How Strong Design Transformed One Kettle-Chip Maker Into A Blue-Chip Brand

by Kim Gaskins on 11/03/2020 | 5 Minute Read

In late 2017, Utz Quality Foods acquired Boulder Canyon, a Colorado-based manufacturer of salty snacks. Founded in 1994, the brand had been an early entrant in the better-for-you potato chips category—and, more than 20 years later, was still adopting a design aesthetic better suited to the 1990s. Moreover, as Boulder Canyon added new flavors and product lines, the retail experience became confusing for consumers; the brand lacked a sense of uniformity, and consumers found it difficult to navigate within the brand’s portfolio.

Adding to Boulder Canyon’s branding challenges was an influx of flavor-centric new entrants—plus thriving incumbents, such as Kettle Brand and Cape Cod potato chips. Perhaps not surprisingly, Boulder Canyon’s sales had begun to slip; in October 2017, sales had declined by 29% compared to the same period in 2016. Like many smaller players who attract big-league benefactors, it was time for Boulder Canyon to grow up—starting with a significant makeover.

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The brand engaged Interact Boulder, a Colorado-based branding agency, to lead its redesign initiative. Through competitive audits and a deep-dive assessment of Boulder Canyon’s existing positioning, they determined that the new design needed to leverage its local heritage more effectively to attract consumers who identify with the active, adventurous Boulder lifestyle. 

“Boulder Canyon is a specific place with a specific persona—we tried to make sure that we could export that to appeal to outdoor-oriented consumers around the country,” said Fred Hart, creative director at Interact Boulder.

To play up the power of place, the agency transformed the silhouette of Boulder's Flatirons (rock formations you can find on nearby Green Mountain) from the original logo into an abstract background element within a larger landscape. That had the added benefit of rendering the logo more clean, modern, and flexible; it became a single color, and they removed the surrounding and constraining square.

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By using relatively simple visual elements—a block of color, uniform tree silhouettes, and depth cues such as scale, layering, and shadowing—the agency created a mountain scene evoking the great outdoors as a visual metaphor for the natural taste and texture of the chip. In fact, in a consumer evaluation by Designalytics, category buyers were more likely to associate words like “mountains,” “Colorado,” “Boulder,” and “outdoors” with the new design than the old one. Additionally, the outsize chips and basic illustration style ensured that the visual identity conveyed “approachable” as well as “adventurous.”

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“When I saw the new design, I thought, ‘Wow, this is like Jeep or REI or other role model brands that tap into consumers’ emotions,’” remarked Bill Blubaugh, senior vice president of marketing and communications at UTZ Quality Foods. “People often aren’t making rational decisions at the shelf, so the more you can get them to nod their heads and say, ‘Yeah, that’s me, or that’s someone I want to be,’ the better,” he added.

Incorporating the chip imagery in such a creative, distinctive way accomplished two key objectives; it heightened taste appeal by providing a more detailed view of the product, and it infused a sense of personality into the scene. ”There are cues that help to drive taste appeal—and if you know that works, now how do you make it ownable? In this case, having the chips stand on their sides was one way to create the crave—and do it in a very branded way,” explained Blubaugh.

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That “less is more” approach to food imagery also served to differentiate Boulder Canyon from competitors. “When we looked at the category, everyone had a pile of chips on their packaging. Who doesn’t know what a bowl of potato chips looks like? Why not go for a quality-over-quantity approach with more personality and taste appeal?” asked Hart.

When the team considered other points of competitive differentiation, Boulder Canyon’s use of healthy oils rose to the top of the list. “No one needed another classic sea salt chip. Oh, but a chip made with avocado oil? That’s good for the trade and interesting to the consumer,” said Hart. Accordingly, Interact Boulder restructured the hierarchy of communication on the package to prioritize the type of oil used—which they emblazoned in large text with the flavor signifier below in smaller text. For products that didn’t incorporate unique oils, the agency gave flavor top billing to compete more effectively with rivals who were doing the same.

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The color-blocking on the bottom of the package helped to improve visibility and shopability at the shelf. Impressively, the new branding enabled consumers to locate Boulder Canyon more quickly in a competitive context, reducing find-time from 6.1 seconds to 4.9 seconds.

The brand team selected the final design from among five distinct design directions initially created by Interact Boulder, which ranged from close-in to more dramatic. In March 2019, Boulder Canyon rolled out their new packaging, quickly winning over consumers. During the 26 weeks before the packaging change, dollar sales for Boulder Canyon chips had declined by 38% compared to the same period in 2018. During the 26 weeks following the new design's launch, year-over-year sales reflected an impressive growth rate of 17%—completing reversing the decline and skyrocketing sales. Results from Designalytics’ consumer evaluation confirm these results; chip buyers preferred the new design to the older iteration by a ratio of two-to-one.

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Consumers weren’t the only ones wowed by Boulder Canyon's new look; it also caused retailers to sit up and take note. “Previously, a senior executive at a national retail chain told us that our brand had lost its way over the years. When we presented the new design, it really opened up the doors—and the shelf space—for us. We played big at that retailer,” recalled Mark Schreiber, CCO and executive vice president of sales and marketing at Utz Quality Foods. Thanks to the design overhaul, Boulder Canyon’s distribution increased modestly, and the brand received priority placement at many retailers.

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“I’m a huge believer in package design. I've seen it transform brands—especially smaller brands that don't have big marketing budgets. Honestly, if you have a strong design that’s working hard at the shelf, you may not even need advertising,” said Blubaugh.

“At the very least, good design is making your other marketing activities that much more effective.”

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