One of our Art Directors, Ira Carella, observed the number of well-designed brands that are not doing well in the market until she found Chobani. The transformation Chobani went through was intriguing to Ira, and the curiosity led her to invite Leland Maschmeyer, Co-founder of COLLINS and Chief Creative Officer at Chobani to dive into the merged language of design and business through his award-winning rebrand of Chobani for the third episode of Thinking Zoom Inc. Season 2.
During his time at COLLINS, a design and communication company based in New York and San Francisco, Maschmeyer shared the collective-felt need to do the best work by thinking about the context larger than it is, a context within a context and when a line and connections are drawn, it’s almost like the bigger picture allows you to see how much permission it gives you to do something remarkable with a brand.
Fundamentally, a company name and a named product do not necessarily mean a brand. Then it begs the question: what makes a brand a brand?
1. A brand is something that helps a company stand behind a bigger idea so it can credibly expand to new categories that it wasn’t in before.
2. It allows the company to be more effective in their marketing.
3. It gives you pricing power, it allows companies to charge more for a product because people can see and believe the true value of that product.
Price is incredibly important to business, it’s what you charge for a product. The way that you price a product is by figuring out how much the buyer is willing to pay for a product. Then you look at how much it costs you to produce that product. Somewhere in the difference of the buyer’s price and the seller’s price is where your price can fall. If you’re able to increase Seller’s price, you’re able to increase Seller’s profit. So branding and design come in to affect the buyer’s price. It questions, “how high can you get the buyer’s price to go?” which is done through design, the quality of the product, the perceived premiumness of the product, through clarity of understanding when you can use the product, what the features are, what the benefits are.
Oftentimes people think that branding is about relevance and differentiation which are only inputs to improving the buyer’s price, but that (relevance and differentiation) is not always translatable to the finance team’s understanding of the value of design and branding. This understanding will help the business conversation they want to understand design so far as it affects the business problem that they have.
It’s probably heard around that to do great design and to have the impact that you want, you need to start with the consumer, which, to a certain extent is true but Maschmeyer found it to be an ineffective route. In his opinion, the idea of starting with the consumer is effective when you’re trying to innovate products. Product is a tool to fit the consumer’s needs in their day to day life. But if you’re trying to resonate with the consumer and trying to irrationally love your product, you have to start with culture.
Everyone is made up of a culture if not multiple cultures, and every time we join a culture, we are joining a body of people that are helping us express our core components of who we think we are and who we think we want to become. We pay attention to the norm of that culture and look at the gatekeepers of that culture to understand their values better. These choices that we pick or mimic by being a part of a culture affect our choices in our lives, our careers, what we value in the world, what we believe in, our political choices, and these are reinforcing the “psychic intellectual self-identity architecture” that we are creating about ourselves.
While this helps us understand how to fully participate in that culture, it is also on an emotional level giving us an idea of how it’s making us feel, which is what we need to tap into when we do branding.
When you’re telling a story about a design you work on, because you’ve been able to contextualize it in a cultural narrative, you’ve established a new relationship. New relationships reveal new values (that can be brought into the community), and new values lead to the starting journey of innovations.
Chobani is a US-only yogurt company. Before Maschmeyer joined Chobani as Chief Creative Officer, from day 1, Chobani’s shelves at the stores were empty. They were massively successful for making products that were simple and traditionally-made sold for only US$ 1, whereas other greek yogurts at the time (which weren’t many) were sold for doubled if not more than the doubled price. Chobani was also the only brand whose yogurt wasn’t made of artificial ingredients filled with sugar, and for its price point, it was an excellent deal for the consumers. The products flew off the shelves and communities all around became a huge fan, one such as the fitness and athletes culture that picked up off the shelves and made Chobani a part of their lifestyle.
Chobani, apart from their massive success that also led to the creation of the biggest yogurt factory in the world, was also a company that was looking to give back to the community. This massive success led to an explosion of competition for greek yogurt in the yogurt market. There were a ton more choices on the shelves for greek yogurt, which naturally led to commoditization, where then-new competitors were copying Chobani’s cup shape, label designs, to flavors. This commoditization led to self-destructive practices, innovations such as putting existing products into new packaging leading to no success. At the time, the company also didn’t have a brand. Communications were only as far as following the farm-to-table movement in the United States with the company logo on top of its imagery, and this nonexistence of a brand didn’t help with the company in expanding their products, sales that needed to be made to run the factory and for the company to thrive in the market.
It was a precarious situation when Maschmeyer joined the company, and a design that creates a transformative impact on the trajectory of the company became his goal. There were decisive decisions that the company had to make, and the quest to answer where they wanted to go and what they wanted to be. Fundamentally, to him, that is what he believes in, that design is the creation of desirable change. It builds the bridge from where we are to where we want to be. The question becomes how do we think about the future and what framework to set that course in because the unpredictable nature of the future gives birth to several ways to invent the future. Then he decided to take the path where it was to make one.
‘The future’ in itself is also a misnomer, said Maschmeyer. It is rather the futures (plural) that are new possibilities and it is actually about determining which future is the right one for us.
(Brian) Collins and Maschmeyer took the specifics out of the narrative shift case that is the Space Race turned Space Age to unearth the actual framework that helps create change in this story, and with design that ties it all together, lo and behold, a model. A system they referred to as The Knot. Design creates a story that helps us connect our day-to-day wants to the belief that we’re achieving together. Systems design connects the technology that delivers our wants that we have today. Powerful symbols can connect the belief system to the specific technology that we’re creating today, which is essentially branding. Maschmeyer believed that this model to be powerful for companies, as every future needs a brand to help it go mass, allowing more people to participate in it which was the perfect approach for Chobani who has always been about the farm-to-table movement and doing something remarkable.
Chobani’s then-self-expression was divided into two visual aesthetics and had different products which packaging looked the same to one another even though they were trying to target different types of people. They also delivered themselves on a highlight point to the public as the company that gives back to the community. Chobani was also contradicting itself in terms of what they value in public, such as statements that they wanted to be progressive when in fact, their products are traditional. It became an understanding that the company had a business model that desperately needed to grow.
With the help of The Knot, Maschmeyer began to define the Chobani brand starting with connecting themselves (the company) to the essence of the food culture. In the food culture, he found that there is a magical language that describes some type of food and people turn to these foods to create magical transformations within themselves. This magical transformation component has also been prominent in pop culture, from video games to cartoons across various cultures. He found a quote from The Food Movement,
The mission that Chobani had was the idea of “Better Food For All” and to figure out how to deliver good, natural food, with its magical transformation component, at a price point where everyone can have it because natural food is more expensive than mass-manufactured foods that are the epitome of the unhealthy food culture in the United States. Applying the knot into the essence of the company, Chobani drives to reinforce maximum wellness for all, with the means of good food with great power, all supported by the founder who believes in, stands, and fights for better food for all. At the very core of the knot was born the idea of universal wellness, which not only is it the future that Chobani could participate in but also the future of what The Food Movement is all about.
Having the ‘universal wellness’ as the core idea, Maschmeyer and team translated it into the creative concept of Happiness Ever After. The question then turned into, “what would the world look like if we achieved this for everyone and everyone was being well taken care of forever?”
One possible future was a fantasy, Disney-like route that could be brought to life all sweet and cartoony or the Harry Potter path that would visualize a darker version of the fantasy, but none of them felt like the right future.
During their research, they found an old film style from Kodak which pictures that were taken in the 1960s had a magical, nostalgic effect that resembled the perfect Happily Ever After visual narrative for the brand. The photography showed shots of mundane life through its distinctive saturation and natural speckle effect which created this sense of romance out of nothing, and the team decided to work with a photographer to create that style for Chobani’s imagery that includes jewel-like fruits, a world where everything carries this magical patina, all sheen, and sparkles.
The visual language began to form, and the team dove into old fairy tale books for an in-depth search of typography references to masterfully create the potent magic and fantasy essence for the brand that led to the creation of a custom typeface. The result was a contrast between what was then represented by an internet-era-resembling sans serif typeface made in the 90s, and a brand that is as organic and delicious as the products. This visual language tells the story of the Happiness Ever After idea that ties the belief of fighting for better food for all and the desire for maximum wellness for all.
When it comes to systems, the idea that went through came from the question, “if Chobani lives in this world of Happily Ever After, all the products made are exported from Happily Ever After, so what would the products look like if people in Happily Ever After made these products?”, and what the team was able to create was a visual language that felt like a human hand was always involved in the creation of the packaging. This system, tying the means and the want, was then able to deliver the good food to the people who want to maximize their wellness.
To tie the belief and good food requires powerful symbols: Folk Art of the Happily Ever After, where the graphic language comes in. The question that came forward was how to ensure that the visual language came from the people in Happily Ever After, which led to excavating folk art from the region Chobani was started at, and the team fell for the organic forms and naiveté of the American folk art from the 1860s that were on quilts, which interestingly were also a form of gift by people back then to give to other people as a means to take care of themselves, and this kicked the entire values-based alignment up a notch. The color palette gathered was romance-driven, a combination of dark muted shades to soft pastels, the team started to form-making, cutting up shapes while sewing stories onto these cut-ups, the narrative of fighting for a better tomorrow with good food as a means.
The visual language that became folk art in and of itself was also meant to be windows for people to see the possibilities, the happiness, the joy that are going on in the world of Happily Ever After. Maschmeyer and team then put that once-a fantasy to a dream-state reality by having windows as a part of their visual language to create that sense of looking into a new world. This perspective-changing narrative also translates into the physical world, from activist pins, changing their stores into cafés that would take customers into a different atmosphere, to making their foods look fantastical and playful on their images. A whole new world that fights and feeds for the better was found, and it’s as real as it can get.
The Apple visual language that was remarkably done has defined the visual language for all technology. The minimal, modern sleekness of the language has determined the visual essence of technology. It is inescapable, and technology brands, say Samsung or HTC, seem to speak in the tongue natively.
This occurrence seemed to happen to the language of the folk-art-natured Happily Ever After that was developed for Chobani, a yogurt brand that stands for naturally good food for all, in the wellness culture. From mental health brands, food brands, to salons seemed to adapt this folk art language in their dialect to promote their message.
In the parallel occurrence of this language, it truly is spoken well when the bigger perspectives of the products are seen and considered, knowing full well the business challenge of the perspective and the culture in which the design is going to exist in all as a part of one solid understanding.
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