Over the past decade, the grocery industry has been changing faster than you can blink, influencing what we choose to buy and how we buy it. Big-name food brands and local upstarts are fighting it out over shelf space. Online grocers are slowly taking market share from corner stores.
Now more than ever, traditional packaged-goods brands have to work harder to attract consumers but at the same time cannot afford to lose sight of what makes them irreplaceable.
Here, we at ThoughtMatter reflect on items found at the local grocery store that caught our eye or won us over. Some are iconic and haven’t changed in years while others are outlandish and modern.
This was the first time I’ve ever bought sardines, and I’m so excited about it! Growing up in North Texas, pretty far from any significant body of water, the only seafood I’d tried until I was in my twenties was frozen fish sticks. Does that even count? I’m not sure. Anyway, like my aversion to spicy foods – which I can’t blame on my origin story, unfortunately – I’ve avoided seafood on menus most of my life. I haven’t quite graduated to sardines yet, but maybe today is the day. Despite having no reason to be there, I have always loved the preserved fish section at grocery stores. An open sardine can is iconic, but I also think there’s something really romantic about them. Right?
Tom, Chief Executive
Anyone who knows me knows how much I like hot & spicy food and that I’m always on the lookout for new and different hot sauces from all over the place. It dates back to when I was a kid and turned on to such food by my much older brothers. And if you are an American of my generation who didn’t grow up in a household that served exciting ethnic food, most likely the first hot sauce you ever tasted was Tabasco Sauce. So even though at this point my search for heat has progressed way beyond Tabasco I still have a soft spot for the stuff and always find buying a new bottle for my kitchen a special treat. On top of all that, check out Tabasco Sauce’s iconic branding: the shape of its bottle and package; its label, with strong classic fonts and colors; a simple list of ingredients; enjoyable, friendly copy; a history narrative and more. In short, a perfect recipe for success.
I’m going with the packaging for Smash Mallow flavored marshmallows. I first spotted them when I was in the (eternal) line at Fairway on 6th Ave about a year ago; they’d clearly paid for placement. The packages have a really sweet, clean aesthetic that I like…I’ve always been a fan of that sort of diagrammatic isometric cartoon style of illustration. Plus, they mix illustration with transparent plastic so that you can see the product. Just straight-up eating marshmallows as candy is kind of a weird idea to me, but I gave them a shot because of the way they were packaged here, and I actually really enjoy them. (The mint chocolate chip are my favorite).
Iconic, vibrant and flexible. What else do you really need to stand out on shelf? Even as they expanded their offerings and products, leading to new design and illustration styles, everything they do still feels on brand.
“Great Buy! 99 cents” is simple, but genius. I also have always liked their glass bottle design compared to other brands in their category. They almost feel a bit more sophisticated with their vase-like shape.
Jee-eun, Design Director
For such a mundane product that nobody really thinks about, I go out of my way to stock up on cheap, generic tubes of toothpaste from Migros, the biggest and most beloved supermarket chain in Switzerland. (It helps that my sister lives there).
Most important, the packaging is extremely smart. The tube stands on its head, saving me lots of counter space in my tiny bathroom. And it also doesn’t come in another box like Colgate, cutting down on extra packaging. The graphic design is refreshing, as it is quiet and doesn’t scream for attention like Colgate and Crest. Every product in Switzerland must display the name of it in 3 different languages, as you can see on the tube. Despite that, the design feels minimal and unobtrusive in the home.
It makes the few minutes of a daily ritual a little more pleasant.
My girlfriend Ali put me on to it when I first met her and I’ve been drinking it ever since. The bottle has an old-school vibe, probably from its two-color, yellow and white label which is directly printed onto the glass. Also, I’m really attracted to the logo. I don’t like many script logos, but for some reason I love Victoria’s. There’re also these awesome little illustrations of a king, a farmer, and maybe Julius Caesar or some face that looks like him. I don’t quite fully understand the relation, but I’m into it. It’s an extremely refreshing beer that tastes great and is the perfect choice on a hot day. Wish I knew about Victoria in college.
Martha, Client Services Director
Went to Fairway this morning on an empty stomach, so of course I found myself in the pasta aisle.
Banza Chickpea Pasta caught my eye because of the billboarding at shelf – a sea of red in an aisle that is generally blue and yellow. I particularly liked the simple design of the macaroni and cheese line and their use of spot varnish to highlight the pasta shape. So I bought three boxes of this “healthy” pasta for, ya know, research.
Johan, Art Director
My favorite cow milk yogurt at the moment is Berle Farm. Big glass jar, very simple design using only black, really good and they list the cows. 🙂
Katie, Account Manager
Pirate’s Booty! Don’t think they’ve changed the design since I was a kid, but I kind of like that because it feels nostalgic. I also feel like it pretends to be healthy…or like the healthy version of a Cheeto? Either way it’s addicting – it’s one of those items that I don’t need and I don’t go to the grocery store intending to buy – but when I see it just before the checkout line I have to grab it. 🙂
Niki Giokas, Design Intern
I found these when I was in Eataly. I love the pastels against the more vibrant red and that you can see the product through the little heart window.
This is the absolute only packaging that I will keep after I’ve finished the using the product. I’m secretly hoarding these cans. After dinner, my family always has coffee or cappuccino made with Cafe Bustelo, so maybe my love for it is based in nostalgia. On the other hand, I don’t think the packaging has ever changed. Which speaks volumes of how effective and timeless the design is.
Dana, Director of Operations
I always have their pizza sauce and chopped tomatoes in my pantry. The terrible tomatoes on offer when they are out of season make me truly sad. I love that they don’t come in cans and the packaging is quintessentially Italian. If you can get tomatoes from Italy, why wouldn’t you? Knowing that the EU has much stricter food regulations than the US kinda makes it a no-brainer.
Carina, Brand Strategy Intern
This design caught my eye because of its simplicity. I thought this kind of look was somewhat unusual for a beverage brand – the white backdrop and fruity illustrations are more reminiscent of yogurt cups or granola cereal. But since the brand is trying to fit into the natural food arena, the design is actually quite fitting. After all, Spindrift’s visuals reflect what’s inside. Clean, simple and with just a few ingredients.
Shivani, Cultural Strategist
This seasoning is a godsend for lazy cooks like me. In fact I’d pick up pretty much anything from Trader Joe’s as long as it’s the house brand. The packaging alone puts me in a good mood – kooky fonts, vintage illustrations, friendly copy.
Andre, New Business
I love the simple packaging that evokes healthy eating and drinking. I also like that the packaging tells a little origin story about the brand, derived from Japanese, and includes a haiku poem.
Anna, Creative Director
Growing up in Serbia I ate and drank tons of yogurt. That’s what we all do – yogurt with every meal, three times a day. But not just any kind of yogurt. It has to be plain and sour, not with fruits on the bottom or artificially flavored. The closest thing to it I could find was Fage Greek yogurt. But when I discovered this brand about a year and a half ago, I switched without thinking twice. It tasted just like the yogurt I ate growing up. Then there are the health benefits, and I am a freak about healthy food! The design of the container is super colorful and stands out in the sea of white yogurt packaging in the dairy aisle.
Jessie, Managing Director
Quite frankly I am depriving my children of a grocery-brand-filled-childhood. As a working mother who often multi-tasks I proudly do my grocery shopping online. Therefore, my 5-year-old’s expectation is: Food arrives neatly in brown paper bags ready to unpack or be eaten immediately. It is a very rare treat for him to go into a store and pick out what he likes. This, however, has not stopped him from throwing tantrums when he doesn’t get the ‘brand’ he wants. Through the windows of bodegas and across aisles in grocery stores my 5-year-old can spot the matte red and black bag of Indiana Popcorn anywhere. He recognizes the tractor, knows the population (42) and the main ingredients of every Indiana Popcorn flavor. Every time I have to clean up tiny 5-year-old’s hands from Indiana Popcorn dust my heart swells because I know I’m creating a brand loyalist.
I buy Indiana Popcorn so my 5-year-old will be a lover of brands!
Whether a novelty, family staple or guilty pleasure, our picks reveal that our purchases are packed with meaning.
Good packaging does more than just show you what’s inside. It can take you back to childhood, tell the story of its maker, serve as the symbol of an era, or seduce you in an otherwise sea of sameness. Online shopping suffers from an eternal curse – it may be convenient, but it misses the romance of grocery shopping. We can’t smell, touch, hold, weigh, engage or interact with products sold online the way we would at the local grocery store.
And that will always remain the main benefit of physical stores – They let us squeeze the Charmin, so to speak. We have emotional, cultural and social connections with branded objects that are only made stronger by shopping in person, assuring us that the good old grocery store isn’t going away anytime soon.