Free From: an opportunity, not a compromise

There was a time when people were very simplistic in their food and drink consumption: they either ate meat or were vegetarian; they either drank alcohol or didn’t. Everyone hated brussels sprouts. Simple.

Over the years and as we’ve better understood the effect of nutrition on our health, quality of life and longevity, there has been an explosion in the number of brands and products that cater to increasingly varied diets.

The notion of a ‘diet’ being a way to stay slim has been around for centuries, but gone are the days when dieting was pure weight management; today’s ‘dieters’ are far more discerning than previous generations, which has given rise to not only healthier products, but entire movements engaged in ‘better’ consumption; better for people, better for animals and better for the planet.

The concept of selective consumption has evolved considerably from the days of Weight Watchers, Diet Coke and “Lite” beers, with today’s marketplace being driven by smaller, niche brands and products more traditionally found in the outlying sections of a category, or only available from health food shops.

Values-driven, these brands tend to be passion projects or the result of a personal mission that has gained traction with consumers by offering innovative, healthy products and a compelling purpose or message, all wrapped up in well-designed packaging.

But, as niche brands have become increasingly mainstream, the bigger players are taking notice and launching their own Free From offers (to varying degrees of success), which makes for one of the most exciting and dynamic sections of the food and drink industry.

This evolving landscape means the reality of healthy eating in the 21st century is more about how to understand and navigate choices, rather than simply settling for the ‘healthy’ option. To support this journey, Free From brands need to be very clear about what makes them unique, better and more desirable than the competition.

Of course, health isn’t the only reason for removing certain products or ingredients from a diet. As likely an ethical standpoint as nutritionally informed, the hugely varied Free From propositions across food & beverage has prompted supermarkets to devote entire aisles to vegan, low, no, Free From etc. products.

Those of a certain age will remember ‘diet’ products being relatively bland in look and taste, which closely aligns with the perception of dieting at the time; a trade-off between health and taste, because you couldn’t have both. However, if you walk down the new Free From section of your local supermarket, the huge variety and sophistication on offer is quite staggering, despite only 1% of the UK population suffering coeliac disease (an autoimmune condition requiring sufferers to avoid gluten) and an estimated 15% being lactose intolerant.

Supermarkets never do anything on a whim, and with purchasing data confirming consumers are moving towards Free From products in greater numbers (Kantar Worldpanel suggests the UK market was approaching £600 million in value in 2018), brands operating in this space not only need to present their ‘healthier’ credentials, but also require an aspirational and engaging design language that reflects taste and desirability.

As the supermarket environment evolves to cater to Free From buyers, it will be interesting to see how packaging continues to evolve in line with this changing landscape. After all, packaging is how the majority of food and drink brands present their USP to consumers, but if everyone has products that are ‘free from’ in one form or another, is it necessary to allocate packaging space to communicate this as a point of difference?

In communication terms, Free From remains an opportunity for brands to stand out from the competition, so the simple answer is yes. As it becomes increasingly mainstream, marketing activity, including packaging design, will evolve to engage with other motivations consumers might have for shopping within a specific category. But, Free From or not, the expectations placed upon packaging communication remain the same; to clearly present a brand’s unique point of difference in a way that resonates with and inspires its target audience.

Whatever the reason for removing a product or ingredient from their diet, consumers don’t want to view this decision as a compromise and still expect to be treated as valuable, valued and relevant, and design provides the opportunity for brands to deliver this emotive connection. Not just in language, terminology or product descriptors, but in visual cues that elevate product communication from functional messaging to desirable brand experience, Free From labels need to work as hard as possible to communicate product benefits and claims, while also reflecting the brand’s values, story and personality.

Branding is about authenticity, clarity and consistency. As mentioned, passion tends to be the driving force behind Free From brands, which is rich territory for crafting a compelling story to reflect and support their proposition. It’s also at this fundamental starting point that many Free From variants of larger brands can fail; the positioning of Free From as just an alternative to an original product can feel a bit contrived. But, while the advantage is undoubtedly with the smaller, niche brands for the time being, growing consumer demand will see increasing investment by larger brands into this sector.

As Free From becomes increasingly competitive, and consumers better informed, brands must reflect a more compelling positioning than just Free From. They need to know their consumer and understand what and why they’re shopping within this category. They need to be very clear about why their brand is right for their consumer and better than the competition, communicate this (hopefully) uniquely desirable promise through design, price it accordingly, and sit back to reap the rewards. Simple!

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