Attending the Natural Products Expo West for the first time was a thrill, to say the least. From the brands we know and love, to startups just getting their products out into the world for the first time, there was no shortage of innovative products, packaging, and new brands we are excited to see on the shelf. It was an educational experience for us as well as an opportunity to meet up with a lot of friends from around the CPG industry.  

Even though DTC and online grocery shopping are growing, dozens of conversations in Anaheim asserted that the in-person retail experience is still as relevant as ever for brands trying to introduce new products or, like our friends at Nutiva, launching a rebrand with new packaging.  As a company that specializes in at-shelf learning, we know that even the best-designed products and the most eye-catching packaging can fall short with shoppers. So, we thought we would highlight the things we saw at Expo West that will make many of these brands successful with shoppers. 

Differentiated benefits, communicated clearly 

There was more of a sea of sameness than I was expecting, although I probably shouldn’t have been surprised.  Product forms were consistent across offerings, and innovation focused on macro trends, like plant-based and immunity.  Similar seeming brands competed on nuanced benefit differences that might matter to a small number of tip-of-the-iceberg consumers but are not a scalable platform.  The added challenge of communicating too many benefits via packaging always leads to failure—for example, communicating brand + immunity + organic + gluten-free + on-trend flavor + etc. 

Spudsy packaging

The few products that seemed to break through were the ones that kept it simple. Spudsy, for example, communicates a fun and novel way to enjoy potato snacks; it’s a focused and simple proposition. Beverage brand, wildwonder, also stood out to me.  Offering a variety of health benefits, the brand instead leads with a strong, very flavor-forward design aesthetic.  I found myself drawn to the package, and the flavors immediately made me want to try it.  The subtle nods to health (gut + immunity boost) are just the rationalization I need to be willing to drop a premium price on a beverage that sold me on flavor. 

Brand building to elevate above

Years ago, Noosa burst onto the yog(h)urt scene leveraging novel packaging structure and winning on eating experience. They built a brand that is synonymous with good taste and texture and now look to show off their brand in a new category: gelato. It feels like a good brand/benefit fit, and the product definitely delivers.  Smallish brands can still be powerful advocates if they stay true to their brand promise and avoid the shiny, “look-at-me” temptations. 

One brand exploding in equity is water purveyor, Liquid Death.  Seemingly inspired by the cliché, “it’s so crazy, it just might work,” they are changing the conversation in a mature category.  Their aggressive brand identity is consistent from their digital marketing to their packaging to the coffin coolers they used to store the samples. Talk about taking a bold stance to build a brand. I have never wanted to be seen so much holding a single-serve can of water. Amazing. 

liquid death packaging

Sustainability in packaging 

One disappointing reality was that brands promised better-for-you products without much effort to ensure the packaging was also better for our long-term future.  There were a few exceptions. 

One large booth focused on using ceramics as packaging that can be repurposed a la Oui by Yoplait.  A novel idea, one can anticipate pushback regarding trade-offs from supply chain, product integrity and showcasing, cost, and other perspectives. While the ceramic material itself might not be an inflection point, the greater concept of reusable/refillable/repurposable packaging certainly could be as the industry addresses its plastic addiction.  

path water packaging

Take, for example, water brand, PATH, who presents an interesting blend of badge brand building and sustainability. Their bottles are high-quality aluminum, which takes a single-use occasion and immediately implies that this bottle should be kept and reused.  I have grown quite fond of that bottle and have probably refilled it 25 times since it was first given to me.   

Another small booth touted tea sold in plant-based packaging. This excited me, but the end product essentially looks the same as its less environmentally friendly counterparts. Because the brand isn’t radically reimagining tea packaging, selling its renewable attributes while also communicating the product presents a unique challenge, particularly in a category that already has known brands committing to biodegradable materials. The opportunity here seems to lie with the next steps of big brands, and how they consider the possibility that moving to sustainable packaging doesn’t have to radically change the consumer experience.  

All these products exist because of a founder’s passion. That energy permeated through every hall and booth.  The biggest challenge is often taking all this super nerdy knowledge and passion and simplifying it down to a single message that can break through and meet the average shopper while they peruse the shelf.  Harnessing that passion into hyper-efficient packaging where structure, brand, imagery, and claims all work effortlessly together to captivate a shopper’s interest amongst crowded categories is a daunting, but doable, task. And founders are not ones to shy away from anything daunting. 

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