The competitive environment for organic products has also changed along with the sales structure. In addition, more and more conventional brands are using the classic image and design language of organic products. Organic producers have to develop a new visual identity in order to be perceived as credible and attractive.

Already today, organic products from young start-up brands such as Rebelicious (breakfast cereals) or Einhorn (menstrual hygiene) are coming up with new packaging designs that have little in common with the established visuals of the organic industry. At the same time, organic manufacturers have invested in the appreciation of their products for decades with their own style. So-called “semiotic codes”, visual anchors, play an important role here.

Semiotics is the study of signs – and they are omnipresent in advertising and marketing. They send clear signals and arouse very concrete associations in the viewer. Green and brown colouring, pictures of plants, many hand-painted and -written elements on the packaging – consumers have learned the typical “bio code”. But a lot has happened in the organic market since then: The distribution channels have opened up, and more than 60 percent of all organically produced products are now sold in traditional food retailing.

The Biocode as a weapon in the fight for customer confidence

“Since organic is no longer a niche but an expectation of society, it is not getting any easier for producers,” says Sabine Kropf. She is managing director of Ideenhaus GmbH, a brand agency based in Munich and Nuremberg. In contrast to the “closed cosmos” of an organic food store, organic products on supermarket shelves are also in direct competition with the brands of conventional manufacturers. And they not only have huge marketing budgets – but are increasingly using established biocodes to profit from the trend topic of sustainability.

The difference between organic and non-organic is difficult to see
Which is the organic product for the consumer? Differentiation is becoming increasingly difficult.

“Conventional retailers and manufacturers have learned the biocode in order to inspire confidence,” observes Kropf, whose agency is involved in translating brands into semiotic codes. They have an unconscious effect on the consumer, even if the mechanism is clear: the square shower gel bottle for men, the rounded one for women, the silver or golden writing for the premium face cream, etc. Such codes are communication amplifiers that immediately penetrate the emotional layer of the brain. They are socio-culturally influenced, learned over centuries. The colour red, for example, attracts increased attention in all cultures because it stands for fire, which has always been one of the greatest dangers to humans.

Handwriting suggests handwork

Semiotic codes do not change, but their interaction does. There are visual codes (colours, images, illustrations, shapes and seals), verbal codes (text, word, language) and sensory codes (material, haptics, smell and sound). All three types of codes are now being used by more and more conventional food manufacturers to give their products an “organic look”. Brand expert Kropf cites the “Naturally delicious” product line from Unilever subsidiary Knorr as an example.

The colors green, earthy red and brown and the wooden spoon shown here are not the only visual anchors. Handwriting looks and roughly printed color areas also convey the impression that a person has put together and packaged the product. This principle is complemented by the corresponding haptic: a matt packaging film reminiscent of natural paper. The recurring word “natural” serves as the verbal code.

If the organic product is no longer recognizable as an organic product

Knorr is not an isolated case. The paper bag into which Frosta has recently filled its frozen vegetables and ready-to-eat meals has a matt natural paper look for a good reason. Most consumers equate this sustainable packaging material with an organic product. As a result, consumers are increasingly unable to differentiate between organic and non-organic products. A dilemma for the “real” organic producers.

And it gets even worse: in an effort to break away from classic bio codes, organic producers sometimes overshoot the mark – like the start-up Just Spices. This packs its spice mixtures in brightly colored bags with color codes of the digital world, illustrations of young, cool people and English as a code for globality. The little bio-seal almost disappears. Here the focus is exclusively on emotion, but the specific brand performance is not expressed.

The absurd situation: When looking at Knorr and Just Spices’ spice blends, many consumers consider the conventional article to be an organic product, while the organic product is not recognized as such. So what should organic producers do? The example Just Spices shows: Although it is not possible without semiotic codes. But just creating beautiful emotions is not enough either. “The challenge is to develop a visuality for next-generation organic products while not completely neglecting the rational,” says Sabine Kropf.

First instinct, then arguments

Organic producers have many purchase arguments on their side. However, they should not make the mistake of listing every single one, but instead work out their own brand performance. For example, the reference to the use of green electricity can be omitted, because conventional manufacturers now also advertise this. Organic producers should rather ask themselves: “What can I credibly stand for?” This can be the regional origin or the reference to the family business for 40 years.

How Bio-Hygiene articles can send a message
This is also how organic products look today: feminine hygiene products from Berliner Einhorn GmbH

Using semiotic codes sensibly and at the same time underpinning the brand message with arguments is therefore a tightrope walk. Manufacturers should neither rely solely on emotion nor overload the product with information in order to penetrate the brain with as many arguments as possible. “You don’t create emotion with arguments,” knows brand expert Sabine Kropf. And without emotion there is no purchase. The instinct, which is located in the brain stem, the so-called “reptilian brain”, must be addressed first. And there are only seconds left for this. So the order must be: Penetrate the reptilian brain first, then reinforce the message with arguments.

Like Just Spices, more and more young bio-companies are trying out a new visual language. And the more conventional manufacturers use the semiotic codes of the organic industry, the more consumers will also relearn. This means that organic products no longer necessarily have to be printed in green and brown to be perceived as such. Here, design follows the development of society: sustainability is modern, so organic products can also come across as modern.

Know and serve customer motives

A packaging design that serves customer needs must also take into account socio-cultural aspects, i.e. gender and generation of the target group or social trends. Especially with organic brands, the customer not only buys the product, but also the values behind it. The question must therefore always be asked from the consumer’s point of view: “What do I buy with a product?” Berlin-based erdbär GmbH is a good example of this with its Rebelicous brand, which is currently listed with Rewe, Kaufland, Budni and Globus. The look of the packaging is not biotypical at all: aggressive looking animal figures in comic style “rebel” against the high sugar content of conventional breakfast cereals.

Here, the brand name (composed of “rebel” and “delicious”) is simultaneously a brand promise, the product performance is underpinned both visually and by arguments. The facts (“less sugar”, “high wholemeal content”) immediately catch the eye, the advantage over conventional comparable products is summarized in the statement “competing products contain so much sugar that the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends banning their advertising”. There is hardly a clearer way to convey a brand message. Conclusion: Organic manufacturers have to adapt their semiotic codes – both to social changes and to their own brand strategy – and in doing so, they have to support them with convincing arguments.