Hill’s Science Diet Highlights The Immense Business Value Of Design

by Kim Gaskins on 09/29/2020 | 5 Minute Read

Just how valuable is design? For creatives, the answer to this question is obvious, but painstakingly difficult to quantify.

The Designalytics Effectiveness Award, included in this year’s Dieline Awards, was created to tackle this question—and, ultimately, to drive greater awareness of design’s role in driving business growth. This award is unique because it’s entirely data-driven; winner selection gets based on retail sales performance before and after the redesign, as well as quantitative consumer testing.

This year, the redesign for Hill’s Science Diet, led by New York-based branding agency Beardwood&Co, was selected as the grand prize winner of the Designalytics Effectiveness Award, and for a good reason. The portfolio-wide design overhaul had a massive impact on the brand’s bottom line.

So, how exactly did Hill's become top dog? 

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Over the past several years, many human food categories have been impacted profoundly by the “clean-label” craze—a desire for more modest, natural ingredients. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t long before conscientious pet parents began to wonder, “Shouldn’t my pet be eating as well as I do?”

Cue the launch of new pet foods whose packaging touted high-quality ingredients and uber-natural positioning. Suddenly, retail shelves virtually paneled themselves with images of wolves with piercing blue eyes, dramatic woodland panoramas, and five-star charcuterie boards. “There were a lot of fads gaining popularity in pet food categories with positioning like, ‘Your cat is a tiger, so you should feed it what a tiger eats,’” explained Luca Torregiani, senior global design manager at Colgate-Palmolive.

Despite using premium ingredients and conducting painstaking amounts of R&D to ensure the ideal balance of nutrients, consumers still perceived Hill’s Science Diet as a stuffy old-timer amongst new brands with a breezier, all-natural bent. “We were standing to the side, giving good advice, but not connecting emotionally with the consumer,” said Jen Giannotti-Genes, global brand design director at Colgate-Palmolive.

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That was the crux of the problem—too much emphasis on science and too little on emotion. “Even current Hill’s buyers didn't like the packaging. Typically, they were buying it because their vet had told them to, but it didn't look like food that was going to make their pets happy. It just looked like science—a product with a white coat on it,” said Julia Beardwood, CEO and founder of Beardwood&Co.

Before beginning the design process, the brand team conducted extensive brand and design research to understand its strengths and weaknesses. They discovered that, beyond Hill's lack of emotional appeal, there were other practical drawbacks to the current design. 

The white bag—a powerful, distinctive asset for the brand—was recessive on e-commerce websites where packages typically get displayed on a white background.

Additionally, the bag was too cluttered with copy, and it lacked a clear hierarchy of communication. “Everything was speaking at the same volume. It felt like an opportunity to create some drama and prioritize what was going to connect with people and help them navigate the packaging,” said Sarah Williams, chief creative officer at Beardwood&Co.

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The team learned that the notion of “distinctive pet character” was the most effective way to connect with pet parents, which meant that the animal photography would need to hit just the right note. After considering several photographers, the team commissioned Michael Faye, a California-based professional. “The pets created a relatable cast of characters, and the detail in the photography contributed to that—one would have a funny eyebrow quirk, or a little ear perked up, or a sidelong glance, or a sweet smile,” said Williams. In testing, consumers even began to relate people in their lives to the pets’ personalities. “They’d say, ‘Oh, that looks like my uncle Joe or my Aunt Sally. It was really comical,’” recalled Giannotti-Genes.

The photography enabled consumers to forge an emotional connection with the animals, but it went even further than that. 

“It was interesting to find that a happy, healthy-looking pet conveys good taste—that taste appeal doesn't just come from food,” said Beardwood. Designalytics’ consumer evaluation supports this observation; when asked whether the old or new packaging better conveys “my pet likes it”—a top-ranked choice driver in the category—more than two-thirds of consumers chose the new design.

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Practically speaking, the distinctive white bag served as the perfect canvas for this outsized cast of characters, transforming the old design’s weakness into its greatest strength; the large photographs spoke to consumers on an emotional level and ensured that the packaging would stand out in both physical and digital retail environments. The addition of a colored bar at the top of the packaging added even more pop, while also making the product line easier for consumers to navigate. “Initially, there were three or four different elements that were colored and all about equally scaled. We took an edit-and-amplify approach so that consumers could associate specific sub-lines, pet age ranges, and so on, in a more meaningful way,” explained Williams.

In March 2019, Hill’s Science Diet launched its new packaging—and, suddenly, its dog days were over. During the six months following the redesign, the brand grew 17% compared to the six months prior, representing an annualized increase of approximately $100 million. Designalytics’ consumer evaluation further affirms the role of design in driving sales; more than two-thirds of consumers indicated that they would prefer the new packaging for purchase over the previous design.

“There’s no denying the successful business outcomes and sales growth that we saw. Design was really driving the bottom line,” said Giannotti-Genes.

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The success of Hill’s Science Diet’s redesign is transforming how the larger Colgate-Palmolive organization approaches design and the value it places on it. While many large manufacturers rely on validation tests as a “final check” before launching a new design, Colgate-Palmolive has begun front-loading its research process on other critical initiatives—placing more emphasis on understanding their current brand and design performance to help focus the creative process early in the game.

Transforming declining sales into double-digit growth is no easy feat for the smallest of brands, much less a multi-billion-dollar category leader in a highly competitive category. Hill’s Science Diet’s story suggests that, by combining masterful creative talent, evidence-based design decisions, and senior leadership that recognizes the immense power of design, any dog can have its day.

Go here to learn more about the other winners for the Designalytics Effectiveness Award!

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