By Chris Cook, creative director, CBX

Food manufacturers are recognizing a new reality: consumers are no longer limited to seeing a food and beverage brand’s identity solely in two-dimensional, flat terms on a store shelf. 

Now digital natives – Millennials and Gen Z consumers, who have grown up interacting on screens – don’t just passively look at your product’s packaging or logo; they expect to actively engage and interact with your brand’s visual assets.

Bright colors, bold typography, wide array of flavor choices and fan photos and videos: that’s all part of brands like Truly Hard Seltzer, for example. User-generated content (UGC) is a huge part of what drives success for Truly, but it’s hardly unique to that brand. That’s because UGC has as much to do with where Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) are headed as the two-dimensional logo of the packaging itself. 

Industry innovators like Truly, Doritos, and Snapple understand the importance of gaining a deep understanding of consumer beliefs and behaviors, and then centering their package design around that knowledge. Focusing on a digitally savvy audience who are fully versed in social media spaces, food brands embracing the future know the most effective way to reach those consumers is through digital channels such as Instagram and TikTok, where they can go beyond consuming and advance to interacting with and even becoming an ambassador for your brand. 

As food manufacturers and marketers work on design for their brands, the first question must always be, “How will our consumer audience engage with these brand assets and packaging across social channels?” 

Here’s the most important take-away: Food marketers must imagine their brand’s packaging, logo, and visual identity in motion

Beyond that, food manufacturers must consider how their brand will be perceived on a mobile phone or tablet on any of the key social platforms. Instagram and TikTok now make it mandatory for companies to consider a completely different design aesthetic – one that is relatable, interactive, and crafted with a consumer’s lifestyle in mind. 

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Interacting with packaging – rethinking the flat shelf experience

In the past, food packaging had to do all the work on-shelf. That static space between competing brands was where manufacturers and designers had to capture the attention of consumers and speak to the benefits of a product quickly and effectively. 

The rise of ecommerce and social media has changed everything. Instead of focusing primarily on how products worked on in-store shelf space, brands have had to pivot to remain relevant and rethink structural design, visual assets, and brand personalities beyond the retail shelf. 

Ecommerce took off in the late 1990s and has exploded since the beginning of the pandemic. During that time, brands have seen that the first point of contact experience has largely transitioned from traditional brick and mortar shopping to fully online. Successful brands spent those early ecommerce years rethinking the flat shelf experience. And now, brands are not just living online, they are doubling down with packaging that appeals to a generation of digital creators who crave interactions with brands across social channels. 

As package designers and food manufacturers, it’s crucial we create a toolkit of assets that work across all mediums. Those assets must be bold, dynamic, multidimensional, and able to activate – think animation, long- and short-form content, and video. 

One of my favorite examples of this philosophy in action is the latest Doritos Roulette tortilla chip packaging. The marriage of package design and social media strategy works effortlessly and in harmony. Doritos ran with the classic roulette concept – how many chips until you get the spicy chip? The team applied that concept to the packaging design and executed a seamless social campaign. It sparked a viral challenge across TikTok and Instagram with influencers quickly propelling it to millions of views and interactions. That’s the “secret sauce” for food marketers – the organic understanding of your consumers’ behavior online.

While the goal of nearly every brand is to build a lasting legacy and spark engagement, how can brands increase the odds of standing out in a virtual sea of competition?

Start an interactive conversation

We are no longer the only designers in the room. The up-and-coming generations of digital natives are designers and creators in their own right. And they expect to be part of our creative process!

So, when it comes to forming a brand identity, start with your consumer. The benefit of researching your audience on social media is that you can see who they are, how they behave online and what their interests and beliefs are. As you explore, you’ll see consumers creating their own online content. 

Food marketers must understand how to create a brand for these creative creators! That means making sure your brand’s identity, vision and mission are clear so design assets can strategically follow. If you can get the creators and influencers on social media to use and live with your product, it will push your brand further. 

The most effective process starts with an audit of brands both inside and outside of your category with an emphasis on social media channels. Then your marketing team can get to know which brands are resonating with your audience and why. Armed with that information, your brands can better communicate what makes them different and create interactive designs that will help them stand out. 

I encourage companies to look at elements other than the packaging. Start with the brand personality — how are you going to start a conversation with consumers, to react, respond, and engage with them? A tool kit of engagement assets is just as important as package design in helping your product stand out. This toolkit often includes: 

  • A range of fonts – primary, secondary, and equivalents that will work for web and other platforms
  • An array of color palettes that provide enough ADA-compliant combinations to live on your brand’s website
  • Presentation and photography styles
  • Lifestyle photography for content creators to follow and align with your vision

When designing a brand toolkit and packaging, the broad focus should be on being bold and dynamic. With so much content across a multitude of digital channels, a food brand only has a few milliseconds to capture consumer attention. Those fleeting moments need to be part of your strategic design plan. 

Equally important is to provide your consumers with packaging they want to engage with and share. Unboxing or unpacking products is a massive social media trend. These carefully crafted videos feature influencers opening packaged goods and showcasing the products. Popular unboxing content creators routinely rack up millions of views for each video. 

Design your packaging with that kind of sharing in mind and — just like early CPG companies putting their brands on store shelves – the packaging itself can work for you online to drive sales. 

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The future of CPG packaging design is in their hands

Packaging is vitally important, but it doesn’t stand alone in a silo or store shelf. Your product’s visual identity is part of a holistic brand vision that syncs with everything from your product’s voice to how your brand is presented and received on social media. The goal is to have your packaging come to life in a dynamic way. Consider:

  • The product lines associated with TV’s Kardashian family not only understand their target consumers’ lifestyles, but also apply out-of-category trends to package design. For example, the Kardashian team pulls structural design from architecture, color palettes from fashion trends ,and unboxing experience from consumer technology. Be inspired by the interests and behaviors of your consumers outside of the food and nutrition category you live in. 
  • Focus on making your brand iconic – bring your product or food brand representation down to its bare bones, and use symbology as instantly recognizable touchpoints. Boil it down to what your brand shorthand will be – Starbucks is the mermaid, Pepsi is the globe, Instagram is the camera. Make sure there is recognizable meaning baked into your brand’s visual identity, whether it’s on-shelf or online.
  • Packaging is a large part of social media content. It’s our responsibility as food marketers to create assets that consumers can share. Design premium packaging with “share-worthiness” and the intention of going viral at front of mind.

Consumer demands change constantly, digital technology and communications channels are ever-evolving. The most valuable piece of advice I can offer when it comes to branding and food package design: Be authentic, be consistent and, most of all, do everything you can to enable consumers to engage directly with your brand.  

Chris Cook is creative director at CBX, the New York and Minneapolis-based brand positioning, retail activation and design agency for food brands from Hormel and Land O’ Lakes to J.M. Smucker Co, General Mills and Hershey. To learn more, visit: