How Brands Can Communicate Flavor Through Design

Sam Wilkes, Creative Director, and Nicole Prefer, Strategy Director

Sam Wilkes, Creative Director, and Nicole Prefer, Strategy Director

“Bittersweet strawberry marshmallow butterscotch.
Polar Bear cashew dixieland phosphate chocolate.
Lime tutti frutti special raspberry, leave it to me.
Three grace scotch lassie cherry smash lemon freeze.”

Why are we quoting John Grant lyrics? Flavors.

Flavors are evocative and, thanks to the global beverage market, we’ve become familiar with all sorts of flavors, from all over the world. To keep up with consumers’ increasingly sophisticated palates, and their growing demand for new experiences, flavors are becoming more complex. Some are even left completely up to the drinker’s imagination. Hey Coca-Cola, what exactly does a ‘pixel’ taste like?

In this article, we look at how developing a robust flavor strategy can unlock new opportunities for beverage brands and identify five ways that a complementary design strategy can help your brand connect with consumers.

Be Culturally Relevant

Obvious as it sounds, for brands to stay relevant, it’s important to keep up-to-date with cultural trends. When it comes to flavor, some trends will come and go (Coca-Cola Lime, we’re looking at you), and others will stick around for the long haul (see: every Pumpkin Spiced Latte-inspired drink out there, a flavor still going strong 19 years after its Starbucks debut).

What’s important to remember when launching anything trend-driven is that it has to be done authentically. You don’t want to be seen as jumping on a bandwagon. Our Back Alley Insights approach to strategy is all about doing our research on the ground, digging into culture and brands on a human level, and gaining real insights from real people. It’s the perfect way to kickstart a successful flavor strategy project.

Immediate Excitement = Immediate Sales

We’ve written before about LTOs being an effective way for an established brand to introduce something new without making a long-term commitment. Coca-Cola Creations has been on a flavor-based LTO roll this year, launching the intriguingly-named Dreamworld, Byte, and Starlight Limited Editions.

Each drop has allowed the drinks giant a new marketing moment, appealing to existing consumers who know and love the brand, but also driving trial amongst new audience groups. The fact that the flavors are so mysterious adds to the intrigue and desire to purchase.

Always Flavor-Forwards

At the other end of the scale, flavor innovation can be an effective part of a long-term brand strategy. In the confectionery world, Kit Kat constantly launches new flavors to keep consumers excited (Blueberry Muffin Kit Kat, anyone?). In non-alcoholic drinks, La Croix is the obvious leader in flavor innovation.

By placing flavor innovation at the heart of their brands, the likes of Kit Kat and La Croix have positioned themselves at the forefront of flavor trends, growing loyal consumer bases that look forward to trying the latest and greatest versions of their favorite products.

Reinvigorate an Entire Category

Flavor innovation can also be used to challenge how consumers see an entire category. Take Nitro Pepsi as an example. Cola drinks have been around for over a century, and there has been plenty of innovation in flavor and packaging, but Pepsi Nitro brought something completely new to this established category. The first nitrogen-infused cola with a widget built into the can (something you would usually see used in beer and coffee products), it provides drinkers with a smooth and creamy flavor profile and texture.

Pepsi Nitro has completely shaken up what we would expect from a cola drink, and we’re curious to see how other categories could learn from this approach. What could be next for juice or hot chocolate?

5 Ways Brands Can Communicate Flavor Through Design

Whether represented on pack, POS, comms, or through 360 activations, flavor should be one of the primary considerations in beverage and snack brand design. Communicating what consumers can expect in terms of flavor within a split second could be the deciding factor in whether your brand is chosen, so complementing your flavor strategy with a solid design strategy is crucial.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Here are five different ways that design can be used to successfully communicate flavor.

1. Literal Visual Representation

A picture can speak a thousand words. You’re in a foreign country, you don’t speak the language, and you’re thirsty. The brands in the chiller are unfamiliar, so what do you choose? Unless you’re feeling particularly adventurous, that visual cue for flavor will likely be the deciding factor.

Whether using photography, visualization, or illustration, a literal visual representation is one of the easiest ways to denote flavor. What’s key is creating a unique look and feel, something that is completely ownable to your brand. The recent redesign for Velveeta Shells & Cheese is a great example. With an almost hyper-real visualization of the gooey, oozy cheese sauce dripping down the pack it appeals to all of the senses. And it is unmistakably Velveeta.

2. Abstract Visual Representation

Design doesn’t always have to be literal, and there’s an opportunity to get really creative. We could all identify the shape of a banana or raspberry, but the textural patterns of orange peel or pineapple rind also tell us what we need to know. Those creamy swirls and splashes found across our work on Baileys? They instantly conjure up the indulgent deliciousness of the drink.

For our recent redesign of the Big Easy Kombucha range, we built on this idea further by creating bespoke textures with a handmade feel, communicating the 100% natural and organic credentials of the ingredients in the drinks.

Vault49 Big Easy Kombucha textures and details

3. Color Cues

Much like literal visual representation, color is often a key signifier of flavor. Red for strawberry, orange for… you get the picture. Things can become tricky when you have variants with ingredients of the same color. Yellow could just as well be banana, lemon, or pineapple, whilst blue has broken all expected codes to find its own place in flavor. Originally introduced in the 50s to distinguish raspberry from cherry, watermelon and strawberry, blue raspberry is now a cult classic. So while color is useful, it can’t always be relied upon as the sole flavor communicator.

Color can also be used as a category signifier. For example, we associate still water with the color blue, and sparkling water with green. While there is a formula for following category color codes, there’s also an opportunity to break them and really stand out from the crowd. Liquid Death is a true disruptor that breaks every traditional water code going. You can’t help but pick it out from the crowd.

Other qualities such as strength and ‘naturalness’ can also be represented through color. A muted palette can communicate a more natural or subtle flavor, vibrant hues might be chosen for more intense or artificial flavors. Red Bull uses the same packaging design for its original and sugar-free drinks, swapping in a lighter blue for the ‘better for you’ option to distinguish it on shelf.

4. The Power of Words

When it comes to design strategy, we don’t just look at visual codes. Whether it’s as simple as listing the core ingredients, creating a more descriptive way to explain flavor combinations (like ‘Berry Blast’ or ‘Tropical Punch’), or developing a distinctive tone of voice and brand language to go further, choosing the right words to communicate flavor is an important part of any beverage brand design strategy.

It doesn’t have to all be about functional language, either. Brewdog’s Elvis Juice and Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia are good examples of brands flexing their unique tone of voice and tapping into culture to inspire the more creative side of product naming. God only knows what drinks flavored with ‘Unicorn Tears’ taste like, but imagination is a powerful thing, and words can take us to places and expectations beyond our reach.

5. 360 Brand Experience

The final piece of the flavor puzzle is bringing flavor to life through a holistic brand experience. This could be anything from animation and motion to how your product packaging physically feels (the tactility of the materials you choose for labels, for example), or a full 360 sensorial physical brand experience where the sense of smell, an important biological part of how we experience taste, can also come into play.

Our work on the Baileys Treat Bar offers a great example. Bringing our ‘part cake, part booze’ brand positioning to life in a physical space, we created a truly unique and ownable brand experience across everything from standalone cafes to pop-up carts in Duty Free environments.

Recruiting a new wave of treat-loving customers into the brand, our Treat Bars generated an impressive 45% uplift in sales.

What’s Next in Flavor Strategy?

As we explored in our recent Insights article, we’re seeing more and more traditional flavors from parts of Asia, and Central and South America becoming more commonplace across the global drinks industry. Yuzu, guava, hibiscus, and cherry blossom (also known as sakura) are all flavors we expect to become a lot more familiar with across beverages.

Equally, the current trend of inventing flavors that we’ve never tasted before will likely continue. Brands like Recess already claim to have “canned a feeling” with its range of wellness beverages, and Teakoe has a line of fizzy teas with names like Awaken, Cleanse, and Nurture. Will we start to see more flavors expressed as moods or how they will make you feel, rather than appealing directly to our taste buds?

As the world of flavor continues to expand from the familiar into the unfamiliar, and as consumer expectations evolve, it’s important to remember that flavor strategy should not be an afterthought when growing your drinks brand. It has the potential to be a central part of your brand story and a key influence on your design strategy, enticing and exciting taste buds all over the globe.

If you’re looking for a design partner to help reinvigorate your brand through flavor strategy, or you’re curious to learn more about the semiotics and category codes around flavor, get in touch.

Sam Wilkes, Creative Director, and Nicole Prefer, Strategy Director