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  • 05.01.17

Artisanal Branding Grows Up

The darling vegan brand Just by Hampton Creek wants to appeal to Walmart shoppers—without getting shut down by the FDA.

Josh Tetrick was standing in a Dollar Tree in Oakland, California, when he asked a customer which brand of mayo was best. The woman pointed to a gleaming white jar of Kraft.

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But Tetrick asked, “What about the Just Mayo?”–the flagship product of his company Hampton Creek–which sat nearby.

The old line of Just products. [Photo: courtesy Hampton Creek]
“She said, ‘No, that’s the private-label brand at the Dollar Tree,’” Tetrick recounts. In other words, Just Mayo’s craft paper label–a label that had first been X-Acto-knifed, one at a time, for its initial appearance on shelves at Whole Foods–it didn’t register as some Brooklyn-inspired, vegan artisanal good to this bargain shopper in Oakland. It looked like the generic stuff sold by a budget retailer.

“That was an important learning for me,” says Tetrick. “It shows how important context is in design.” And it cemented a hunch, that Hampton Creek, with the lofty, sometimes controversial goal of bringing sustainable, transparent, healthier processed foods to the mainstream consumer, simply didn’t make sense where many low-income and middle-class consumers were shopping: Walmart and Dollar Tree.

It’s one of many issues that prompted Hampton Creek to revamp its Just brand of mayo, dressings, and cookie dough. Hampton Creek was also grappling with everything from an evolving business model to a scuffle with the FDA over potentially false claims.

So Hampton Creek–having raised $120 million to date, but not yet reporting revenue–brought in designer Sean Wolcott to lead a multiyear redevelopment of the entire Just brand, starting with the packaging. It will begin arriving on store shelves this May.

What you’ll notice first is that Just has been moved from a subtle script to a, frankly, more generic sans serif wordmark that ends in a period, “Just.”–the largest component of the design. It’s an atypical move in the field of food branding, which would generally shrink the greater brand name like “Kraft” while supersizing the franchise “Macaroni and Cheese.” That’s because the power of these major sub brands of a company like Kraft, including Oreo, Maxwell House, and Cadbury, aggregate to something far more recognizable than Kraft alone.

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Pages of the new 100-plus-page brand identity book. [Photo: courtesy Hampton Creek]
Meanwhile, each item has a photo of its respective food on the cover–but often, sent through a liberal wave of quasi-illustrative post-processing to make a single color pop.

“I would call it photographical treatments, something that didn’t look real and didn’t look fake, something in the middle,” says Wolcott. “We wanted it to look like real food, but sort of abstracting something but where it became half realism, half art.” Having studied under famed designer Massimo Vignelli, before making his name designing products across Microsoft, Wolcott lead his team of in-house designers with an almost obsessive approach. Some packages had as many as 500 iterations of photography, color, and design.

But that still doesn’t answer the question of the giant “Just.” mark–an approach that looks a lot like a generic house brand that might be sold at Target. Indeed, it’s the “Just.” that reveals how complicated Hampton Creek’s competitive strategy has to be in a field where a few conglomerates own almost every brand of food on the shelf.

Notice the prominence of “Just.” [Photo: courtesy Hampton Creek]
For one, it offers a way to consolidate the Just line of products. The Krafts of the world are motivated to look smaller than they are, because their size and scope would either terrify or bore many consumers. But Hampton Creek wants to leverage the Just brand as a signifier that can help connect its products with a smaller foothold on the market across a store. And as Tetrick explained, many customers believe that Just Mayo is the entire company–one event he attended even served his company’s cookies labeled “Just Mayo Cookies.” By emphasizing Just visually, the company might circumvent that limiting assumption, and expand its fan base out of the mayo and dressing aisle.

The company was also essentially forced to expand Just into something more than a signifier of mayo. Hampton Creek faced a (since dropped) lawsuit from competitor Unilever and a subsequent investigation from the FDA, following its use of “Just Mayo” on a product that was, literally, not traditional mayonnaise because it contained no eggs. Of course, even Tetrick seems to admit that his approach had a certain subversive appeal to shoppers skeptical of eating more ethically, healthily, or green. “If my friends in Alabama see ‘Just vegan mayonnaise,’ they literally won’t buy it,” he says.

Jewel tones are welcome. [Photo: courtesy Hampton Creek]
But in a face-to-face meeting with the FDA, the FDA made it clear that if Hampton Creek was to keep Just on the label, it had to operate differently on the package than as a modifier—it had to have its own meaning. “They said, ‘what’s the idea of the name Just, and I said, ‘it’s fairness, equity, etc.’” Tetrick recounts. “They said, ‘That doesn’t come through on the packaging.’” Just had to be defined, to the consumer on the package itself, if it was to stay.

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Visually, the new design makes the term “just” less of a modifier, and more of a self-standing brand. On top of that, Just’s impossibly broad definition–that seemed ever-changing even in our single conversation with Tetrick–is something that Hampton Creek intends to continue to play with over time. But for now, it’s defined as “a moment of justice for everyone” on all goods.

Don’t be surprised if you see the “Just.” mark on other foods soon. [Photo: courtesy Hampton Creek]

The Even Bigger Play

Beyond mass appeal and FDA requirements, the new, giant “Just” on packaging gives Hampton Creek one last advantage in its future expansion: It’s a brand that can label the company’s proprietary ingredients that make their way into the products of other companies. This strategy is relatively unheard of by a startup like Hampton Creek, but it’s a page right out of the playbook of a Kraft, which might pack Oscar Meyer salami and a Capri Sun juice in a box of Lunchables–stacking these three brand equities (all owned by Kraft!) into a single irresistible product.

Currently, Hampton Creek provides an ingredient to General Mills–and it is in discussions with many big food companies to reach similar arrangements. This would allow Just to compete using would-be competitive products as a microphone, and revenue source, for its own brand.

“How do we find a way to reflect the better thing we’re providing on their food packaging as well?” Tetrick asks. “You can imagine Pillsbury cookie dough, Pepperidge Farm cookies–is there a simple, clean, understandable mark we could have that gives people the feeling that this product is a little bit better. Not perfect, but a little bit better?”

And Just’s new brand may be just that.

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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