Theo Chocolate's Holiday Redesign Looks Like Christmas and Tastes Like Success
by Kim Gaskins on 12/14/2021 | 6 Minute Read
It's that time of year again.
The air turns crisp, holiday hits dominate the airwaves, ugly sweaters are fleetingly in fashion, and retailers deck the aisles with limited-edition, holiday packaging. Even grocery shopping takes on a slightly more emotional air as consumers absorb the festive atmosphere and scour the shops for gift-worthy stocking stuffers.
"People who are shopping for holiday products are in a different mindset and have a different reason for buying than an everyday chocolate buyer; they’re in a seasonal mood and want to celebrate. It’s an opportunity for brands to amp up the gifting potential and channel more cheer—and, ultimately, to bring new buyers into the brand,” said Monique Heineman, brand manager at Theo Chocolate, the first organic, fair-trade, bean-to-bar chocolate producer in the United States.
Like many confectionary brands, Theo Chocolate endeavors to bring something more to sweet-toothed shoppers during the holidays. They offer a line of seasonal treats with festive flavors, including Gingerbread Spice and Nutcracker Brittle chocolate bars, as well as Peppermint Cocoa Cups. Treats this delectable deserved to be dressed-up, particularly for the holidays. Plus, as a design-forward company, Theo Chocolate knows what’s on the outside of the package matters just as much as what’s inside.
The brand had created multiple iterations of its holiday packaging over the years and completed an award-winning overhaul of its core packaging in the fall of 2019. “Designs over the years have ranged from modern, to cute and nostalgic, to geometric and sophisticated. For 2020, we wanted to find a different angle that fit better with the newly redefined core brand and conjured a sense of joy and wonder,” said Emily Raffensperger, creative director at Theo Chocolate.
(Above, from left to right, packaging from 2013, 2017, and 2020)
The team began to plan for 2020’s holiday packaging during the winter of 2019—a full year in advance. “When we were starting our research, we could go out to stores and see what was out there at the time in terms of specialty packaging, which was helpful. If it’s 100-degrees outside and you’re sitting in an air-conditioned room talking about snow, it’s harder to get into the right mindset,” explained Mandy Arroyo, graphic designer at Theo Chocolate.
During the research phase, the design team looked across categories for inspiration—not just chocolate and candy, but other seasonal items in grocery stores, as well as stationery cards, wrapping paper, and other giftable items. They considered photography and other treatments for the packaging but gravitated toward illustration for its friendly, hand-made feel.
“There’s a very human touch to it. I don’t think most companies have an in-house design team who are also illustrators, and this was an opportunity for us to showcase the Theo way of doing a holiday scene,” commented Arroyo.
Raffensperger and Arroyo, both skilled illustrators, began with pencil sketches of inviting holiday scenes. For the overarching concept, they drew inspiration from snow globes. “They're nostalgic and a little kitschy and quirky. They invite a fun sense of discovery. For us, this meant that each piece of packaging became a different little scene or vignette. We tried to build in flavor cues, too. For example, there’s a candy cane forest for the peppermint crunch bar, gingerbread houses for the gingerbread spice bar, and so on,” explained Raffensperger.
To crystallize this concept of an immersive winter wonderland, the team began by sketching a snow globe from which they derived the scenes emblazoned on each package. To the individual packages, they added a subtle dot pattern to the background—a suggestion of falling snow. “Having a strong concept at the outset helped us decide how to apply the design to different SKUs and other marketing materials,” said Arroyo.
While the designers took a fresh approach to the holiday graphics, they still wanted these products to feel consistent with the core Theo Chocolate line. “We tried to keep consistent the logo placement and the call-outs for organic and fair trade. The hierarchy of communication takes its cues from the core design and still feels related,” explained Raffensperger.
To support the holiday launch, Theo's design team created a treasure trove of supporting marketing assets, such as those for in-store merchandising opportunities, e-commerce listings, paid promotional campaigns, and social media.
In the late fall of 2020, the new holiday packaging launched—and there’s no doubt consumers were sweet on it. Compared to the prior holiday packaging, chocolate buyers felt the new design better conveyed critical attributes, including “tastes great,” “natural,” “premium,” and “brand I trust,” according to research from Designalytics. Not surprisingly, sales snowballed—increasing 37% overall compared to the same period during the prior year. In the grocery channel specifically, sales increased by 120%.
The new design also helped re-open doors at retailers that had previously delisted Theo Chocolate’s seasonal collection. “With the new design, some retailers were motivated to begin carrying the holiday products again, which was really wonderful to see,” said Heineman.
Many brands will bolster the launch of new packaging with increased marketing investment, making it difficult to isolate the impact of design. In the case of Theo Chocolate, the brand actually decreased its marketing investment for the 2020 holidays, being uncertain how Covid-19 might impact chocolate sales and shopping trends. “We pulled back on in-store merchandising opportunities. While we did continue to spend on e-commerce, our overall marketing spend was reduced from the prior year,” recalled Heineman. The implication of this is profound: Design alone drove the brand’s impressive performance.
When asked to reflect on what made this redesign so successful, the brand team highlighted the critical importance of their in-house design team. “We're a fairly small company, and I think there's a lot of opportunity for collaboration that makes us nimble and capable of adapting quickly. Outside agencies absolutely bring wonderful points of view and unique skill-sets to the process, but they're not necessarily embedded in the company and the culture,” said Raffensperger, who has been with Theo Chocolate since 2014.
With their success—and stunning presentation on the shelf—it can be easy to forget that the brand isn’t a behemoth. The team itself exudes a homey, warm, bubbling kind of energy—active and inventive, but without pretense. “We’re a small but scrappy brand. We do a good job of showing that you can have a really small budget and still do so much with it if you’re willing to get creative,” said Arroyo. “Our photography was shot in my apartment because I was working from home during Covid. We printed out wrapping paper based on the packaging, and wrapped gifts with it, which were used in the photography and store displays,” she added.
Theo Chocolate certainly hit the sweet spot with consumers while demonstrating that effective design doesn’t always require a massive budget or a nationally-renowned creative agency. It also affirms the value of limited-edition packaging in meeting new usage occasions, forging stronger emotional connections with consumers, and bringing new buyers into a brand. In fact, Theo Chocolate’s holiday packaging was such a resounding success in 2020 that it’s making a comeback this winter. Sweet!