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Patterns - a series of professional observations about package design practices within specific product categories


About Patterns

Patterns is a series of professional observations about package design practices within specific product categories - brought to you by the design team at R.BIRD.

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Combined into a 220-page full-color Paperback or PDF: All 11 reports, including this one, have been updated with new observations, image galleries, brand and keyword indexes.

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Featured in this report:

01 - Overview


Our observations include some of the brands and categories shown above.

02 - Environment


The images above were taken at supermarkets in the New York metropolitan area. Typically, the coffee aisle is divided into instant coffees, canned ground coffees and premium or whole bean coffees (shown in branded shelving units in the bottom right).

03 - Structure


Coffee is sold in a variety of structures depending on the type of coffee, volume, and use. Value-priced and bulk coffees are typically sold in cans, tubs, or bricks while bags are reserved for whole beans or specialty coffees seeking that "corner roaster" image.

Response: Structure, just like every aspect of design, should constantly evolve to meet new usage patterns, shipping and selling concerns, brand strategy, even changes in consumer lifestyle.

04 - Structure: Innovation


Nescafe, Harmony Bay, and Folgers have introduced plastic containers which allows them to create comfortable handles, pop-up lids and unique shapes. International Coffees has added a line of instant cappuccino blends sold in individual pouches, but they continue to hold on to their signature rectanglular metal tin, still a unique stand-out in the category.

Response: Notably absent from the stores we visited were the increasingly popular coffee "pods" (lower right). These little one-hit-wonders are by far the most dramatic innovation in coffee-making. Rather than making an entire pot of coffee at once, each pod makes a single, balanced cup of coffee. Perfect for the one-coffee-drinker family or the coffee fanatic rushing out the door in the morning.

05 - Where It Comes From


Like a fine wine, the character of a coffee is often determined by its place of origin. Whether it's the mountains of Columbia, the rolling hills of New England, exotic tropical highlands, or even the streets of New York, a unique sense of place reinforces the experiential qualities of the product.

Response: Projecting a generalized, macroscopic sense of place such as "Mountain Grown" is common to big name brands seeking the widest audience.

Focusing on a more specific locale (real or imagined) may be more appropriate for smaller mom-and-pop brands or those seeking a specialty image.

06 - The People Who Grow It


Many coffees feature an archetypal persona of the grower, cultivator, picker, or roaster as a key component to their brand.

Response: The human touch is the ingredient that makes this product much more than a simple agricultural commodity. From seedling to sip, it has been cared for by people, not the least of whom are the many people, rolled into one iconic persona, who cultivate and nurture it along the way.

07 - The People Who Drink It


The presence of someone enjoying a cup of coffee is common across the category. The are often depicted in a pre-sip state of contemplation where aroma and taste converge - a moment here defined as the "sip-sniff."

Response: Coffee is often revered as a rich, thought-provoking product. Depicting a person in a state of enjoyment helps build a strong connection with the powerful sensorial qualities of coffee.

08 - What It Feels Like


Almost everyone in the category makes an effort to convey the experiential qualities of the product in some way. JavaNa tries to bring the bistro-esque cafe experience to the grocery shelf, while others play up coffee's warming, aromatic qualities.

Response: Starbucks has not only changed the way coffee is sold, they've changed the way people think about it - from a simple commodity to a richly-engaging experience, and ultimately a deeper aspect of one's daily lifestyle.

09 - Owning Color


Folgers dominates the red spectrum of mass market brands with several others nearby. Chock Full o' Nuts owns yellow while other brands exist as price-conscious options or use gold to communicate "premium." Maxwell House owns blue along with other mass market and specialty brands.

Response: There is opportunity to compete alongside Sanka, the lone entrant in the orange spectrum, particularly since the product line is so narrow. Green is an option, but care should be given considering the color largely stands for decaf across the board. Violet, long known for its associations with royalty, is wide open with only a couple smaller names or specialty products represented.

10 - Decaf Is Green


With the exception of Sanka, virtually every other brand in the category uses the color green to indicate "decaf."

Response: If one is considering green as a core part of their brand, they should only do so for a very strong, specific purpose. Many Italian coffees, for example, use green as part of their brand because of its presence in the Italian flag - an indispensable ingredient in Italian equity. Likewise, a few specialty products use green as an indication of the natural or organic aspects of the product.

11 - Darker Colors = Darker Roast


Almost without exception, the darker the color, the darker or richer the roast. Folgers (top left) and Chock Full o' Nuts (top right) even provide a color key on the package so customers can understand the roast level at a glance. Espresso roasts, more common to European brands, range from rich deep colors (Sclafani, middle right) to completely black (LavAzza, lower right).

Response: Roast level is an important purchasing consideration. If executed well, color value can help the customer quickly understand how light or dark the coffee is compared to other varieties in the line.

12 - Product Photography


If it isn't a picture of beans, it's probably a picture of a cup of coffee, steam rising, centered at the bottom of the package.

Response: Providing some depiction of the product can go a long way toward improving appetite appeal. Few of the big name canned coffees had any representation of the product on the package, leaving the customer with no understanding of the product conealed within.

When showing a cup of coffee, the choice of cup (a classical gold rimmed tea cup versus a casual diner mug, for example) can provide subtle cues about the positioning of the product.

13 - Illustration


Custom illustration is a common approach in the whole bean and specialty coffees. New England Coffee (upper left) adopts a style similar to 19th century New England folk art. JavaNa employs a whimsical French bistro style first popularized by Starbucks. And Green Mountain Coffee (lower right) uses a style similar to Post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin to evoke a sense of tropical paradise.

Response: Illustration not only describes the product experience, it implies a sense of craftsmanship. It lends a one-of-a-kind" aura to the product, prompting the customer to care that much more about it.

14 - Endorsements


There are many different forms of endorsement across the category - from the New York-ish "I Love Cafe Bustelo" to Maxwell House's infamous "Good to the Last Drop" (lower right). Products which adhere to fair trade standards such as Green Mountain Coffee (upper right) proudly display a stamp of certification, while others rely on a simple gold ribbon for added confidence about quality and taste.

Response: The best endorsements are those that come from unbiased sources or, as is the case with Maxwell House, offered up unsolicited by a former President of the United States (Roosevelt).

15 - Premium vs. Value


Three ways of differentiating between premium and value brands are structure, graphics, and personal appeal:

Structure: Premium coffees come in bags, just as they're sold by the corner roaster. Value coffees sell in cans, bricks or other less delicate structures.

Graphics: Premium graphics tend to be richer and deeper, with greater attention to detail and materials. Value graphics tend to be much simpler and flatter.

Personal Appeal: Premium brands often provide a compelling reason why the customer should care more about them. Value brands often focus more on the facts than they do on any "greater" motivations.

Response: There appears to be a significant gap between premium and value brands. Maxwell House is now selling a midrange-premium blend in bags alongside higher-priced coffees by Starbucks, Newman's Own, and others. Look for that trend to continue and for other brands to fill the gap using a combination of structure, graphics, and personal appeal to reach their target market with a premium message.


On November 12 Mel Crook said...

Just like to thank you for your report on coffee packaging. I am designing a fictitious brand identitiy for a coffee to use in my portfolio. Your report was very helpfull in directing me as to how I should convey to my audience that it is a premium blend product. Thanks : )

On March 12 Leslie Basa said...

Wonderful collection of pointers to consider when designing coffee packaging and packaging in general. Thanks for combining the images along with the response to validate the subtle cues. I’ll definitely bookmark for future reference.

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whole bean coffee, ground coffee, specialty coffee, structure, color, green, innovation, persona, roast level, endorsements, photography, illustration, premium, value, Café Bustelo, Café Goya, Chock Full o’ Nuts, Eight O’Clock Coffee, Folgers, Green Mountain Coffee, Harmony Bay, Hills Bros., International Coffees, JavaNa, Maxwell House, Nescafé, New England Coffee, Newman’s Own, Sanka, Starbucks, Yuban

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R.BIRD & Company, Inc. is a New York identity and design consulting firm with 35 years of experience creating brand identity, packaging, corporate identity and internet applications. Its clients are internationally-recognized brands and strategy-oriented organizations.

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