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From Tradeshow to Tragedy: 4 Ways Your Package Design Could Fail at the Retail Level

By Vanessa Doll

Deciding to develop and launch your own food product is an exhilarating––and intense––endeavor. Introducing your product in a tradeshow environment (be they today’s covid-19 inspired virtual versions or a more traditional in-person exhibition) is a key milestone in the initial path to success, an intuitive way to expose your product to buyers and retailers alike. 

And because it’s often the first step in what is hopefully the lifelong success of your new offering, it’s easy to see why all of your focus is on the tradeshow alone when approaching your package design. While you may believe you are putting your best foot forward, that foot is likely going to be stepped all over in the stores. Why? Because there is a huge difference between designing for an individual experience and designing to compete against hundreds of similar products in a grocery-store setting.

Illustration by Joseph Baum

Over a multitude of launches or redesigns, we’ve seen brands fall victim to evaluating their design concepts as a sum of parts, rather than drill down on the deliverables themselves and the context in which they will truly live. With your packaging design in particular, it’s vital that you look at it in the context of a retail environment, because ultimately, a tradeshow is the least reflective of the real world. 

At the tradeshow, you have the multiple assets and point of sales materials to support the brand, anywhere from sell sheets to an entire booth display. You have charming on-the-floor sales people who can explain, in detail, the benefits of your product. You have samples of your delicious product. 

In the grocery-store environment, you have only your package to do the heavy lifting. What’s more, that poor thing is pitching to an impatient audience among a sea of competition. Failing to consider the end user in the early stages of your package design will result in some seriously painful lessons learned at the retail level.

As a branding and design agency that specializes in food, the team at Freshmade has spent many years working with emerging brands and pounding the floors of tradeshow after tradeshow. What we’ve found is that most new brands who fail to put function at the forefront of their packaging design struggle at the retail level.

Most brands who fail to put function at the forefront of their packaging design struggle at the retail level.

If you can design in a way that is impactful both on and off the shelf, you’ll save yourself the tragedy of costly redesigns or missed opportunities with buyers who already view products through the lens of the mass consumer. 

These are common mis-steps you should avoid and a few pointers to take into consideration in the early stages of package design…

Don’t choose fancy over function.

When working with your branding agency on tradeshow design, the key purpose of the package design can easily get lost in all of the exciting assets that are being developed for the brand as a whole. There are a lot of amazing artists in the design field––there is a reason we call it “the creative industry.” There is also a reason why we segregate different categories of design, from apparel to branding and packaging to digital. Designing for consumer packaged goods is a learned skill. It takes experience to understand how messaging hierarchy is established, how to define a priority of communication for claims, and where best to identify key elements.

In early phases of concept work, I do believe that “sky’s the limit” ideation is an important part of the process for any design. But at some point your package design needs to come down to earth. It’s hard to remember this when you are working on getting something into the store vs what actually happens when your product makes it there (hurrah!).

Because of your laser focus on the success of your product, you are much more likely to evaluate the design in isolation rather than the context of the shelf. Don’t do that.

Fear not… there are a lot of opportunities for “delightful details” in your branding. Ornate illustrations, unique patterning, even humorous origin stories can come to life across many touchpoints when developing a new brand. Think websites, social media content creation, booth design, sell sheets, and, of course, fun swag. But almost all other branding assets are still experienced primarily in isolation or supported by each other.

It’s one thing to use an abstract icon as a patterning element or a horizontal logo in social media content because it “looks cool,” it’s another thing to rely on it as your overarching [entirely unreadable] brand identity in which you must build equity.

What happens when all of those other elements fall away and only your package is left in the chaotic environment of retail? Those details may even have a place as a packaging element, but if they interfere with your message, you’ll lose your customer immediately.

There is a sweet spot between disruption and relevance that gives food brands the biggest opportunity for growth. 

The primary principle that drives all of Freshmade’s design strategy is that there is a sweet spot between disruption and relevance that gives food brands the biggest opportunity for growth. We know boring is bad, but there actually is a danger to being too disruptive… and this is coming from a girl with knuckle tattoos!

Another common oversight we see in early phases of package design is disregarding category cues. Certain colors, varnishes, even pack shapes can indicate aspects of your product––positive or negative––that consumers have ingrained in their minds from years of shopping within the category. Differentiating yourself from competition or legacy brands can be an important strategy, but consider carefully which direction you are going to take. On the one hand, you could adopt category cues like iridescent inks used in luxury haircare products to intimate high technology, but that could also cue genetically modified to certain consumers. Turquoise might be your favorite color, but does it work with your product’s message?

With each design you review, try to go beyond your subjectivity and ask: What are the important components that need to be communicated? What will resonate with the consumer? What is my competition doing well? We know that taste appeal is a given, but what about other important factors such as color versioning, brand blocking, FMOT (First Moment of Truth), Eye-tracking, priority of communication, branding/sub branding/flavor hierarchy? (By the way, if you aren’t familiar with some of these key terms, that’s ok. But your designer or design agency better be.)

I’m not saying your package design can’t be the most gorgeous thing you’ve ever seen–you should, of course, be in love with it. Just be certain there is both substance and style, and that substance is strategic.   

Don’t over-complicate things.  

Think of your package design like a dating app profile. You’ve got 13 seconds for a consumer to buy your product at shelf for the first time. In the grocery store setting, most people are poised to swipe right if you don’t meet certain criteria. 

In a tradeshow environment, however, it’s like an endless first date. They’ve come this far, so they’re going to give your product the benefit of the doubt. They are drunk with your salesy charm. They are able to sample your product, pick up your package, take their time with it and interact. They really get to know you and your product. This is an ideal, luxurious setting in which to make your introduction. It’s entirely romantic and primarily unrealistic.

In food, consumers have preset expectations of their products and they evaluate them through some combination of benefit and flavor. Benefit can be interpreted multiple ways depending on values. It could be cost per unit/weight, health benefits, or even a solution to a problem, like convenience. These are a few examples. Assuming you have identified the white space opportunities for identifying your key point of differentiation, are you clearly and easily communicating it? 

One of my favorite things about working in the better-for-you industry is that our clients are typically driven by positive change, so their products have a lot of benefits for the consumer. However, the challenge is understanding what part of that story belongs to the package design and the aforementioned 13-second window. In this instance, less is definitely more. 

Narrowing down on your key differentiator and making sure it comes through with a personality that’s both true to your brand and resonates with the consumer: that’s the way to do it. 

“Simplify and Amplify” is our agency mantra. We know just how hard it is to boil those benefits down, and then create something a consumer can truly grab on to. It may not be one singular benefit you want to highlight, but it’s a common pitfall to fit too much content on to your package and lose your main message. Even if you are only focusing on a singular benefit, understanding the hierarchy of the messaging as a whole and how to fit that into the architecture of the package is no easy feat. 

Narrowing down on your key differentiator and making sure that it comes through with a personality that’s both true to your brand and resonates with the consumer: that’s the way to do it. 

Just like Tinder, a pretty package will get someone to stop and check you out, but your distinguishing features are what make the difference. If a consumer has to spend precious time understanding whether or not you are a good fit, there’s always the next product making it easier. Clear, concise, benefit-driven communication is the only way to win in the grocery’s oversaturated world of pretty packages.


Don’t lose sight of the end game. 

One of the most common sources of frustration we’ve witnessed for our clients is when they have to move from the lawless country of trade show design to the bureaucratic shelves of the grocery aisle. There are a lot of things you can consider early on that will help impact the success of your design when it comes time to treat the NLEA at a certain height, or incorporate dual language, or carefully navigate the minefield of product claims. 

Dual language is a tricky one but can be an area of opportunity for your brand to do well in both Canada and the United States. There are a lot of items to consider, ex: Is your name, any sub-branding, or any taglines trademarkable? Can you use terms that are the same in both French and English, like “Super?” 

There are also ways to navigate the design so that languages have “equal prominence” but may appear to the consumer as higher or less priority in the communication pyramid. If you educate yourself and think through these challenges ahead of time, you won’t necessarily need to present your package with dual language in tradeshow applications. But you will have avoided a complete redesign later.

Product claims are an additional point of consideration well worth taking into account early on. For one, if you rely on claims about your product as a selling point, make sure it’s federally approved. Being stripped of your key point of differentiation when it comes time to shelve your product could be a big blow to your marketing strategy. 

As aforementioned, your biggest challenge will be simplifying your message. Once you’ve defined that message, though, make sure your claim is relevant to existing habits and desires in today’s food environment. And it must be authentic. 

Legal or not, outdated claims surrounding health factors can actually alienate a potential customer. In one of our recent consumer surveys, one respondent said “the second I see a claim about the product ‘not’ having an ingredient, I assume there is a different ingredient they don’t want me to focus on that is in there.” It might even be worth the investment of some consumer research before it gets to the pack in the first place.

Just be aware that in the case of claims, “the lady doth protest too much.”

(For more on consumer research insights, read here:

Don’t forget to do your homework.

When it comes to the tradeshow environment, the ball is pretty much in your court in terms of how someone may experience your package design. You can render it a certain way, take glamour shots all day, merchandise to your specifications, put it in a themed, decorated new product showcase. Add props, a light show, hire a mascot to carry it around. You get the idea.

You can’t control the retail experience. Where your product is shelved. What it’s next to. How it’s stocked. None of that. However, your design can anticipate some potential shelving scenarios so that worst-case is still better than other’s best-case packaging design… 

If your packaging structure allows for it, design thoughtfully on all panels, even the bottom one. You never know how they will stock your product. Head to the frozen aisle and you will see examples of products with a tall package that is laid flat and the bottom becomes the primary display panel. Bedtime Bourbon is one of the few bourbons to have a branded side panel even though bottles are commonly stored on their side to make room on the liquor shelf. That’s the kind of forward thinking that can be adapted to any category.

When selecting the actual structure for your package in the first place, consider your potential retail environment thoughtfully: Does the height of your pack actually fit into the shelf space? 

How will they stack? How many will likely be displayed together? Will they be stacked horizontally vs vertically or even potentially both ways? You may have attracted a buyer at the tradeshow but if you can’t handle the logistics (price point, palletization, shipping due to unique structure), you’re up a creek.

When working with a vendor on packaging structures, they should act as a resource to you. Make sure you are asking them some of these questions. Also, they should have similar examples of existing products that you can evaluate for yourself in multiple retail environments. It’s worth the leg work early on. Finding out that your product or brand visibility is jeopardized once the package is on shelf is not ideal.

It’s worth the leg work early on. Finding out that your product or brand visibility is jeopardized once the package is on shelf is not ideal.

A little anticipation will enable you to focus on what you certainly control: how well your package design stands up to the competition in the actual aisle, and the quality of the product inside.

Mistakes will be made, by new and experienced brands alike. But legwork and the diligence to spend time on strategy and auditing the mistakes of others could make the difference from a learning curve to a complete failure. All that is required is slowing down and thinking things through a little.

The package design is one of the most exciting aspects of building a new brand. I’ve built an entire career in the field, so I get it… it’s hard not to rush in because that’s also the moment that makes it really feel like it’s happening. But according to Elvis, only fools rush in. Slow down and do it right(ish) the first time. 

One last piece of advice: Remember that if your product is going from tradeshows to the actual shelves, these are the problems that success brings––you made it into a retailer! Don’t forget to stop and celebrate that too. 

Vanessa Doll, Partner, Director of Clients & Projects

As a strategic and creative leader, Vanessa helps spearhead growth for our clients. She has extensive experience in CPG branding and design as a senior project manager on P&G brands, such as Always, Pampers, and Vicks. Between her dual master’s degree in Writing Theory and Pedagogy from DePaul University and experiences as a sailboat racer and bar owner, Vanessa brings well-rounded intelligence and determination to everything she does.

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