The Results of MorningStar Farms’ Redesign are Positively Delicious
by Kim Gaskins on 04/07/2022 | 6 Minute Read
Plant-based meat made its debut in supermarkets as early as the 1970s, but folks also regarded it as an uninspired substitute for real meat for years to come. It wasn’t until the late 2010s that everything came up roses for plant-based products. In 2018, sales for meat alternatives grew 23%—a trend that has only accelerated in the years since(*).
New entrants to the category, such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, marketed their burgers as highly-convincing meat mimics. Perhaps more significantly, these challenger brands doubled down on partnerships with quick-serve restaurants—including Burger King, White Castle, and McDonald’s—which exposed a much broader consumer base to plant-derived meat.
These challenger brands also added much-needed cachet to plant-based offerings by attracting celebrity investors. For example, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat count among their shareholders Snoop Dogg, Leonardo DiCaprio, Serena Williams, Jay-Z, and Katy Perry—to name just a few. Even meat’s staunchest supporters would have to wonder what the craze is all about.
But what did this flurry of competitive activity mean for established plant-based brands? A giant headache, surely. Take MorningStar Farms—a category captain in the meat-alternatives category since 1975. Even with widespread distribution and deep roots, the brand struggled to keep up with the onslaught of new contenders.
“I joined the team in early 2019 when the business had been in decline for at least six months. We didn’t look modern, and the brand—which usually takes up one to two freezer doors—was difficult for consumers to navigate. We needed to bring back some of our cultural relevance and make the brand easier for consumers to shop,” said Heidi Ray, marketing director at Kellogg’s.
MorningStar Farms’ portfolio is vast, encompassing dozens of products from Spicy Black Bean Burgers and Veggie Italian Sausage Crumbles to Zesty Ranch Chik’n Nuggets. Consumers typically spend little time scanning store shelves for new products—a fact that’s doubly true in the freezer aisle.
“One of the big opportunities for MorningStar Farms was to encourage current buyers to purchase more products. When you show them the entire line, they invariably say, ‘Wow! I never realized there were so many products available,’” said Amy Brusselback, principal at Design B&B, the Chicago-based creative agency that led MorningStar Farms’ redesign effort.
Given the flavor-focused marketing efforts of its competitors, MorningStar Farms also wanted to increase its taste appeal. “For this category, the number one anxiety point for consumers is, ‘What’s this going to taste like?’ MorningStar Farms has the highest rate of repeat in the category—so driving that first purchase is key,” explained Ray.
When any brand—even a well-established one—embarks on a redesign initiative, one of the first tasks is to understand which elements of the current design are most meaningful to consumers. Surprisingly, consumer research revealed that MorningStar Farms had few distinctive assets requiring protection.
“There were a lot of nostalgic and personal associations with the brand, but it lacked strong visual equities. Consumers knew it was green, but that was it,” recalled Brusselback.
After exploring a wide range of design directions, the team ultimately settled on one that emphasized the best of the existing brand: familiar American taste profiles and a friendly backyard-barbecue feel.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the updated design is the punched-up product photography, which was painstakingly art-directed. “The new photography is very taste-forward," said Brusselback. "It's just larger-scale on the package. A lot of attention was given to what the garnishes would be and what accompanied the food so that we were creating a totally delicious experience, not just selling a burger patty. These details also helped to differentiate the varieties—to signal that the Chicken Patties are different from the Spicy Black Bean Burgers, for example."
The agency team jokingly confessed that the photographic process was equal parts art and science, complete with bun measurements and garnish trackers. “We literally had a spreadsheet of garnishes and types of bread, so we could make sure we had a good variety and that we weren’t over-using any ingredients,” recalled Brusselback.
Following current trends, the new photography abandoned neat, idealized depictions of food in favor of more realistic imagery. “It’s got to be perfectly imperfect—under control and not sloppy, but still have a sense of humanity,” said Parker Sheley, art director at Design B&B.
While the updated photography helped differentiate products in the MorningStar Farms family, changes to the hierarchy of communication took this effort even further. Flavor and product format descriptors—such as “Tomato Basil & Pizza Burgers” and “Veggie Corn Dogs”—were scaled up with more emphasis placed on critical words.
Upon first glance, one of the most striking changes to the packaging is the use of a dark green background. While the lighter-green coloring was one of the only distinctive brand assets identified by consumers in the pre-design research, the team felt that the specific shade of green could evolve without much risk. “We wanted to maintain the green, but we moved from a fairly artificial shade into more of a natural space—less acidic and manufactured,” remarked Brusselback.
Additionally, the logo underwent subtle changes to amp up its modernity and gender-neutrality. The texture was removed, and the typography became more geometric with less-dramatic curves and reduced contrast between the thin and thick strokes of the letters—details that tend to make the letters feel more ornate and “feminine.”
“We removed some of the fussiness. Now the logo is a little more assertive, bold, and confident. That's what you're seeing come back from one of the original category players,” said Neil Cowan, brand design director at Kellogg’s.
When the creative development was concluded, the team felt so confident in the new design that they bypassed final validation testing—often considered a “must-do” when an established brand makes a significant design change. Brusselback emphasized the importance of conducting design research early in the process: “Kellogg’s leadership is commendable for their ability to say, ‘Look—we gathered all the consumer insight we need already, and we’ve made strategic decisions along the way. Let’s do this.’”
MorningStar Farms’ new packaging launched to market in early 2020, eliciting an overwhelmingly positive response from plant-based buyers; They preferred the new design to the old by a three-to-one margin, according to an evaluation by Designalytics. Retail sales grew 14% in the six months following the redesign compared to the same period during the prior year, representing an annualized impact of nearly $6 million(**).
“The packaging is your most tangible asset and your most powerful marketing tool. It’s the thing that gets the most eyeballs. The role design played as the beacon for the refresh and resurgence of this business cannot be overstated,” said Ray.
When asked to reflect on what made this initiative so successful, the brand team cited clear communication and alignment between its branding and advertising agencies, as well the importance of making objective design decisions. “Respecting brand equities and understanding the degree of change required—despite personal opinions—was really crucial,” reflected Cowan.
“You can push on certain attributes as long as you keep the codes and cues that help shoppers get back to their previous purchases. We really think that the reason a brand originally became successful is part and parcel of what will keep it healthy forever—in the case of MorningStar Farms, that’s tasty, familiar flavors and easy-to-prepare, healthy meat alternatives,” said Brusselback. She summed up this precept with an apt mantra for a long-enduring brand of plant-based provisions:
“The fruit is in the roots.”
*Nielsen xAOC, latest 52 weeks ending 8/11/2018.
**Nielsen xAOC, latest 26 weeks ending 8/1/2020 vs. the same period in 2019. Data impacted by Covid-19 has been adjusted to account for anomalous shopping trends that skew year-over-year comparisons. Category sales for plant-based meat increased during the pandemic—an outcome that has been minimized in this analysis to yield a more equitable comparison.