what people see as they navigate cluttered aisles and how packs make them initially and instinctively feel prior to actually reading any on-pack messages. Thus, it is critical that packs look real at first glance, or they are unlikely to ever gain active purchase consideration. 

The semiotic cues associated with authentic, natural, healthy products are well-established. The problem and challenge for designers is that these tactics of earth tones, matte finishes, ingredient visuals and the like are overused. This makes it difficult to find a distinctive approach — and can invite skepticism when a familiar “mass-produced” brand suddenly appears in a rough brown pack.

So which packaging strategies can be employed to send a strong visceral message of authenticity?

In our experience at PRS IN VIVO, we’ve found several tactics to be consistently effective:

1. Transparency

While clear packaging is hardly unique, transparency remains a powerful visual cue. Showing the product intuitively signals openness and implies confidence in the product. These signals, in turn, promote brand trust. The challenge, of course, is that this strategy places an emphasis on product appearance: The food or beverage needs to look good!

2. Simplicity of design

Clarity of pack layout is also important, as it implies simplicity of the product itself. This in turn links closely to the perception of a real/authentic product. However, designers too often interpret simplicity as an overwhelmingly white package, which can also be perceived by consumers as dull or generic. Care should be taken to ensure an appropriate color balance, which can include a more vibrant or active visual image. The key is to avoid cluttering the pack with too many messages. By trying too hard with bold violators, packs can often come across as “mass-produced” and inauthentic.  

3. Non-traditional  structures or delivery systems

An alternative packaging structure or delivery system can also be a powerful cue, particularly in distancing a product from negative brand or category associations. For example, if “processed” soup comes in a can, offering soup in a bag format encourages shoppers to reassess. Similarly, if mass-produced cereal comes in a box, a bagged product can create contrast, drive shelf impact and potentially speak to a more natural and authentic positioning.   

4. Place of origin or production process

Finally, an increasingly common yet effective tactic  involves celebrating where the food comes from. In highlighting the farmer or farm, marketers are borrowing a familiar strategy from both restaurant menus and Whole Foods Market, and leveraging the popularity of farm-to-table dining. In addition, they are creating the opportunity to “tell stories” that humanize their brands and build stronger consumer connections. 


In addition to the visual and structural appearance of the packaging, there is an obvious need to convey and reinforce real credentials via branding and messaging. On the branding level, the central question is as follows:

Can well-established big brands be credible in delivering  real products?

This is a challenge for many marketers: Placing the parent brand on new products can potentially drive a positive halo (i.e., “Kellogg’s is really changing.”), or it can potentially invite skepticism (“If it’s from Kellogg’s, it has to be mass-produced.”). For this reason, most manufacturers have chosen to avoid placing a direct “endorsement” on the packaging of their smaller, more specialty brands. Kashi is owned by Kellogg’s and Shocktop is owned by Anheuser Busch, but you would not learn this this from the packaging.

However, we have also seen cases in which a more authentic positioning and packaging strategy were used to effectively reinvigorate an established brand. The Philadelphia brand is one notable example, as Kraft Heinz recently repositioned the brand via a pack redesign that highlights not only the product ingredients, but also their freshness and place of origin. Importantly, the on-pack communication links to both advertising and digital strategy, which allows the company to “tell compelling stories” and connect more closely with consumers. Similarly, Poland Spring has recently refreshed its appearance to place a stronger emphasis on its Maine identity and origin of its water.

Finally, there’s the challenge of effective on-pack messaging. Shoppers are bombarded daily by an enormous  range of health-related claims. Which of these messages are most compelling to today’s consumers?

To better understand this dynamic, we spoke with Professors Pierre Chandon (of INSEAD) and Kelly Haws (of Vanderbilt University), who recently conducted a health-claims study among more than 2,000 consumers in the United States and France. Sixteen alternative claims were selected and grouped into four quadrants, which were along two continuums:

  • Positive versus Negative: Something good is present versus something bad is absent.
  • Natural versus Science: A product’s natural properties have been preserved versus nutritional properties have been enhanced through science.

The study’s findings were clear and directly relevant to food and beverage marketers. Across countries and demographic groups, health claims focusing on positive elements (i.e., organic, wholesome) led to better inferences about product taste, quality and authenticity than those centered on negatives (i.e., low calories, no preservatives). Similarly, nature-based messages (i.e., all natural, whole grains) typically drove stronger perceptions of anticipated taste and quality than science-based claims (i.e., good source of calcium, high in antioxidants). However, there were some cultural differences this dimension: French consumers were more influenced by nature-based claims, while Americans responded more equally to both science- and nature-based messages. 


Across categories, younger shoppers are sending marketers a very clear message: They are looking for more real and authentic products, rather than processed or mass-produced items. It’s critical to have packaging that speaks to these priorities, through both appearance and messaging. To this end, marketers should consider:  

  • Investing in innovative pack structures, as they can speak to simplicity and authenticity and/or help break away from negative brand or category associations.
  • Highlighting product origin and production pro- cess as a way of humanizing their brands, “story-telling” and connecting with consumers on a more personal level.
  • Emphasizing more positive and nature-based claims, while limiting references to what is not in the products, which can inadvertently drive negative associations or product perceptions.

Finally, we’d emphasize that it is important for marketers to focus on the evolving shoppers’ perceptions of their established brands. Keeping these major brands relevant through pack and product innovation is typically a far more efficient and effective strategy than relying on acquisitions and new brands to connect with younger consumers.