A little backwards thinking

An increasing number of food brands are using the back of their packaging to engage consumers, build heritage and quell fears that the product contains unhealthy ingredients, says Jo-Anne Flack

A small item in the news recently reported on a survey by a company called Docucorp which revealed the majority of people would rather read the back of a cereal packet than a letter from a insurer, bank or other financial service provider.

The point of the survey, presumably, was to prove how dull financial mail is. But what the survey failed to recognise is how interesting the back of a cereal packet can be.

Breakfast cereal manufacturers were the first to realise that the size of the package and its location in the home (roughly 20 minutes on the table at breakfast time, when most people don’t feel like talking to each other) made it the ideal vehicle to engage consumers with the brand by making the back of the pack read like a newspaper.

Going round the back

Packaging has long since come of age as a vital element in the marketing of any product. What is more interesting, however, is how the back of the pack is becoming less likely to be used as the dumping ground for small print that includes lists of ingredients and other legal matters and is increasingly seen as the space that consumers turn to, before the product is dropped into the trolley, to find out more about the product they are buying. In the process, the smartest brands ensure that the priority of marketing, brand engagement, is developed.

And for those food products that hide the bad news behind front-of-pack promises, this new trend in packaging may prove challenging. The “99 per cent fat free” strap across any food item could be quite enticing for those who care, but it is only those in the know who immediately turn to the back of the pack to find out that there is enough sugar in the product, unhelpfully labelled fructose, to sink a ship.

Apart from breakfast cereals, a number of other food products have begun to exploit the back of the pack. The most visible example at the moment is the Innocent Smoothie carton designed specifically for children.

There are a number of reasons why the back of the pack has risen in importance. According to Brandhouse WTS managing partner Mark Gandy, the increased focus on the whole pack is a consequence of “the advertising game having been rumbled in the early 1990s”.

Breaking the tradition

He says: “Clients are thinking that traditional advertising doesn’t work as well as they thought it did, meaning budgets have been restructured accordingly. Clients are now much more open to the idea that the pack is the primary communication vehicle.

“Smart brand owners have realised this for years, but most people are catching on to the fact that the last bastion for brands is the back of the pack – the space that used to be filled by repro agencies with information sent straight through from the legal department.”

Another influence has been the crisis of trust among consumers when it comes to buying food. Jill Marshall, chief executive at Design Bridge, the agency responsible for the Innocent Smoothie brand extension into the children’s market, says there is an increasing desire on the part of consumers for honesty and transparency, and the best place to rekindle that relationship is on the back of the pack.


She says: “We did some research about a year ago looking at how on-pack health issues are conveyed. there was the perception among the lower socio-economic groups that anything claiming to be ’99 per cent fat free’ was good, with no understanding of the levels of sugar that can accompany such a claim.

“The product that was constantly mentioned as one that broke consumer trust was Sunny Delight. In that situation, consumers felt that everything on the pack pointed to a healthy, fresh drink for kids when the reality was quite different.”

It is this case of mistaken identity, according to Marshall, that forced consumers to become far more scrupulous about examining the contents of any product. “The back of the pack provides a huge opportunity to build on the story of a brand. It is here that you can engage with the consumer and create dialogue with the right tone of voice.”

Apart from Innocent, Design Bridge also developed the Peperami Noodles brand and, according to Marshall, used the existing strong character of the Peperami animal to lure consumers to the back of the pack.

But it is not only the desire of manufacturers to convince consumers that their product is healthy that has created the new interest in the back of the pack. According to Neil Walker, creative director at design consultancy CDT, brands that have particular stories behind them or are linked to ethical or emotional causes have also seen the benefits of exploiting the whole pack.

He says: “Any of the fair-trade products that have an ethical or historical story to tell use the back of the pack for this. These brands don’t spend money on above-the-line advertising so they need to get an emotional response to the brand on shop shelves.”


Walker agrees that this trend is linked to the demand by consumers for more information about what they are buying, but says the concept is not necessarily new. “The cosmetic brand Neal’s Yard has been doing it for years – except it has done it the other way around. All the ingredients of the products are on the front of the pack.”

Despite the tendency for the back of the pack to be exploited mainly in food brands, it is a concept that can be, and has been, extended into a number of product areas.

FLB client services director Guy Douglass has recently helped develop an electrical retail brand for Asda called ONN. “The whole consumer electrics market is ripe for this whole-pack concept. In this sector the packaging has never been considered important, but the work we did for Asda was much more about putting clear, relevant information on the whole of the pack.”

Douglass adds that brands such as Neal’s Yard and Body Shop have exploited the whole of the pack for years, but also points out that these retailers distribute only their own products in their stores, and are therefore in a far better position to concentrate on the back of pack, as they are not competing with any other product on the shelf.

This is why retailers such as Tesco and Asda have recently launched own-brand ranges of ready foods aimed at the children’s market – and the packaging in both cases has the distinctive style of appropriate detail communicated in an engaging tone. But what effect, if any, will this emphasis on the back of the pack have on the front of the pack?

Gandy suggests the front of the pack is unlikely to be tampered with, mainly because brands and logos now tend to be global and need to be recognisable across markets.

He says: “The truth is that consumers don’t spend a lot of time looking at the front of packs anyway. The front of pack is still dominated by product claims and it’s more about recognition. It is the back of the pack that consumers are far more interested in now.”

traffic lights an obstacle

Food manufacturers may also face the prospect of the traffic-light system, which the Government has proposed to introduce to alert consumers to ingredients in food that are not considered healthy. Products that contain high levels of salt, fat or artificial flavours will have to work hard at communicating any benefits of the product on pack.

But every trend does bring with it inherent dangers. It has been said that the new designs for products seeking to engage with consumers and draw them into the whole of the pack are in fact very similar and often look as if they come out of the same design agency. It’s the same chatty, even over-familiar tone that some say is increasingly common across the redesigns.

That may well be true, but it is probably an issue that bothers the industry more than it does consumers. As long as consumers feel they are being engaged by a brand in a way that makes them trust it, the chat is likely to

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