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What B2B Marketers Can Learn from the Nutrition Facts Label (Besides How to Eat Better)

By Joe Walsh
April 8, 2009
What B2B Marketers Can Learn from the Nutrition Facts Label (Besides How to Eat Better)

You Will Learn:
1. Design principles that still apply
2. How its lessons can improve your website
3. The politics behind the label

Since you’re on our list, we guess you know Greenfield/Belser focuses on professional services branding—it’s largely what we’re known for. However, outside of the design field itself, fewer people know that we designed theNutrition Facts labeling program that appears on 6.5 billion food packages in America and has made its way around the world as a global standard for nutrition labeling.

I SHOULD CARE?

We believe so. Not to applaud (well, don’t let us stop you!), but to recognize that three major principles of the Nutrition Facts design connect directly to the effectiveness of your marketing and sales materials. The Nutrition Facts label is:

1. Customer/client focused. Most B2B communications are about the firm. They describe what you do, not how you help. This is a big, big distinction. Sure, the information contained in each label is about the food’s ingredients,but more importantly, it’s about the buyer’s needs!

2. Designed for the scanning reader. Research tells us that long-winded narratives about your service—on the Web or in print—don’t get read. You’ll learn that even punctuation was eliminated in the label because readers were slowed. The way to create speed-readers is to deliver substantive information in tables, charts, graphs, lists, process diagrams, illustrations or photographs. Respect your reader. The success of the label is directly related to the respect we gave both highly literate and barely literate readers.

3. Emphatic in contrast. Rules are both super bold and very light. Type is both extra bold and very light. We did not have the options of graphics or color or imagery when we designed the label. Imagine stripping a designer of every tool except typography and basic ornament. This is a meal without spices. This is a song sung a cappella. This is the same craftsmanship you want to apply to your work in order to ensure you are heard. Is there anything more satisfying than an honest meal? More sublime than a beautifully-trained voice?

MORE FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Greenfield/Belser could (and usually does) go on and on about principles like these, but we’ll stop here and let you learn a bit more about Nutrition Facts and draw some of your own conclusions. We encourage you to read (or scan) the two short articles below. The first, written for the American Institute of Graphic Arts in 1994, recounts how Nutrition Facts was born. The second, reprinted from ID Magazine, examines if Nutrition Facts had changed consumer behavior (hint, the answer is yes and no). Both are by Burkey Belser.

“DESIGNING THE FOOD LABEL”

AIGA JOURNAL, MAY 1994

The final product looks simple enough, but designing the new Nutrition Factslabel for the Food and Drug Administration was a mind-boggling task. Four thousand pages of regulations had to be reduced to a few square inches, flexible enough to appear on a candy bar wrapper or a cereal box. And the process was complicated by a tangle of issues designers do not often have to comb through all at once:

  • Low levels of literacy among a sizable chunk of the public
  • Significant populations with English as their second language
  • Older Americans with failing eyesight and younger Americans just learning to read
  • Production issues such as varying quality label papers, like wax paper and cellophane, that tend to blur small print.

Plus, the food label is an inherently complex piece of information that assumes that all users are literate, familiar with the metric system of measure, understand nutrients and their relative value. For example, what’s the difference between fat and saturated fat? Why are complex carbohydrates and sugars subsets of carbohydrates and why should I care?

The label also assumes all consumers understand percentages and daily values, what their usual calorie intake is and should be, and how to convert the information on the label to their needs. The national news media printed at least six different versions of the label as they reported on its development in the past two years. If the information on the label was a moving target, imagine the difficulty formulating a design.

In fact, the information was so complex that, at one point, we resorted to reversed columns, pie charts and asterisked notations in order to help organize the information for the consumer. We thought that adding parentheses, commas and other notations would help the reader, but we soon realized these devices excluded low-level literacy readers from using the label. And there were other automatic behaviors of the mind revealed; e.g., readers skip over reversed type. 2009 Update: This confirms a truism long known but not generally put into practice by average graphic designers—readers scan. They read in succeeding layers of “appeal,” of which words are the least appealing layer. Make it even slightly more difficult to read the words and readers bail.

And, at one point, we tried to organize nutrients into “good” and “bad” until the scientists convinced us it was not so simple. What are the good guys and the bad guys? If both dietary fiber and sugar are carbohydrates, are they both bad or both good? 2009 Update: Why is the recent introduction of real sugar supposed to be more appealing than fructose?

Ultimately, our victories designing the label were substantial. The combined forces of a multibillion dollar food industry were arrayed not so much to defeat us as make us careful of every step. Our success?

  • By defining the point size, we defined a sizable chunk of real estate on each product package—considerably more than had been used before. It’s visible to the naked eye!
  • By giving the label a boldfaced title, we ensured scanning readers would know how to recognize the label immediately.
  • By putting a one-point rule around the label, we defined its territory, making certain manufacturers could not trespass on public property and disguise your nutrition information as something else.
  • By using bold rules to separate sets of information, we ultimately gave the reader an easy roadmap through the label.

A simple label. A monumentally complex political and design task.

One final note: Good design is always a collaboration between client and designer. Every now and then, we hear about public servants squirreled away in the system who work hard and really care about their work and the American public. The individuals at FDA—Commissioner David Kessler, Bill Dunlap, Jerry Mande and Sharon Natanblut and the FDA scientists—are true American heroes. Their song is sung on every food package you buy.

*I am indebted to Cheryl Achtenberg, Associate Professor of Nutrition and Director, Penn State Nutrition Center, for her careful review of the food label in process. Her comments were, in my opinion, the most complete, intelligent and cogent among all public reviewers.

“NUTRITION FACTS LABEL: HAS CONSUMER BEHAVIOR CHANGED?”

ID MAGAZINE, NOVEMBER 1999

Is anyone measuring the impact of the food label on consumers?
Well, the FDA has been tracking consumer response to the label and it appears the label has had a significant impact on our decision-making. They’ve conducted telephone surveys, asking consumers how they use the label. They’ve also been asking about changing attitudes regarding diet and health awareness. In addition to those surveys, the FDA has stepped up their market surveillance to identify new product introductions and any shifts in market share that can be attributed to nutrition features of a food product.

Any results?
Yes, there are significant changes! First of all, the research supports the popular perception that the American public has embraced the new food label as a tool to make healthier food choices. That’s huge! For example, within two years of the label’s introduction, more than half of all consumers reported using the information on the label, which is up from 30%. Most people tend to check out specific nutrients—how much or how little fat, for example. But consumers are also checking out the overall nutritional content and using it to compare different food items. That was exactly our goal.

Do consumers believe in the label or do they suspect industry scams?
Great question, because “serving size” was such a joke before the government weighed in on the issue. You know, a can of Coke would look appealing on the old label until you discovered that it represented two or three servings! The FDA was very tough on that issue. They demanded reasonable serving sizes from manufacturers and, for the most part, they got it. Here’s the new standard:What can reasonably be consumed in one sitting? Now a can of Coke is one serving. But the system isn’t perfect. A 16 oz bottle of Coke is two servings. And how many goldfish—the crackers, not the fish—represent a single serving? The package says 50-60, which seems like a lot to me but may not impress the goldfish addict. Still, more consumers seem to understand that the government regulations control label information such as serving sizes.

So there is increased trust in the label as a result?
Yes, fewer consumers express skepticism in any of the information on the label today. You can hardly underestimate the value of that increased trust. More people consider the nutrient content and health claims to be accurate and use the health claim information on food labels when it appears.

Back to the $64 question: Do consumers make different choices today?
Absolutely! In the FDA’s 1990 Health and Diet Survey, 30% of consumers said they had changed their mind about buying or using a food product because they read the old nutrition label. One year after the new label was introduced, 48% said the label influenced a change of heart about a food product. That’s a relative increase of over 50%.

Can all this be attributed to the new food label?
Well, you’re right to ask the question. One could reasonably argue that lots of factors contribute to this change in consumer behavior, so certainly caveats are in order as we interpret the data. For example, the food industry is not asleep. There has been an impressive increase in the introduction of lower fat products simultaneous with the introduction of the label. But you could also argue that the food industry anticipated the impact of the label and smartly introduced new foods to ride the wave of consumer concern. Does your family eat Snackwell cookies?  Well, those cookies, and others of their ilk, increased market share from nearly zilch in second quarter 1991 to 15% by second quarter 1995. Low fat cheeses more than doubled in sales and sales of low fat cheese munchies tripled.

Are Americans thinner and healthier?
No, not that I can prove. Can you believe it? I once read a survey that said people lie 200 times a day—they lie about the time they get up in the morning, how far they jogged, what they ate for breakfast, you name it. And it’s not as if all that lying was harmful to others. It seems that mostly we are lying toourselves, but publicly—as if the lie wasn’t “true” until we told someone else. So I suspect people are buying the low fat stuff and eating twice as much of it. In fact, I’ll bet they are eating even more of it than they ate before because the “low fat” label gives us permission. But no research that I know of is being done on the twisted behavior of the average American.

Has the label affected your life?
You know, I’ve always been thin except for my growing middle-age spread, so I never paid much attention to nutrition information before we got involved in this project. A candy bar and potato chips were a regular part of my lunch every day. But not anymore. In fact, I can’t believe I ate the stuff I used to eat. I think that’s the beautiful part of this whole food labeling business: Americans may choose to eat themselves into a bloated corner, but not because the truth isn’t staring them in the face.