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Grocery shelf marketing: Designed to catch the eye

HartungKemp "ditched the box" for the packaging of Three Sisters, a new natural cereal sold at Whole Foods Markets.
HartungKemp “ditched the box” for the packaging of Three Sisters, a new natural cereal sold at Whole Foods Markets.

A product on a grocery shelf has about three seconds to catch a shopper’s eye, and the average large supermarket has more than 50,000 products trying to grab those three seconds.

That makes the job of the package designer crucial. In that brief time, the designer must bring the product to life, using visual cues to send messages about the essential qualities of what’s inside the wrapper or box.

“The package is your primary billboard,” says Stefan Hartung, principal of HartungKemp Design Agency in Minneapolis. “You want it to hop into the shopping cart.”

Hartung and his business partner, Mary Kemp Murray, have a name for what they do: “shelf-kicking.” Working primarily with emerging food companies, they strive to design packages that will grab the attention of shoppers. More important, they hope to make their clients’ products so compelling that grocery store buyers and managers will kick out existing product lines to make room for HartungKemp’s designs.

“Thirty to 50 percent of the products on the shelf are not really performing,” Hartung said. “So we’re looking for places where we can kick out SKUs [stock-keeping units] that are not performing well.”

Bag not box
HartungKemp used packaging last year to make an environmental statement for a new line of cereal, Three Sisters. Sold exclusively at Whole Foods Markets, Three Sisters had to appeal to a green customer.

Yum Dilly candies are a private label brand manufactured for Wal-Mart by Route 29 of New Hope.
Yum Dilly candies are a private label brand manufactured for Wal-Mart by Route 29 of New Hope.

The agency offered a design using a bag instead of a box. The bag included a label saying, “Ditch the box and save a tree!” Three Sisters was an instant success, meeting its first-year sales projections within the first six months.

“Our philosophy is, who can you kick out and how can you stand out?” Murray said. “When we’re talking with clients, we don’t just talk about the package. We talk about holes in the market; competitors; retailers; production capabilities and throughput.

“But design will make the target audience love your product.”

IKEA, Apple and Target are among the companies that have demonstrated the link between great design and profitability, Hartung said. Design engages the customer and creates a relationship. An example is a new project the agency is working on: a package for medical stockings.

“It’s not a good day when you have to wear medical stockings,” Murray said. The agency’s response: design a package that positions the stockings as something more than merely a medical necessity.

Founded in 2001, HartungKemp has 10 employees, but the agency principals are personally involved with every account. That’s another reason they like to work with emerging companies: they can deal with top executives face to face.

While acknowledging they wouldn’t turn down an assignment from a consumer packaged-goods giant, they said the big players in the CPG world tend to get too wrapped up in their own processes.

“We like the flexibility and innovation our clients allow us,” Murray said. “We’re really able to bring our insights to the table.”

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