Free-from packaging design - a feast for the eyes

July 20, 2018

Conquering the mainstream

In 2013 Quorn hiked its annual ad spend from £0.5m to £5m, and its meat-eating buyers grew to outnumber its vegetarian ones, signalling a major trend in buying meat and dairy alternatives not because you're vegetarian or vegan, but because these products hold perceived health, environmental and trend benefits, as well as having some seriously engaging packaging design.

Alongside the gluten-free market, dairy-free has exploded in recent years. I really never would have thought allergies would become cool, but somehow being lactose/gluten/additive-intolerant is now so mainstream and de-medicalised it's fine to mock. In fact, it's becoming a lets-laugh-at-hipsters comedy staple.

Talking about their rebrand of health food brand Kallo, Big Fish say, 'we carried out some extensive research and discovered that ... the old packaging made them feel like they were people who had “special needs” ... we re-positioned the brand in order to liberate Kallo consumers from the taboo of being “functional foodies” and gave them something they could be proud of and love.' The result is stunning and an absolute gem in the supermarket isles, and has taken the focus entirely away from gluten-free.

Perhaps another reason for the growing popularity of free-from is that whatever is more expensive becomes a badge of exclusivity. Mass-produced meat and dairy is far cheaper now than the vegan alternatives and you generally still have to pay a premium to have soy milk in your coffee.


The fantasy of farms and dairies as wholesome, traditional idyls has been seriously undermined over the past few decades. What with Cowspiracy on Netflix and the horse-meat scandal, the harsh reality of farms is getting ever more publicity. So it's interesting that Tesco is still trying to put up a thin veneer of bucolic loveliness – they've recently launched seven sub-brands each with a fictive, British-sounding farm name, which even made it into the Metro – prime lover of spectacle – as Tesco is selling mass-produced imported food under these names. The Guardian argued that this approach is 'a tactic that seems to go against the consumer trend for accurate information about where food comes from'. Their new packaging does look great though, and is given a feel-good vibe by array of grungy textures, warm colours and stamp-of-approval shapes – and since they've returned to profit this spring, it does seem to have hit the right note.

Luckily there is a veritable tsunami of new vegetable-based 'milks' and 'butters' to plug the provenance gap. And they're not only giving us a warm glow with the journey of their products, the companies themselves tend to have a great back story as well. Rebel Kitchen, for instance, started life as a food and sustainability charity. Their approach is young, fun and very, very informal. Their style (redesigned by B&B Studio) takes cues from tattoos and rock and roll. Ditching the dairy is a protest and alternative.

Tone of voice

The tone of a lot of new healthy dairy-free products is super friendly. Do we still want our products to chat to us? It seems we do. Much cited as started by Innocent drinks, the best-mates tone of voice is now the norm for food packaging design, and aspirational 'lifestyle' brands have taken it to its limits.

My favourite packaging rebrand of recent years is Oatly oat drink by Forsman & Bodenfors. Their CEO described their aim as repositioning Oatly as a 'lifestyle brand' for the 'post-milk generation'. This was a whole lot more that a simple design update. It certainly worked on me. I've loyally bought Oatly for years, but it wasn't something I picked happily from the shelf, and it certainly didn't make the inside of my fridge look on-trend. Emotionally, buying Oatly shifted from a slight embarrassment that I can't just buy normal milk, to more of a positive choice when I got to put these sassy cartons in my basket.

Hand done

Your food may not be made by hand, but there's no reason why your packaging can't look like it has. This is a massive trend and one which I think really brightens up the supermarket shelves. If you want to see beautiful packaging design a great place to look is at health foods. Healthy eating isn't about deprivation anymore, it's about luxury and positive choice. It's also about being part of the aspirational Planet Organic lifestyle. People are paying a premium for dairy-free foods, so they expect some premium packaging design as part of the deal.

Coconuts are pretty big right now. They're a great dairy alternative with the added benefit of being an exotic and indulgent ingredient (they're just a lot more appealing than soy beans, and a whole lot more photogenic). The Coconut Collaborative have done an amazing job of creating a dairy-free product that looks premium, fun and at-one with the Earth (literally, by showing Adam and Eve before the fall).

Light and pure

Another packaging design route taken by veggie food is the bright, light and guilt-free look. Linda McCartney's recent rebrand (done in-house) takes the brand down this route using beautifully kerned out text, overlays and plenty of white space to create a breezy, fresh and pared-back look.

Whatever the approach, it's great to see so many small independent companies finding commercial success with healthy, humane and sustainable food – and fascinating to watch how their big efforts with design and messaging elevate their free-from products into the aspirational lifestyle category and help make choosing dairy or meat-free a mainstream, positive option.

Previous blog Next blog