Shared Vision

Washed, bagged, baby leaf salad is not a “pick it up, smell it and squeeze it” kind of product. Unlike most other fresh produce, it doesn't benefit from nature's own packaging. It doesn't even look that great in the bag. It looks wonderful growing on the farm and equally inviting once dressed and prepared on the table, but in the bag it lacks the sensuous immediacy of other fresh produce.

Besides salad is salad, right? In most people's minds, washed, bagged, baby leaf salad has passed its innovative phase and become commoditized. Well, not in this case. Baby leaf salad is a fragile and highly perishable product. Vitacress set industry-leading standards of agronomy, growing, cold chain and processing expertise. They are also a leading organic supplier and have some of the most stringent standards found in any farming operation of their kind. The premium nature of their product had to be conveyed to the consumer without complex explanations.

Prior to this launch in 2003, Vitacress, one of six leading suppliers of baby leaf salads in the United Kingdom, sold their products almost exclusively through major supermarkets such as Sainsbury's, M&S and Somerfields, and always in the supermarkets' own packaging. As part of their European expansion they decided to launch own brand products in Iberia–starting with Portugal. Competitors included Florette, a leading French salad company with a pan-European presence, plus a local supplier and ubiquitous supermarket brands.

Vitacress turned to Financial Designs, in London, for the new packaging. Financial Designs is a father and son team headed by Ludwig Haskins, who had worked with Vitacress for six years on a number of projects, including business-to-business and business-to-government presentations and printed materials; exhibition displays; and the redesign of Vitacress' foyer. A designer, photographer, lecturer and author, Haskins has a keen interest in diet and nutrition and is passionate and knowledgeable about fresh produce and agricultural practices having spent many childhood holidays on his grandfather's farm in South Africa.

Vitacress was committed to a launch date and the deadline was fast approaching. With headquarters in London preoccupied at their usual frantic pace—the company harvests, transports and processes 365 days a year from 18 farms—management for the new packaging was largely delegated to a bright and visually aware young manager in Portugal. Susana Pais holds an MBA from Reading University in the UK, speaks fluent English and she was bursting with enthusiasm for this project. She took design concepts considered somewhat radical for this sector, and championed them all the way.

Trips to supermarkets are like a visit to an ever changing design exhibition—growing competition in all sectors is increasingly coming down to high quality packaging design, especially for the A, B and C1 social categories, the salad eating market we were aiming at.

Since the project timeline and budget did not permit conducting research with consumers, we relied on in-store competitive research. By carefully examining all sectors of food and drink packaging to detect current trends and winning formulas, we discovered a variety of ways that packaged goods firms communicate premium quality through design. We turned those insight into a set of “rules” that informed our design process.

White plastic bags

Other bagged salads came in see-through bags with hard-to-read type printed in green, which created a sea of undifferentiated green bags. To make the Vitacress offering stand out we decided to use white as a background. This provided a clean canvas for the text and illustration, and the opaque white plastic also hid the air gap at the top of the bag. Since customers will always want to examine a perishable product for freshness, we retained a window on the front and back. Since the leaves provided a dark background, we were able to place bullet point text in white on the window.

Despite the widespread use of photography in modern food packaging, we felt this convention was inappropriate for salad greens. When a photograph of a raw product is shown next to the actual raw product, there is a mismatch between the two. Photographs of harvested baby leaf salad did not look proud and healthy—they looked kind of dead.

Illustration offered a better and more controlled way to place a minimal image on the bag. The relatively strong differences in leaf outline for the different varieties of salad created an icon system to help customers to differentiate the contents at a distance. We wanted the illustrations to achieve a simplicity influenced by Japanese calligraphy. Using Japanese bamboo pens I created hundreds of drawings to arrive at the final half dozen illustrations, one for each variety of salad.


In another break with this sector's traditionalist tendencies I went for a very clean sans serif font—Myriad Pro Using a modern font on a clean white background helped the premium lifestyle nature of the brand. It also greatly assisted legibility, very few package designs in this sector use black or grey on white The overall palette of colours; red, green, white, black and grey is also a compelling set of design building blocks.

Matte varnish

Full-gloss packaging under bright fluorescent supermarket lighting leads to a sea of shiny packs that look cheap. To avoid the relentless glare from the lights, a matte varnish was applied to the opaque areas of the design, leaving the natural film gloss on the transparent areas used for viewing the product. This made all the typography more legible and added a premium silky feel to the packaging. A final “premium” detail was a metallic ink dark silver rule across the top of the design intersected by the Vitacress logo.

With detailed mock ups completed the product moved under the radar again—the new designs needed to be approved by Vitacress' headquarters in the UK—with the deadline to launch ticking and strong support for the new designs from the team in Portugal the UK directors, although not settled with the innovations, nonetheless rubber stamped the proposals without any changes.

And the final avoidance of radar—at the last minute the UK pulled the budget for local focus groups in Portugal, although two sets of focus groups did take place a few months after launch. So, the new designs made it to market on the vision of two people—a designer in London with a lifelong passion for fresh produce and young gifted sales and marketing manager in Portugal who instantly championed the relatively modest visual risks involved with this new design.

And the end result? Spectacular sales, far exceeding the client's or the supermarkets forecasts. The fact that they achieved this success without consumer advertising (due to lack of budget in the first year) allowed for a rare experiment proving the power of design in commercial success.

Below is an interview with Susana Pais of Vitacress Portugal.

: You were charged with launching a new brand of food—Vitacress' washed and packaged salads—in a national market, Portugal. Right from the outset how important did you feel design would be to the final success of the project?

: When we embarked on this project, we knew that an excellent packaging design would make all the difference. When consumers approach the point of sale, only approximately 20 percent know exactly what they are going to buy, the other 80 percent need a little help.

: What do you look for in recruiting design suppliers? What are the ideal attributes of a good designer?

: They need to be naturally creative thinkers and artistically gifted. They also need to do their homework both on us a business and on our market. They need to live and breathe our challenges and understand our customers.

: What made you feel confident about using a new design approach to a food sector that has been quite clichéd with its packaging solutions for many years.

: Innovation and break through. It was essential to differentiate our product as a premium brand. I also wanted us to be perceived as packaging design leaders, and it has been fundamental to our success.

: It is important for businesses reading this interview to see design in context. Obviously you feel that it helped because you achieved good results but I know you have a high quality product and also worked very hard on your sales and negotiating with new customers. What percentage of the final sales figures do you feel is down to the design of the new packaging?

: I would say that 75 percent was down to packaging design, because shoppers felt drawn to the product at the point of sale. This design delivered immediate visual appeal, it communicated all our brand values and it made an understated but very effective impact in communicating ours as a premium product.

: During the initial launch you had a lot of resistance from some supermarkets to the new packaging—some of which even continued after climbing sales confirmed that it was a success with the public. How did you deal with that?

: We asked the supermarkets to believe in us, and to allow us to prove that this new packaging design would work, which it did. The overall effect achieved with the new packaging exceeded everyone's expectations, it was seen as a packaging revolution in our sector.

: How important is “the easy life?” Should committees and focus groups agree on design or should individuals champion the new and take well-informed intelligent risks?

: Well-informed risks and intuition work better than relying solely on focus groups. The whole buying experience at point of sale is fundamental and often overlooked in focus groups. Useful feedback can be gleaned from focus groups but they should not dictate design fundamentals.

: There seems to be some nice anecdotal feedback as to the success of your launch design—I heard they started showing up in Portuguese TV soaps.

: That is true; some of our products have been present in TV shows—without any PR efforts on our part—because of the contemporary image projected by the packaging. There is also a college proposing a marketing course, with a case study module based on our packaging.