A positive news story about graphic design? Was I dreaming?
From the 1976 NBC ‘N’ fiasco to the recent brouhaha over the redesigned Yahoo logo, I’m used to seeing stories in the press that divulge how much companies pay for brand updates that are seen as nonfunctional, dumb, and/or despised by the public.
On August 21, a different kind of story was on the front page of The New York Times business section: “Lunchables, the Lunchbox King, Faces a Rival Vowing Higher-Quality Fare.”
Side-by-side photos of Lunchables next to Revolution Foods Meal Kits—with bright colors and simple shapes on clean white backgrounds—showed me right away that this was a story about design as much as it was about healthier lunches for America’s kids.
Not surprisingly, the Times reporter didn’t credit the design firm. It took some digging, but I found Addis Creson in Berkeley, CA, and its CEO Steven Addis and Chief Design and Innovation Officer John Creson. I’m always impressed by design David-and-Goliath stories, like, for example, how Method’s eco-friendly home cleaning products, devised in a San Francisco garage and packaged by Karim Rashid, got on the shelves next to Proctor and Gamble products—and won Method the 2010 AIGA Design Leadership Award.
And now, another Bay Area upstart, this one founded by two moms who met at U.C. Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, CEO Kristin Groos Richmond and Chief Impact Officer Kirsten Saenz Tobey, was successfully challenging Kraft Foods’ Oscar Mayer brand “Lunchables,” which has owned the $1.35 billion packaged-lunch category since 1988.
Launched in 2006 with a pilot program serving healthy lunches in five Oakland schools, Revolution Foods delivers 200,000 meals a day at 1,000 schools around the country. With the goal of making “grab-and-go” kids’ meals with less fat, less sugar, and no artificial ingredients available at retail stores, they’re taking on Kraft Foods’ Oscar Mayer brand. Without the services of an ad agency, I’ve learned, and with no television presence (except for segments on the news, like on ABC’s Good Morning America), Revolution Foods Meal Kits are sold at Target stores, Whole Foods and a growing number of supermarkets.
It’s impossible to get an accurate estimate of Kraft’s annual advertising budget for Lunchables, but as just one example, the Times story reported that in 2011, Kraft introduced “Lunchables With Fruit” that featured a fruit cup (instead of, I assume, cookies) with a $20 million advertising campaign.” How does an upstart, even one on Inc’s fastest-growing companies list, compete with that?
Can design really make a difference in differentiating a product with a comparatively tiny marketing and advertising budget? Yes, say Revolution Foods’ Brand Director Jen Paragallo and Director of Brand Experience Günther Lie, two influential players in the design process. “Design can be a great equalizer,” confirmed Steven Addis in an e-mail interview. “The package serves as the primary advertising medium, a place where a unique tone of voice can be showcased. Every consumer of your brand sees the package. A fraction of them see the advertising. Brands with small budgets should consider this a competitive advantage and invest in shelf presence. That’s where the purchase decision is made. It’s been shown for sixty years that the manner in which something is packaged changes the perceived performance of the product,” he explained. “Wine tastes better in a better package, food tastes better and pain relievers work faster. Skim over packaging design at your own peril.”
“The feedback is that a lot of kids love the circles on our package, and they are attracted to the apple logo on our brand,” added Revolution Foods co-founder Kirsten Tobey. “Kids recognize shapes and colors easily, so this is actually a familiar design to them in many ways.” Does she think design is entering the hearts and minds of the typical mom or dad shopping in the supermarket? “Most people are not actively thinking about design,” she said, “but they notice good design when they see it. They may not even be able to identify it as good design; they may just say, ‘That’s appealing to me’ or ‘It looks good.’ We think good design is essential,” she affirmed, “design that makes the product look great and appealing and tells the product story.”
Her company’s product story is spreading fast. On September 19, Revolution Foods was featured in a “small to big” story in Bloomberg Businessweek, and Richmond and Tobey were recently named to Fortune Magazine’s “40 under 40” list.
In my supermarket, the sign above the kids’ meals refrigerator section says, “Lunchables.” I’m looking forward to the day when the brand name is replaced by “Meal Kits.” And when kids naturally gravitate to healthier food choices, which, according to Tobey, is her company’s ultimate goal.
Want to read more? The full interview with Addis, Creson, and Tobey—including Tobey’s thoughts about “kid food” in general (“America has an obsession with the notion of the picky eater, which is a self-fulfilling prophecy”)—will appear in the completely updated and redesigned second edition of my book, The Graphic Designer’s Guide to Clients, coming from Allworth Press in the spring.
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