Consumers have a paradoxical relationship with grocery products. Individually and day-to-day, they take up a vanishingly small part of our attention. Those that we use every day – from toothpaste and shampoo to tea and coffee – become part of our automatic habits and rituals and so they don’t even impinge on our consciousness. Yet the products we choose to buy – and buy repeatedly – form an important part of who we are and what we say about ourselves to our friends and family. And cumulatively, over the years, we spend many months in the company of our FMCG friends. “Have you met PG Tips?”, “I must introduce you to Arm & Hammer!”
I worked with the Flora margarine folk nearly 20 years ago. I remember being struck by the fact that brands in the unattractively-named Yellow Fats aisle of a typical supermarket have about four seconds to grab shoppers’ attention. And then they move on to dairy products, ready meals and juice. Not terribly long if you’re looking to change habits or introduce a new product innovation. Not the longest window of opportunity to engage in a meaningful bout of brand storytelling.
So what does it take to jolt information-jaded consumers out of their subconscious, zombie-like state? How do you get people who’d rather unbox and unbag products and put them into their own, unbranded glass or chinaware to pay focused attention to what you’d like to tell them? How do you captivate like Innocent used to do, like Ben & Jerry’s and the Body Shop have always done?
As a wordsmith, there are aspects of visual and packaging design on which I’m totally unqualified to opine, and I know there are plenty of blogs, opinions and theories proven by eye-tracking to say what a product should look like to impinge on shoppers’ consciousness.
But what about the rules of the story a product should tell and how it should tell it in order to capture attention and build customer interest and then loyalty? For me, there are three critical criteria to consider, and these are simplicity, humanity and purpose.
SIMPLICITY: the stories brands and products tell in their packaging – as literally the most tangible manifestation of themselves – should be simple. Clear. Straightforward. Free from jargon. Written so that a ten year-old can understand them at a single reading. Simple isn’t necessarily easy to write. In fact – like musical scores that are more white than black; that have fewer, deliberately chosen notes – sparse prose is often much harder to write than waffle. But once you discover a simple, authentic tone of voice, you find the words just flow. Jargon, by contrast, is the enemy of clear communication; a smokescreen deployed by the insecure to hide the truth of what you’re really trying to say.
HUMANITY: too many companies still think it’s important to use language to impress – as a weapon – and this leads them to adopt a dialect that doesn’t sound like a person ever spoke it. My experience of working with businesses that sell products and services to other businesses – the so called B2B sector – has taught me that B2B is often less human than its funkier sibling, B2C; business to consumer. Author and expert Bryan Kramer goes so far as to claim there should be no B2B or B2C but only H2H; Human to Human. Brands that talk like people talk – brands that can channel and express the humanity of those behind the products – are brands that people like and remember and introduce to their friends.
PURPOSE: to the 29 million who’ve made Simon Sinek’s Start With Why the second most-watched TED Talk ever, this third rule will be second nature. As Sinek says, people don’t buy what you do they buy why you do it. He says that six times in 18 minutes, in fact. Businesses and brands that can talk clearly about why they do what they do – beyond just making money or dominating the market – are businesses people want to know and welcome into their lives.
One brand’s purpose could be alienating to some – to many – consumers, or it could be irrelevant. But by standing for something, by having an enemy to fight against, by having a clearly articulated mission, brands can cut through the clutter and bring meaning as well as emotional and practical utility to consumers lives.
Brands like Union Roasted Coffee, that arrived in our weekly grocery delivery the other day. I’d tasted it in a friend’s office six months ago. He’s a coffee gourmet, so I already respected the guidance his taste buds give. But he went on and on about the brand and the packaging. And – “You’ll be interested in this, Sam” – about its storytelling.
Now it helps – in the areas where I profess no expertise – that it looks clean and honest, in traditional brown paper packaging. Simple, sans serif fonts. Not too many words. And intriguingly-clever pack architecture, including a short, five-sided cube in which the otherwise floppy bag sits upright on the shelf, in the cupboard, on the counter top. Signatures of the founders and a hand-stamped name of blend, best before, name of roaster, and roasting date.
But how does it do against our three criteria?
SIMPLICITY: clear, simple, language. Nothing too florid, which many coffee brands often lapse into all too easily. Short, pithy sentences. Honest language, like the soil that supported the coffee plants in the countries of origin. And one of the best explanations I’ve seen about how Union Direct Trade works in partnership with farmers better than just Fair Trade. The hand-written quality score and hand-circled strength indicator on the front of pack make what we are about to receive abundantly clear. And I love the fact that the back of pack copy begins self-consciously with the line OUR STORY.
HUMANITY: this brand could scarcely be more human. From the founders’ signatures and the name of the roaster, Union coffee comes with a fold-out leaflet in rich, coffee browns which tells the story – in the same simple language – of the roastmasters who’ve made the coffee. If I was to quibble, the word “roastmaster” is a bit self-indulgent; a bit jargonish. But I’d not heard it before and its meaning is totally transparent. With some well-chosen answers to direct questions, we learn all about the lives and passions, skills and expertise of the people who’ve prepared our coffee up til this point.
To me (and billions of others, daily consuming the world’s most-consumed drug), my morning caffeine shot is what enables me to be more human. And I’m happy to read and see pictures and read predilections of the fine people who’ve made the fine coffee in my cup. And see physical evidence of their handwriting in giving quality scores and strength ratings. Much better than Starbucks’ feeble attempt at humanity which sees them appropriate and then mangle its customers’ names across a crowded shop floor.
PURPOSE: Union is subtle but clear here. Both about why they’re in business (to bring San Francisco 1990s quality and experience to the British coffee drinker), and why their approach to fairer trade (Union Direct Trade) enables them to do well by doing good. By helping farmers in a more direct and more beneficial way than the bureaucracy and vested interests of Fair Trade – something they never have to say explicitly – we have a very clear understanding of their Why. Or more properly, their Whys.
So let’s raise a cup of Revelation Expresso Blend to great corporate and brand storytelling that follows the three golden rules. Simplicity. Humanity. And Purpose.
Declaration of conflicts of interest: I have no involvement whatsoever in the business of Union Roasted Coffee, apart from being a recently-converted consumer.
Sam Knowles is a master data storyteller and the Founder & MD of the consultancy Insight Agents. His purpose is to help organisations make smarter use of data, talk Human, and sound like people. An established and sought-after trainer, keynote speaker, and podcaster, he is the founder and host of Data Malarkey podcast and chair of I-COM’s Data Storytelling Council. He’s a Fellow of the Market Reserach Society, the RSA, and the Professional Speaking Association.
Sam is the author of the ‘Using Data Better’ trilogy of books, all published by Routledge. These include the 2018 best-seller Narrative by Numbers, 2020’s critically-acclaimed sequel, How To Be Insightful , and 2022’s eagerly-anticipated Asking Smarter Questions. In 2023, Insight Agents launched Using Data Smarter, a comprehensive, online training course based on all three books.
Find out more about Sam’s approach to data storytelling in this 15-minute video.