Ask an in-house designer: why the Chia Co's execs also design the packaging

The Chia Co’s COO April Helliwell and CMO Teresa Aprile don’t just help run the growing company—they also design those cool pods you’re starting to see everywhere from major grocery chains to small convenience stores all around the world. Now, with a whole new range of chia products on the horizon, we wanted to know how they juggle leading the brand as well as the in-house design team.

Here, April tells us how she and Teresa manage the two sides of their roles, as well as the lengths they went to in order to develop that iconic orange spoon.

Moving from big corporate to small startup
Teresa and I worked in the packaging industry in Australia together; I was at Visy and Teresa was at VIP Packaging. I worked across consumer insights and trends and was very fortunate to get to travel the world looking for the best in packaging innovation to share with our customers.

When I left Visy and started working at The Chia Co for John Foss (who had also just recently become my brother-in-law), most people at Visy treated me like I was making a risky mistake, but Teresa sent me an email that read, "That looks really interesting. If you need help let me know.”

That was in November, and by the following September John and I called Teresa to come and join us. We worked so hard that I never really stopped to think about how strange the transition was from a corporate office with private jets and 7,000 employees to our little office of two people. We were so excited and had so much energy we were sort of obsessed. At one point the office flooded with water. A couple of days later the water was still halfway across the floor and the carpet smelled pretty bad, but somehow neither John, Teresa nor I even noticed.

So, what should we do with all these chia seeds?
In March 2013 we launched the Chia Pod. We had taken our brand to a certain point selling the raw seeds, but we always knew we wanted to make chia ready to consume in some format. We just didn’t know what that format was yet.

We based our innovation on five key global trends:

• Health and wellness
• Convenience
• Sustainability and ethics
• Premiumisation (consumers wanting luxury products)
• Value for money

The challenge we set ourselves was to create a product that meets all five without compromise. We used a number of traditional market research methods. For example, we purchased data and market reports that helped us decide our product would be non-dairy, as the market for non-dairy products was growing so fast.

The benefits of doing your own research
But the most important part of our innovation process was spending time in supermarkets and watching how and when people eat. When considering the design of the spoon, we spent hours watching how men ate yogurt (very quickly, by the way). We took care to design a spoon that fits comfortably into a man’s hand, allows them to eat as fast as they like and is still beautiful from a design standpoint—without sharp edges on the lips, every surface is smooth and contoured.

We also sat in office foyers watching what food people take to work with them and what they eat in meetings. We decided to design a package that would become as socially acceptable for both men and women as taking a coffee to a meeting, and could be returned to a purse or laptop bag without making any mess (and then recycled later).

We also spent weeks watching people leaving supermarkets looking for something to give their children to eat. I sampled 2,000 mothers who were overjoyed when they saw their children eat our nutritious samples of what would later become Chia Pod.

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Choosing a product name
John came up with the name Chia Pod when we were on a flight from New York to London. I had been drawing sketches of our prototype, the shape of the spoon that Teresa had designed and the contoured pot that fits neatly inside the hand. We wanted a name that conveyed the simplicity of the ingredients: a full serving of whole chia seeds plus coconut or almond milk and fruit with no added colors or flavors. John thought back to the farm and chia plants themselves. On the plant, chia seeds grow inside a protective pod that keeps them safe as they develop Omega-3 fatty acids. So that’s where the Chia Pod name came from.

Designing the logo
We started out with a version of The Chia Co logo that John designed himself. The three leaves represent economic, social and environmental sustainability. It looked pretty bad and the font was strange, but its meaning was so beautiful that we kept the essence of what he had and worked to make the look and feel of The Chia Co brand represent what he had envisioned.

At the same time John, who comes from a long line of Australian farmers, had been working with farmers for the past five years to ensure that we would only ever farm the absolute best quality chia, and we wanted the most premium packaging in the world to match. We thought the color should be bright and bold to reflect the pioneering nature of our brand. In the region of Kimberly, Australia, where we farm, I found a palette of natural soils that we used to create our own "chia orange."

Constantly redesigning
Since launching Chia Pods last March we’ve already updated the labels to improve the readability and better differentiate between the flavors and also redesigned the lid so it stacks better. More recently, we’ve worked with an external designer, Anthony Nguyen, on our new Chia Pod Oats, Chia Pod Bircher Muesli and our brand collaboration with Intelligentsia Coffee. Yes, making these improvements costs money, but we didn’t know everything last year that we know now.

Keeping design “secrets” in-house
It’s hard to answer questions about how our "keep it internal" approach makes us different because it’s all we have ever done. We haven’t worked with an agency or an innovation company because we trust our own judgment more than anyone else’s. Once we started on the development we didn’t want to work with anyone outside the company because we were very paranoid about keeping our trade secrets. Teresa didn’t even tell her husband what we were developing. She was flying all over the world, to Asia and back, leaving her two small boys and all he knew was that it was for her "secret project."

Of course, when people buy a Chia Pod they don’t know our whole story, but I think they appreciate the quality and uniqueness of our products, and they feel a connection to our brand and the people behind it. The risks we took in launching a world-first product would not have been possible if we at any point got worried about how many we would sell. Fortunately, Whole Foods Markets were a wonderful partner for us to launch nationally with and we sold 1 million Chia Pods in the first 90 days.

About The Chia Co
John Foss is the founder and CEO of The Chia Co. As a fourth-generation Australian farmer, John discovered the benefits of chia while researching natural solutions to illnesses related to the modern diet, such as obesity, diabetes and high cholesterol. John established The Chia Co in 2003 with the vision to contribute positively to the health and wellbeing of the global community. The Chia Co is now the world’s largest producer of premium quality chia seed and the leading supplier to food manufacturers and retailers worldwide. The Chia Co chia seed is the richest combined plant source of Omega-3, protein and fiber, and is also high in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.