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The Clean Label Conundrum

by Kelly Mackenzie

November 18, 2020

51% of consumers chose ingredients as the most important attribute to buy and 45% said brand motivated them to purchase. What would happen if you got both right?

Clean label is in demand and will continue to grow in importance moving into 2021. So, how can brands use design to bring clean label to life for consumers? And in particular how can we use effective design to showcase appetite appeal in the context of clean label?

A study of consumers in the UK and US shows the power of ingredients and brand in purchasing decisions: 51% chose ingredients lists as the most important attribute that motivated them to buy the product and 45% of consumers said brand motivated them to purchase. What would happen if you got both right?

The synergy is a powerful one and there is a huge opportunity here to improve taste and appetite appeal. You may have clean label ingredients but you need to make people want to eat your product too - you need the yummy factor.

Before you design, strategise

A brand needs to be built on fundamentals, a robust brand strategy and story. It’s scientifically proven that humans remember stories more than they remember data. Think back to caveman times, their stories were their currency and it’s really not that different for us. This is even more important in the clean label space, as consumers want to be part of something bigger, something that is contributing to a greater cause and something that is beyond their initial purchase need.

Make sure your brand is up to snuff

Once we’ve built our strategic positioning, this can then be moulded into a valuable brand. A valuable brand should be Ownable, Memorable and Scalable. You need ownable brand IP and a wealth of brand assets at your fingertips. Combine this with an emotive and memorable story and you're starting to make traction. Lastly, you need to futureproof your brand for scale, so don’t pin yourself down by having a name or identity that confines you to one thing.

Let’s talk packaging, what is great packaging?

Great packaging is explaining to your target audience, both consciously and subconsciously, that the brand and product is something that answers their need states in a very short amount of time. It needs to stand head and shoulders above the competitors. Simply put, it needs ‘Shelf Shout’.

Consumers want to know more about the story of your product. Yes, they want to know about features and benefits, but wider than this they want to know about the origin story, supply chain, your brand values and your authenticity. Millennials and Gen Z particularly want this info and we need to get the hierarchy of this right. Where brands get this wrong is by muddling up the hierarchy where they are leading with benefits and features at the expense of their brand. This gives them no standout over competitors, so they’re building up no brand loyalty.

What’s the clean label challenge?

When food brands switch out ingredients for a cleaner version, the challenge is ultimately that the ingredients serve the same purpose as the prior less clean ingredient - shelf life longer, freshness longer and of course taste. It’s a straight swap sometimes at more expense. But the real benefit is the impact it has on the customer. Ultimately, it’s healthier for you.

Brands really need to communicate that it's better for the customer, otherwise not many people are going to look in detail at the ingredients list on the back of pack. It may get lost or unnoticed as a benefit, thus not justifying its price. That’s where design is needed, to help communicate that it's better for you. That it’s real food with real ingredients that are not chemically enhanced; that it has value.

What's the opportunity?

The opportunity aside from communicating that clean ingredients are better for you, is appetite appeal. There can be a stigma attached to ‘cleaner’ brands that taste has been sacrificed at the expense of wholesomeness. Whilst design can’t change the taste of a product, it can impact the consumers perception of that taste and generate appetite appeal.

To avoid this pitfall we work to a 12ft, 6ft, 1ft rule. At 12ft we look for some of the big stuff like logotype, owning a colour, disrupting the shelf and brand block. At 6ft, we can bring a brand to life through various means by telling the flavour story using tone of voice, colour, and imagery. It is then at the 1ft where you share your benefits and features.

An important part of this is the language that we all, as brands, use. It’s crucial that a brand's tone of voice aligns with its brand values. One of the first brands to do this successfully was Innocent. They created such a unique, casual, naive and playful tone of voice that we all fell in love with them, not to mention trusted them. However, I myself am now sick of all of the brands in the supermarket aisles talking to me ‘innocently’. We need more disruption.

Colour is an interesting one in the context of clean label. With the massive increase in production of natural/vegan/free from products the market has been saturated with natural colours and a lot of muted tones. The challenge here is using a colour palette that communicates its naturalness, but also stands out and disrupts the shelf. Mcdonalds changed their core iconic brand colours from red and yellow to green as they were under pressure to be more sustainable. The core changes that were made in their business were communicated externally by changing a core brand colour to signify the pivot and gave them an opportunity to talk about their new and improved infrastructure.

Imagery can be used to negate the stigma that sometimes ‘clean’ food isn't as tasty. Well-shot product photography can show the appetite appeal of a clean product and that it isn’t just an alternative to the real thing. We can also use illustration for the same purpose or if your product looks delicious show it off with a creative cut through on pack.

Now let’s talk iconography, at the 1ft level. This is where we can help show the benefit of clean label ingredients, in the eyes of the customer on a more conscious level. Up until now I've been talking about it on a more subconscious level. Here we need to take the consumer on a journey across the pack. Studies have shown that the consumer's eye moves from the top left of the pack to the bottom right. It is no coincidence that umbrella brand logos like Walls sit top left on the pack with key benefits or nutritional info sitting bottom right. That is how the consumer journey on pack works so the hierarchy should be respected.

Don’t forget, the medium is the message. Every touchpoint needs to practice what you preach in terms of your values. If you value sustainability and clean label for example, it's critical your packaging underpins that and is in itself as clean and sustainable as possible. Format is also a key way to differentiate and disrupt, think Heinz Ketchup bottle.

Not all selling can be done on pack. I love the power of the now famous moldy whopper campaign. It clearly shows that the product is cleaner than perhaps was perceived prior. It boldly shows the product getting moldy over time, as any real food should.


There is an opportunity for clean label brands to stand out by creating a compelling and engaging brand story, and by harnessing taste appeal through effective packaging. Customers value clean label, but most value taste higher!

Still curious? We recently met with clean label experts and brands at 'The Clean Label Revolution'. Watch it here.


Branding & Packaging
Food & Drink
consumer behaviour
sustainable design
Healthy Eating
Healthy Food