Seattle has a feeble presence when it comes to the kind of brands you find in the supermarket. That world is dominated by giant companies like New York-based PepsiCo, Chicago-based Kraft Foods and Minneapolis-based General Mills. But food conglomerates are beginning to find local companies an attractive source of new growth. Sahale Snacks, a Seattle company with about 150 employees and estimated annual sales of $50 million, produces fruit-and-nut snacks and was recently snatched up by Ohio-based J.M. Smucker Company, which owns brands like Pillsbury, Folgers, Crisco and Jif.
Building a desirable food or beverage brand isn’t easy. It begins with developing a great tasting product, of course. But to break through the clutter of products on store shelves, it must be distinctive, it must have a clear target market and it must have a strong distribution system. And all those product strengths must be relayed to consumers through strong packaging.
Talking Rain’s zero-calorie Sparkling Ice beverage, for example, languished on store shelves until the company developed new sales and marketing strategies that were reflected in a redesigned, brightly colored bottle. Annual sales that had plateaued for years at $10 million exploded to more than $350 million in 2013 as the fizzy drinks became popular for use in cocktails. Rumors of a corporate takeover recently began swirling.
Creating a brand that wins consumer loyalty is a complex process. “Branding is so much more than just the logo, the colors on the box or the packaging,” says Cole Johnston, creative director at Seattle-based Creative Retail Packaging. “It’s about creating that emotional connection with the product.”
Could the three Seattle companies profiled here be the next big things? Packaging experts say each is well on its way to building loyal followings by producing products that taste good, have distinct identities and are packaged to sell.
DRY SODA CO.
Dry Soda comes in a clear, smooth bottle with just a splash of color on the label. With only four ingredients — all of them natural — and unusual flavors like cucumber, rhubarb and juniper berry, it is the antithesis of the typical soft drink.
CEO Sharelle Klaus came up with Dry Soda in 2005 while trying to find a healthy soft drink she could consume during pregnancy. When her flavorful but less sweet soda didn’t sell, she collaborated with Seattle-based Turnstyle Studios to relaunch the product with a design that targeted high-end consumers.
Since the relaunch in 2009, Dry Soda has seen sales soar to four million bottles in the first nine months of this year. “The stripe didn’t disrupt the shelf,” says Steve Watson, creative director at Turnstyle, of the previous label design that featured a colored vertical stripe that sold well in restaurants, but not in stores. “The color splashes you see on the bottle now were meant to illustrate key ingredients. They created more of a shelf presence.”
Klaus wanted to pair the soda with certain foods, as one might pair a wine with meat or fish. With a soda marketed toward “urban foodies,” she believed her customers would understand the sophistication of the branding message, which goes beyond the name Dry. On the website (drysoda.com), she suggests different foods to pair with every kind of flavor, as well as different ways to mix the soda with other drinks.
Every bottle of Dry Soda is also embossed with Klaus’ signature, a trait any wine connoisseur would recognize as a vintner’s mark. Klaus believes this addition allows her to connect with her customers and lend personality to the brand. The packaging introduces the customer not just to Dry Soda, but also to Klaus herself.
Last year, the company began selling its sodas in cans and in a 12-month span, it had already sold two million canned units.
Simple & Crisp’s dried-fruit snacks are meant to be seen inside their packaging.
SIMPLE & CRISP
When it comes to snacks, with hundreds of brands to choose from, do consumers really need more choice? Jane Yuan, CEO of Simple & Crisp, is convinced they do. Since 2012, she has produced a thin, dried-fruit crisp, made only with fresh fruit that feels light, is healthy and tastes great. You can eat it with cheese or spreads, but Yuan says it also constitutes a “perfect pairing” with ice cream and even cocktails.
“Our mission is to make food fun, colorful, healthy and simple — an inspiring centerpiece that brings people together,” says Yuan, who is targeting famously fussy foodies.
This “cracker alternative” is packaged to catch the eye. “Packaging has become, in the industry, a stronger differentiator for a brand,” says Johnston, who helped Yuan build Simple & Crisp from the ground up. The hexagonal box stands out from the rectangular containers common on store shelves, and it is open on four sides, so shoppers can see the crisps, which are packed in clear cellophane. Yuan says the product has been flying off the shelves of stores like Whole Foods Market, PCC Natural Markets and DeLaurenti Specialty Food & Wine and, most recently, Harrods in London.
Seattle Chocolates’ truffle bars are wrapped in bright colors to convey to consumers a festive, energetic sensibility.
chocolate tends to be wrapped in dark shades signifying warmth and comfort. But when Seattle Chocolates CEO Jean Thompson came out with her line of chocolate truffles and truffle bars, she wanted bright colors that convey an energetic, festive feeling — “a small celebration with every piece.”
Thompson uses the bright colors to target young women. “Women want color,” she says. “We offer 15 patterns of brightly colored packaging because we’ve found that color sells.” For its latest Jcoco line, the company has worked with chefs to come up with innovative flavor combinations such agave quinoa sesame, edamame sea salt, black fig pistachio and Veracruz orange.
The company’s signature truffle bars, which declare themselves to be “what happiness tastes like,” have long been a big hit. In each case, the flavors inside are reflected in the packaging. With a flavor like Orange Appeal, two shades of orange provide a direct link to what’s inside.
Another packaging feature is the sense of place that some of the flavors elicit. There’s Whidbey wildberry, Pike Place espresso, San Juan sea salt and Seattle sea salt, which features a “12th Man” Seahawks-themed wrapper. The concept seems to be working: In the past year, Seattle Chocolates has sold more than 1.2 million chocolate bars and the Jcoco line has seen a dramatic increase in sales since its introduction last year.