Lisa Baer is the president of Baer Design Group and president of the Chicago chapter of Women in Packaging. In this interview, Lisa talks about the process of package design and branding of food products.
I have owned the Baer Design Group for thirteen years. We are a branding and packaging firm and we have a focus on food packaging. We do a lot of coming up with product names, tag lines, telling branding stories and creating all the graphics that go on the packaging to get them sold at the shop level.
I don’t do any of the design. I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree so I have a great understanding of the art but I do the sales and account development, meeting clients, and talking with my clients - that kind of thing.
When we opened our firm, we had some creative background in packaging and we had a couple clients right in the food packaging area and we worked on it ever since.
Why did you decide to have a focus on food packaging?
My mother studied cooking in France. She was a cooking teacher and a food writer and editor. So, I spent a lot of time around food, a lot of time around chefs, going to big restaurants, and being drug around to specialty farmer’s markets and Italian sections of town. Growing up with a foodie, I was exposed to it quite a bit.
What goes into the packaging decisions on a food product?
I think food packaging is unique from other packaging that we do that’s non-food oriented because we really have to have enough trust with someone that you don’t know to be able to put something into their mouth. There really has to be a visual and verbal understanding on the packaging of what you’re going to get; a really good description of what’s in the package and what you might need to do with it. You have to spend a lot of time visually on how to sell it and make it really taste good. I think that’s where some of the packaging fails. It seems like that taste sense may be forgotten. We spend a lot of time matching visual cues and words with what is actually in the box.
What do you mean by the packaging making it taste good?
Making sure that we really deliver the message of what it’s going to taste like - to meet someone’s expectations of what it’s going to be like, what it’s going to taste like, either with photographs, with illustrations, or with great descriptive words. Because, they have to purchase it before they are actually going to taste it or eat it.
What makes a really good package?
I think simplicity is something to consider. Clients will come to you with many, many benefits of their product. One of our biggest things that we do is help clients sort out what the biggest benefit of their product is, what we can play up in the front to get it sold, and then how to structure and organize the other benefits that there are.
We do a lot of natural and organic packaging. There are some obvious advantages there and it’s an obvious trend. But sometimes there are other benefits, other uses, even health benefits that your client will want to incorporate into the package, but you just have to put it in the right order.
I think that a good package has that sexy, sell image right away. It draws you in and makes you want to read more about it, learn more about it, and get it in your cart.
What kinds of trends have you seen over the time of your business?
When we first started about 13 years ago, natural and organic was definitely a newer trend. We were exposed to a lot of work in that area. We had done some natural and organic packaging. We’d also done some work for Blooming Prairie, which is a big distributor of natural products. So, I got a really good understanding of how this movement came to be, starting with the smaller food co-ops (really as a smaller micro-trend), and then building into the mainstream as Whole Foods kind of grabbed hold of the world and everybody started to take it much more seriously.
That trend is still going strong. In the past two years, we’ve got the green packaging trend. I don’t think it should even be called a trend. I think its here to stay. Most of our clients are coming in with not only their marketing agenda, but trying to be as friendly to the environment as possible. Some brands stake their whole positioning on the green packaging and how green their product is. Others are really starting to listen. Our more mainstream grocery store clients are asking about materials and what they can do to make better use of what they use and treat the environment much more friendly.
Last year, Wal-Mart put out their scorecard where they asked their vendors to look at their packaging and reduce their packaging. I think it spread very quickly beyond that.
What are some things that you’ve done to make packaging more green?
There are a couple of things that you can do. Smart structural design can make things more efficient. You can really use less packaging. Less packaging plus smart design can equal lighter weight and more in a shipment, which would use less fuel, which would essentially really reduce your cost.
We have seen a lot of attempts to use recycled paper board and tin. Actually, we’ve been using a lot of tin. It’s the ultimate recyclable metal. It can always be melted down and used again.
We’re seeing from the packaging on the shelves to the shipping containers a lot of change being made. It’s being taken really seriously and I have to say it’s exciting and it’s fun to be a part of.
Are there any other trends that you see moving into the future?
I think we’re all getting much more sophisticated about our food. I think that people are much more comfortable with different ingredients, flavors, than they were - much more accepting of trying new things. You just take a look at any tea shelf, for instance, there is just about every flavor you can come up with in your head. I think people are willing to explore that, and I think there is a new level of sophistication out there in food packaging.
How does that willingness to explore new things come into play in the packaging?
I think it really can help a whole line offer some different varieties, keeping your customers interested. Even if they may not buy it this time, they know that it’s out there and they'll come back. Keeping them interested with your brand all the time, I think, is always a good thing.
What is the connection between the packaging and the overall branding of the product?
Usually, the retail packaging is all you have at the shelf level. We don’t have the benefit of print ads. We don’t have a salesman standing there. Sometimes, you can use some shelf advertising but, primarily, the front of that box is all you have and, generally, you have three or four seconds to get your message out and become interesting and attractive to someone. So, I think it’s very key.
Some people in the industry don’t think it’s as important as I do. But I think that when you’re in the store, we have a group of people making decisions and there’s an opportunity to persuade them or dissuade them as they’re going down the aisle. So, you really have to take the front of your box extremely seriously. If they’re drawn in, they’ll pick it up, they will read.
I do see that consumers are spending a lot more time reading labels and getting interested in that, so you have to make sure you draw them in and get them to pick that up. That’s really all you have at the shelf level. As we all know, we’re inundated with messages through the Web, through TV, and radio. It takes a lot of advertising to get through, so there are some unique opportunities at the store level.
Lisa used a wedding picture of her own grandmother for Frontier Soups International Collection Italian wedding soup package.
I always love to see our packaging with great designs selling for a client. It’s very rewarding in itself. We’ve launched a couple of brands. One is the Sommer’s Organic meat line. They were able to take off at one single trade show and meet all their sales goals and get into the distribution that they wanted to - based on the image that we created. That was extremely rewarding. It’s always good to see your customers being successful. I see it on the shelf at Trader Joe’s when I do my own grocery shopping.
Recently, we just launched an international collection of soup mixes where we talked about travel. It has some nice travel images and it has some unique people on it. The Hungarian goulash has a great image of a woman in traditional Hungarian wear from the early 1900’s. For the Italian soup, we were searching for a great image of the Italian bride (because it's Italian wedding soup) and our creative team was really struggling to find a great image. It just so happened that my grandmother is Italian and we have this great wedding picture of her and it was actually used for the front of the packaging. It’s rewarding for my family to be able to go out and take a look at her. It definitely worked out. We showed it to the client; they loved it! Then, I let in on that it really was my grandmother and that we couldn’t come up with anything else. It’s fun. We have a good time.
It’s good to be in the food industry and sometimes you get to eat your clients’ stuff. Right now we’re doing a lot of meat packaging, so we don’t eat too much. But in the past, I’ve gone to a new client meeting where I’ve come back with a 5 lb. bucket of chocolate and things like that.
I end up doing a lot of plant tours and spending a lot of time with my clients, really understanding their whole process. My love of that probably started with Mr. Rogers and his factory tours when I was small, but I still enjoy going through their plants and understanding how things are done, how things are made, how things are taken care of.
Has there been any product that has been particularly challenging?
I think being a business owner in itself has its own unique challenges. As far as a food product, at this point, I feel like we’re up for any challenge. Sometimes its fun. It’s probably most challenging when we get a client that wants to kind of go against the grain and do something in their own unique way.
We recently created a line of tea called Lazy Days Tea. It was a new product line, beautiful teas in tins. She wanted to come in and be this anti-coffee and really have a completely different method. We started out by looking at the industry, seeing what’s going on.
We surveyed about 200 tea products and found a few different categories. There were some high design categories, there were real stuffy, stuffy conservative categories, and we found some that were just driven by health benefits that claimed weight loss and all kinds of things (their packaging was real medicinal looking). But, she really wanted to come in as something for the tea drinker.
If you’re a tea drinker, you don’t drink coffee. It causes coffee gut rot and all bad breath. She also wanted to bring in men.
We came up with great names that were just not out there in the industry, like BFF, best friends forever, is a tea name and this great name, Cup of Jane, where we have a girl kind of spitting her tea out. We have a guy in a hammock and some other images that just were really not out there. It is challenging and exciting to work on something when somebody has an idea that they want to go in a different direction than everybody else. That was challenging and successful, but fun to work on. We even went so far to give out tattoos that said “Spout it Loud” at the tea show. It really stood out in what is a kind of stuffy and conservative industry and it’s becoming pretty popular, but still finds a way to stand out. It was cute and fun and it worked really well.
Do you do a lot of product testing before bringing a product to the market?
It really depends. We do a lot of new concept work. When someone’s coming up with a totally new product, we’ll create a new image (a new brand story) as part of the new product development process. Some of those things end up not working out. There are some things that we really work on in concept, that just end up being test dummies.
Do you have a testing team that you bring in to run tests?
We don’t. That would be something that we would have done with a marketing research firm. Some clients do old fashioned taste testing with staff or with friends. The clients have their own unique way of handling some of that. Sometimes the product is ready to go, already formulated before we get there, and sometimes it's happening side-by-side while we’re working.
Thinking outside of your company, what do you think is the best food package on the market right now?
There is so much I look at everyday. I recently was at a trade show and I looked at Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day, it’s a line of cleaning products that you can find in Whole Foods and Target. She does a really nice job with her image, her branding. The way she’s got her products branded, if you like the lavender scent, you can find the lavender dish soap, the lavender laundry soap, and the lavender wipes in a category instead of having all the dish soap lined up together. If you want your whole house to smell like a certain scent, you can go through your whole cleaning area and do it that way.
She’s done a really nice job with her image, her brand, and her product line. It all relates. The packaging is really consistent. I do see that as really challenging for companies and I like to see when it’s really consistent and ties together. That is one that I think has done really well.
There’s a new little product that I just found where I think the packaging is really well done. You may not have heard of it. It’s called Mary’s Gone Crackers. They are more health-oriented. I think that they’re no flour, lots of seeds. Maybe there might be some rice flour. They really did a nice job with their packaging. It’s got a beautiful design. There’s a cut-away in the box so you can actually see some product.
There’s a new line of Plum baby food products that was really well done. Its packaging is beautiful. It’s got some nice photography on it that is more baby-driven than the traditional big pictures of food on plates and food in big cups, so that’s really nicely done as well.
Can you say what brand that is?
I thought you were saying that was the flavor.
Oh no, I know, it’s Plum. I’ve seen it in a couple of design trade magazines and I’ve seen it on the shelf. It looks really nice. There is so much that this is a difficult question. There are a lot of nice designs, a lot of nice packaging. I think the people who do it really well are the ones who are consistent in the way that all their products relate to each other. Once you’ve got that consumer trust and they can find your product right away, it becomes a much easier sale and you get to go back and try something else.
Tell me a little bit about the Women In Packaging Group.
I’m president of the Chicago chapter. I think this is my third year. We actually have people that come from Michigan because there’s a big school of packaging there at Michigan State University with a great packaging program.
We have a great group of women and actually our focus originally (when the organization started several years ago) was to help women specifically in the packaging industry that was once pretty heavily male-dominated. Right now, actually, when we have events, we’re about 50% men and 50% women.
We have a great group of people in the Chicago area that work in all aspects of the packaging industry. We have branding firms and packaging firms, like ours. We have people who are in the packaging manufacturing area (for instance, someone from a paper board packaging company and a plastics packaging company). We have people that are just from traditional CPG (consumer product goods) companies. There is a great mix of people who are looking to network, to grow their network, to really understand all aspects of the packaging world and what’s going on.
We offer meetings where we try to offer some cutting edge information. We’ve been having green packaging events once a year where we bring several people to talk about what green packaging is. Last year, we tried to articulate what that means: how you do it, how you can make changes, how these changes are starting to come to be, what materials may be available in the next few years that we can use, and how we can incorporate those into our work. Those have been some of our most highly attended events. We’re all just trying to make sure we know as much as we can about it.
I think there’s a very healthy market in food and in packaging in general in the Chicago area. It's nice to be able to come out and network and really meet people. It’s been an extremely valuable network for me. We do have a blog where we highlight stories and highlight things that we’re talking about. We also highlight some members on there. Whenever I need the answer to a question or whenever there’s a discussion, I have a great network of people in all different areas to talk to.
How many members are there?
Right now, about 35. But our meetings can be a little bit higher in attendance, depending on what there is.
If you could interview one person about food, who would it be?
I probably would have said Julia Child, but it’s too late for that. You know, maybe Paul Newman. I’m so intrigued by what he and his daughter have done with their organic food line. Probably sounds like a funny answer. But, I’m really impressed with their products and the work that they’ve been doing and it would be great to talk with them about their food line.
You know, for someone who’s made their money as an actor, his food line is really good. I think, probably, the first time I bought it, I may have been motivated by the benefit of doing something charitable, but I’ve gone back for more for years. Their Italian dressing is one of the best ones on the shelf. It just really is. It tastes really good and it would be good to talk with him about his relationship with food and running a company.