Editor's Note: Rxbar is a winner of Inc.'s 2017 Design Awards, our annual recognition of entrepreneurs using design to build great companies, in the "Package Design" category.
Peruse a rack of protein bars at any grocery story and they all blend together: claims of what the food does (or does not) contain, promises of protein, and some stamp of approval by the latest fad diet. Rxbar, founded in 2013 by Peter Rahal and Jared Smith, used to be one of them. But 18 months ago, the Chicago-based company gave its protein-bar packaging a radical overhaul, and they soon began landing in retailers including Whole Foods and Trader Joe's. Rahal talks Inc. through logo shrinkage, packaging noise, and graphic-design enlightenment.
The original design was hardly intentional. "We were 25, broke, and naive," says Rahal. "We didn't have any resources, so Jared and I designed it ourselves. We did it on PowerPoint."
After two years in business, the brand had enough stability to let Smith and Rahal catch their breath. "We took a step back and had a humbling moment," Rahal says. "We realized our baby was ugly." The pair consulted with branding experts and hired an outside design firm, Chicago-based Scott & Victor, to help them rebrand.
The pair spread the word about Rxbar by providing samples to their target audience--athletes, primarily CrossFitters. "We used whole-food ingredients, so we would pitch it by saying it's like eating three egg whites, two dates, six almonds," says Rahal. "When we commercialized, we were like, we have to put this on the back."
Those ingredients are now the packaging's star. "We wanted to be super direct and super transparent," Rahal says, though their idea wasn't met with much support. "Industry experts were like, 'This is dumb. This is a mistake.' " There was concern that the brand logo was too small--they'd shrunk it by 60 percent--and that the simplicity of the ingredient listing looked generic. But they trusted their gut. "Our promise from the start has been 'No B.S.,' " Rahal says. "There was definitely uncertainty, but we knew it was the right way for us to go."
Without design or marketing backgrounds, the co-founders followed what they understood to be the rules of branding. "We looked it up in the playbook, and it was like, you need appetite appeal," says Rahal. "People need to know it's a blueberry." And so they did just that--put a picture of a cluster of blueberries on the front of the bar.
"We talked a lot about communicating flavor," Rahal says. "And color is the primary way of doing that." The team chose colors that felt rich, to indicate Rxbar's status as a premium product. "We didn't want the color to be disruptive, but we still wanted it to pop." Tiny, illustrated icons do double duty, nodding to taste while adding some joy. "They soften up the seriousness of rest of the package--and it gives us some creative freedom moving forward," Rahal says, referencing the cheeky anchor icon used for the Chocolate Sea Salt flavor. "If we ever use ginger in a bar, we can, say, use a gingerbread man as an icon. It gives us liberty."
"In the protein bar space, the design architecture of packaging is so common: logo, appetite appeal, claim, flavor," Rahal says. "The product had been engineered for our early adopters, and those claims were in our DNA. But those claims aren't why people buy a product anymore. It's trying too hard." The brand's main promise--clean, whole ingredients--is enough for what Rahal calls "mindful Millennials" and "healthy yuppies." The other claims? Unnecessary noise.
The update amplifies the "No B.S." claim, but ditches the rest. "A lot of our design is based on negative space," says Rahal. "If we follow the market and start adding some of those claims--vegan, gluten free, no GMOs--we lose that negative space and the cleanliness of the design."
THE BIG REVEAL
"A few customers thought we were a different company," Rahal admits. But the new look quickly took hold. "Our customers love it, talk about it, share it," he says. "And it caught the attention of new buyers and retailers." Since the redesign, Rxbar has become the number-three wellness bar at natural-food retailers, according to research from the natural and organic products trade group Spins. Where on that list did it land before? "Bottom of the barrel," Rahal says. "Nowhere."