Growing up we’re always told that it’s what’s on the inside that counts. And while that’s certainly true with respect to personal integrity, I’ve learned that when it comes to beverages, if your label doesn’t catch peoples’ attention, they may not get the chance to taste what’s inside. (Unless of course you have a sampling team in the store, which is still our primary marketing strategy.)
One of my favorite ways to test the effectiveness of our labels is walking into a store and seeing if I can spot our brand in a cooler in the back. Our glass bottles definitely pass this test, and that’s one of the reasons we have no immediate plans to redesign their look. But I often found that our PET bottles didn’t really stand out. While we generally rely on our instincts, we recognized that it would be helpful to do more research before making such an important change. So in 2008 we conducted a series of focus groups with both current and potential customers, so we could understand how consumers responded to our bottles alongside the competition. The sessions, along with some other studies we conducted, reinforced the fact that the labels on our plastic bottles needed to more effectively communicate our authentic ingredients and taste appeal.
We’d been so focused on selling our drinks for the past three and half years, that we hadn’t given much consideration to changing the labels. It’s a little bit like changing the way you comb your hair – you get used to it, and rarely wonder how you’d look a different way. But now that we’ve gained national distribution and our drinks are in places where people have little to no awareness of our brand, we need to find a way to better communicate our name and what our brand stands for.
When we started working with Turner-Duckworth, a highly-talented design agency out of San Francisco, we made it clear any new design would have to retain our core branding around organics and simple, elegant design. But in order to empower the designers to explore new approaches, they asked us to give up some elements we had considered core to our package identity. After some grueling debates, and much hand-wringing, we gave Turner-Duckworth the green light to part with the following elements:
We agreed to move away from our black borders on top and bottom of the label…we found that the name “Honest Tea” or “Honest Ade” on white against the black gave the name a recessive presence, instead of a bold visual identity.
In recognition of the fact that the word “Honest” is the most important part of our name, we decided to move away from having the word “Honest Tea” all on one line. While some were worried that breaking up the words might make it easier for consumers to miss the pun (Honest Tea = “Honesty”), we decided the benefits of creating one uniform brand identity that emphasizes the word “Honest” was worth the tradeoff.
We explored a few treatments of our bottled tea without the big T frame, but we concluded that the “T” is an iconic element of our brand and still a very effective way to communicate tea in the bottle. We were also worried that veering away from the T might be perceived as abandoning our roots. We were conscious of Tropicana’s redesign experience in 2009, when the juice maker dropped its trademark straw in an orange, but later brought it back after consumers and sales responded negatively to the new look.
We saw a variety of exciting label designs, some of which tested quite well, but more than once we came up with lovely images that might have worked well for a different tea brand, just not the Honest brand. To really dial up the iconic-ness (if that’s a word) of our packaging, we even considered a design treatmentthat incorporated the big T in all of our varieties, including Honest Ade, but concluded that we might confuse the consumer if we had Honest Ade (which has no tea in it) in a bottle with a T label.
Eventually, we ended up with striking labels that clearly say “Honest”, clearly communicate T, and manage to incorporate some of our offbeat personality, while also highlighting the high-quality ingredients and taste. I’m particularly fond of the way fruit is depicted with unexpected scale and whimsy in the Honest Ade line. I’m also glad we found a way to include images of freshly-picked tea leaves on the tea line to help establish that our drinks are brewed with real tea leaves. And finally, since we love sharing information about our products and our company, we even managed to sneak in more information on the labels by inserting facts and stories on the inside of the labels, which consumers can access by peeling back the “Thirsty For More Info? See What’s Inside!” tab on every label.
After more than 18 months and much hand-wringing, we feel like we’ve done our work. Now it’s time for the marketplace to decide. Please let us know what you think!
SETH GOLDMAN is the President and TeaEO of Honest Tea, the company he co-founded in 1998 with Professor Barry Nalebuff of the Yale School of Management. He's preparing the September release of a graphic novel titled Mission in a Bottle. @HonestTea