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Bringing a Beloved Brand into the Big Leagues

by Theresa Christine Johnson on 01/29/2018 | 4 Minute Read

In 2011, Coca-Cola acquired Honest Tea—a small, but rapidly growing brand. Like many ambitious companies who’ve attracted high-powered benefactors, Honest Tea began to ask itself: “So, how do we become a billion-dollar brand?” It was around this time that Ami Mathur, currently general manager and head of marketing, joined Honest Tea. To scale the brand, she knew that it would need to win over mass-market audiences. Honest Tea had fared very well at Whole Foods Market and was growing in mainstream grocery stores, but the team knew it had the potential to grow faster.

“From our initial research, we knew that our value proposition wasn’t resonating with mass audiences. Honest Tea wasn’t viewed as delicious, which is a problem in a category where taste is absolutely the most important factor. The fact that it’s organic, while important, wasn’t the driving force for mainstream consumers. Additionally, from a shelf standpoint, the packaging didn’t really pop or persuade consumers to choose Honest Tea over competitors,” explained Mathur.

Despite Coca-Cola’s investment, Honest Tea was still relatively small with a proportionately-sized marketing budget. “When you have very few media dollars to spend, packaging can be the main way to drive awareness and stopping power. Most of us know how much a great package can actually impact your sales, but no one usually puts a number to it,” said Mathur.

The team agreed to move forward with a package redesign, and assembled a clear brief that focused on four goals: appeal to a mass consumer audience, improve visibility on shelf, better differentiate from competitors, and create a stronger linkage to the brand’s core values and benefits. “I think the briefing is probably the most important stage of the design process. If we’re not clear on the communication objectives and success criteria, there’s no way to judge if we’ve reached our goals—it just becomes too subjective,” said Mathur.

Beardwood&Co, a strong believer in the power of a clear, informed creative brief, uses a visual tool to encourage clarity and alignment. “Once the client provides us with a written brief, we bring together a large set of images and do a sorting exercise with the team. For this project, we said, ‘Alright, we’re saying it needs to convey tasty, but why is Honest Tea tasty? We’re saying approachable. What kinds of approachability are we talking about for Honest Tea?’ This process helps the designers better understand what’s on-brand and what’s not,” explained Beardwood.

Beardwood&Co came up with eight initial design directions, ranging from close-in options to more dramatic departures from the current packaging. “We ended up taking four designs into consumer testing, including qualitative research and virtual shelf testing. The ones that we ended up testing represented a fairly broad range.”

Honest Tea Before and After

“I remember which design was my favorite because it didn’t win! I thought, ‘Yes, lesson learned. This is why we do research.’ We learned through the testing—and we should have known this going in—that, if our number one communication objective is to convey ‘tasty’ and ‘delicious,’ we need to select the design that delivers the best on those attributes,” added Mathur.

“In the end, we conducted quantitative consumer research on a few designs. We wanted to ensure that the design we landed on wasn’t just a win based on qualitative feedback or internal consensus. We wanted the numbers to prove we’d chosen correctly—because, in reality, that’s what’s actually going to drive your sales,” said Mathur.  

The chosen design included a few significant changes: a taller, narrower bottle to bolster premium perceptions and drive shelf stand-out; a friendlier logo font with a leaf icon and additional leaf imagery in the “T” to reinforce real tea ingredients; an elongated “T” to make the packaging more iconic and recognizable at shelf; delicious ingredient imagery inside the “T” to drive taste appeal; and colored bands at the top and bottom of the label to reinforce flavor appeal. The textual communication was also simplified so that “Organic” and “Just a Tad Sweet” stood out.

In March 2015, the new design launched. “The results were phenomenal. They blew our expectations out of the water. I think the impressive thing is that we grew distribution as well as velocity. We were doing better, and I attribute much of that to the packaging because there wasn’t a significantly increased media investment,” explained Mathur.

The Nielsen Design Impact Award analysis confirmed a spike in consumer preference for the new design, with nearly two out of three consumers preferring the updated package to the old one. The year following the redesign, Honest Tea’s dollar sales grew by 64%. The brand’s incremental sales exceeded those achieved in 2008 when Coca-Cola first invested in Honest Tea.


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