Private label experience propels food brand to successful retail placement

Earning retail placement into Costco stores requires the right product and a team experienced in perfecting brand positioning for the club store customer.

Water Lilies gained a spot in Costco’s Midwest stores with its first try with its own branded product line, Mandarin Market. The line includes frozen Chinese specialty items, including potstickers and egg rolls.

This success, however, came after more than a decade of serving as a private label producer of all natural, organic, Asian frozen food for other retailers, and a collaborative effort to transform that experience into a compelling brand identity that will resonate with very selective retail buyers.

A hard-working package

Competition to get into Costco can be crushing: Other retailers can have 40,000 items on their shelves, this premium club channel may carry as few as 4,000 products, says Al Greenwood, vice president of sales for Water Lilies.

While getting a product into Costco means winning over a buyer, keeping your spot requires winning over consumers on a daily basis and getting them to put your product in their cart.

Frozen foods sales have been lackluster, says Greenwood, especially with Costco’s demographic, Millennials who tend to view it as processed food, yet want and need convenience.

Yet Mandarin Market made sense for Costco, as its customers want upscale, ethnic and natural items. Costco customers are also shopping the club store with a desire for cost savings, so the package design needs to convey value, too.

So how does a brand convey natural, unprocessed, convenience and value immediately to shoppers? It’s all in the bag and the box. And don’t forget, those two items have to function well by keeping the food edible, transportable and easy to store, and create a shopper-appealing display. Whew. Finally, all this has to happen using two different media, plastic and paper. Any other demands? No, thought not.

Crucial experience

Kory Grushka, director of business development for Works Design Group, says, “Costco is very nuanced.” But with years of experience working on design for other clients who have spots in Costco, the design firm knew the look the premier club channel wanted.

As Bill Hutches, WDG principal owner puts it, “We already knew the sweet spot for (package design) for Costco and it was such an excellent product. That’s the winning part of this whole thing.”

Yet, Grushka admits, building a brand and product packaging from ground zero offered some challenges. “Living in a freezer is different than on a shelf,” he says, and launching a new brand through a club channel is not typical, although such a step can build a company overnight.

Putting it all together

WDG also had years of experience working with Water Lilies, creating marketing materials for their work in private label manufacturing. The team simply ramped up its efforts and research and kicked off design for Mandarin Market with a bright red logo with Chinese characters. That bright red anchors the right side of the box and the package.

The packaging answers consumer desires for fresh, unprocessed food with a clean, uncluttered look. The design also communicates natural and organic in color and text with a large green, soft-edged banner with the word organic along with green leaves, ample white space and a large USDA organic marker.

To convey value, the package design features the number of pieces in large numbers on the box and the package. Convenience is spelled out in large letters proclaiming, “Ready in minutes.”

Finally, and most importantly, is the appetite appeal or the photograph. Getting that image just right required six to eight-hour photo sessions, a food stylist armed with tweezers to arrange and rearrange the potstickers and at times, Water Lilies president Peter Lee, who sometimes took to the skillet to brown the food just right.

Strong, yet beautiful

The box, says Greenwood, is an engineering feat. A major component of the package design, the box needs to be attractive, since it’s also a shopper’s box, the display customers see through the glass freezer doors.

The box also has to be strong enough to be a warehouse box, to store and protect the product whether it is stacked two or three case pallets high.

Accurate Box, a three-generation box manufacturer, came up with the design, says Samara Schlossman, sales representative and great-granddaughter of the founder. The company’s freezer was filled with potstickers while they worked to find the right style and paper combination to ensure the box would hold the product and look great.

The biggest box challenge involved its wide opening, designed to give optimum display to the appealing photographs on the package. That opening made it strong enough to carry the weight of the product.

The final product is a corrugated box printed with a five-color design on 14-pt solid bleached sulfate board with a clear, high gloss coat, laminated to a 36-lb. medium and 50.5 –lb. liner.

Making it match

The task of ensuring the photos, text and colors on the plastic bag looked as lively and bright as the box fell to Jim Moore, technical print manager of Colormasters LLC.

To make sure the flexographic printing on the plastic bags, especially the custom red and green colors, matched the box, Water Lilies sent Moore a box. After only three ink draw downs, or print samples, that were overnighted to Water Lilies for review, Moore’s firm nailed it.

With more than 20 years of experience in the flexographic printing industry, Moore says it was easy. “We do this day in and day out. It’s a science,” says Moore.

The final product was reverse printed on 48-gauge matte polyester substrate laminated to 3.5 gauge white low-density polyethylene substrate.

The visual brand identity and its deft execution was essential to the Water Lilies’ success in being invited to the very select group of brands sold at Costco.  “It’s a badge of honor,” says Greenwood. Yet, he adds, the real mark of the firm’s success is its continued hold on its Costco freezer space.