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NOSH Voices: Why Natural Needs Design, More Than Ever

About the Author: Fred Hart is the creative director at Interact, a Boulder-based branding and design firm. Fred’s CPG experience includes work in multiple bleeding-and-leading edge food categories, as well as nearly every beverage category imaginable. Notable brands he’s worked with over his career include Monster Energy, Dogfish Head Brewery, Mike’s Hard Lemonade and International Delight. 

Every week, waves of all-natural, cleaner, better-for-us food companies push their way into the crowded food landscape, packed onto the shelves like a can of non-GMO, sustainably-harvested sardines. Categories balloon with products cut from the same, simpler-food-cloth. The pressure is such that even overly processed brands, many of which are American favorites, are reinventing themselves, fighting startups and innovators for relevancy. Food has taken its rightful place in culture, as any millennial’s Instagram will prove. Yet this shared ethos amongst almost every modern-day food company and founder, may present a hurdle to the brands they’re building today.

Over the last several decades, the Natural and Organic foods industry has seen unprecedented growth, coming at the expense of Big Food. This changing of the guard has accelerated as more and more people become interested in their food. What’s in it? How is it made? Where does it come from? Natural’s ability to proudly deliver these characteristics has built valuable trust in the movement. Yet as the entire food system becomes more wholesome, more organic, and less processed, a dangerous dichotomy is emerging: When everyone crafts simpler foods that are closer to the earth, we simultaneously lose a valuable brand building asset – taste differentiation.

Everyone and their investor is now in a race to the bottom of the clean, transparent ingredient list. Seemingly harmless “natural” flavors are now under growing scrutiny, furthering this flavor dilemma. Large food producers are leveraging their size, money and reach to play a serious game of clean-up. With all this going on, and a clear consensus around consumers’ interest in and demand for less, we’re now faced with answering a tough question: how do you democratize natural food without falling victim to the dreaded C-word – Commoditization. What happens when all these products and ingredient lists become too similar? How do we build a meaningful brand without the type of flavor differentiation Big Food artificially engineered and benefitted from?

A defined palate has never been consumers’ strong suite, and only worsens with foods that have 5-7 ingredients or less. Commodities, it should be stated, are often single ingredients derived from a whole food, or in some instances are the whole food themselves. Oats, kale, coconuts, nut butters. They’re grocery staples that we pay little attention to in their raw state and find interchangeable. Yet commodities provide incredible value. Communities, and co-ops, are built on them. They’re almost always available and affordable. Having more organic commodities at society’s fingertips would clearly benefit all. Even Amazon recognizes the business opportunity here. But commodities, unlike brands, lack the ability to garner attention, incite change or stir up conversation for the greater good. Brands create progress like commodities never could. Boxed Water with sustainability. Newman’s Own with Charity. Sambazon with acai farmers. GT’s Kombucha around health. The lists go on.

Design is the powerful storytelling tool that transcends simply WHAT these products are and shifts the focus to the emotional aspect of these brand, their WHY. Designing with the WHY in mind transforms the aforementioned commodities – oats, kale, coconuts and nut butters – into valuable brands like Bob’s Red Mill, Rhythm Superfoods, Dang Foods and Justin’s Nut Butters. Other commodities-turned-brands like Cuties, Wonderful Pistachios and Driscoll’s have all leveraged the power of design to create a more impactful conversation within their sleepy produce categories. In this competitive-void arena, strategic design makes a big difference to both consumers and a company’s bottom line.

The bigger challenge, of course, plays out in center-aisle, where dozens of extremely competitive categories exist, and suffer from perceived flavor homogeneity. For many mainstream Americans, popcorn is popcorn, orange juice is orange juice, granola is granola. And while they certainly don’t all taste the same, perception is a reality that must be faced. Design, however, can counteract misconceptions of me-too offerings and their interchangeability by augmenting other meaningful brand tenants. A brand’s mission, the founders’ vision and story, or a product’s origin can be used to create a true value-add. These assets, leveraged correctly, help companies separate from the pack, creating distance between themselves and their competition.

BoomChickaPop disrupted the popcorn category by highlighting its personality to stand apart from the cohort of other equally tasty options. Fiji Water romanced its exotic, unadulterated purity and origin to capture market share in a sea of sameness. Kind revolutionized the bar through transparency and wholesomeness, something Clif and even Nature Valley now mimic. Mast Brothers put the art in artisan chocolate, now widely adopted by the category. All of these center-aisle brands used design to rise above the commodified noise to create a compelling conversation outside of taste alone.

As amazing entrepreneurs continue to push the envelope and innovate, the sea of natural products will only rise. Telling our stories properly will not only allow us to find elbow room amongst our Good Food brethren, but also insulate us from Big Food’s attempt to kite off of Natural’s playbook. They’ve turned natural and organic into a commoditized tool, a wand to be waved at anything in their sleepy portfolios. Organic Gatorade, Doritos, Lunchables and CapriSuns. And honestly, it’s a good thing. For our industry and our consumers, it’s an acknowledgement of the hard work put in by the generations before us. It’s respect. But Good Food pioneered this movement. Those of us born of the movement should have the right to control its destiny and carry it on. Our style may be imitated, but our passion cannot. It’s what must be felt and told visually because it’s the thing big brands can’t honestly own.

So let’s prioritize values-driven consumerism. Let’s support principles with our immense purchasing power. We all have a huge opportunity, to take the reigns of our industry. Bets are being placed on the future of natural. Whitewave, Annie’s, Suja or Krave – all acquired brands guided by this truth. And the thing to remember is that we don’t get here by talking solely about product. We get here by enabling design as a means of connecting with others, emotionally, even philosophically. By supporting principles with our immense purchasing power. Properly articulated story-tell will be natural and organic’s true competitive edge, not ingredient decks. Because we all lose when we’re having the same dialogue about product. Let Big Food handle that. Instead, design can provoke new conversations, allowing the destiny of the food and beverage world to be a more beautiful, inspired and human place.

At Project NOSH and BevNET, we pride ourselves on having a robust network of food and beverage entrepreneurs, industry insiders and advisers. NOSH Voices is a series of columns penned by respected experts to provide a spectrum of views from within the food community. Interested in contributing to NOSH Voices? Contact the Editors.

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