Why Food Brands Are All About the Aesthetic Now

Brand consultant Andrea Hernández told VICE why companies are using more playful, thoughtful design—and how to tell what's worth it amid the gimmicks.
Bettina Makalintal
Brooklyn, US
January 13, 2021, 3:00pm
a collage featuring kin euphorics, chobani yogurt, and burger king after its 2020 rebrand to show th
Collage courtesy Andrea Hernández/Snaxshot

Even Burger King looks cool now. Last week, the fast-food giant announced its first rebrand in 20 years: Simpler and retro-inspired, its new look will involve reviving the logo the company used from 1969 to 1999 and employing chunky, 70s-style fonts across its packaging—not unlike the ones we've seen on Glossier and Chobani in recent years. 

Burger King's move is perhaps the food world's highest-profile example of a wider trend toward more whimsical, nostalgic, and inviting branding in the U.S. "Is Millennial Minimalism On Its Way Out?" the American Institute of Graphic Arts' Eye on Design asked in 2018, after Chobani swapped its original branding for bold colors and folk-art influences, along with a chubby new logo. Since then, grocery store shelves and online marketplaces have only grown more fun to look at, with product visuals that are no doubt designed to be Instagrammed. 

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Through her website and newsletter Snaxshot, brand consultant and self-described "product oracle" Andrea Hernández keeps an eye on these aesthetic shifts. Hernández created Snaxshot in August of 2020 as a way to collect trends she was seeing and to share some of the insights she's gleaned from launching her own food brand and working in e-commerce and marketing. VICE spoke to Hernández about what we can learn from this pivot to more playful and thoughtful visuals, why design trends matter, and how seductive, social media-friendly branding can sometimes hoodwink us into splurging on sub-par products.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. 

VICE: Why did you start your newsletter, Snaxshot?
Andrea Hernández:
I started Snaxshot with the intention [of being] informative for people in the [food and beverage] industry. But at the same time, I want to debunk these things that companies are putting out there. I wanted it to be a place for people to be honest and have honest conversations about what is gimmicky, what really is worth it, and just have people understand, like, I know that this is all sort of gimmicky and drawing attention—that's the point.

Why is that type of resource important for consumers now? 
A couple of times, I fell prey to these gimmicks, and I think that I want to be the intermediary. I have an anonymous hotline, and people really use it. There are brands that I've noticed that people tend to have good reviews [of], and then there are brands that [make] people feel that they were cheated out of their money. 

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Particularly with the CBD, adaptogenic beverages—I think that there's so much confusion as to what people should be feeling that it creates unnecessary friction, because you're setting expectations so vague or so high. You have that disconnect of like, Okay, your aesthetics promise something, then the experience [of] people consuming your products is another one. 

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Collage of food and drinks branding trends/Courtesy Andrea Hernández​/Snaxshot​

Design-wise, are we in an upswing for food and beverage brands?
I think we're coming off of a decade where everything felt very sterile, minimal. The rise of [direct-to-consumer] companies was all about cutting costs to you via eliminating middlemen and making things simpler for you, so I get how that [pared-down] aesthetic became very popular. [The alcohol brand] Haus was probably the first brand that I started to see [that was] really focusing on that 70s, cozy, warm, jewel-tones aesthetic that [was] very inviting. It's a juxtaposition to the sterile and cold feeling of that sans serif, minimal, tech-vibe aesthetic.

I started to see more of this "70s cozy." Chobani did that whole rebrand that feels sort of similar. Now you see Burger King: It is so funny, because Burger King is such an old company that they didn't even have to copy anybody else; they just had to go back to their origins.

Now that "70s cozy" has peaked, you're starting to see a lot of 90s things coming back, and not just 90s [but] 2000s aesthetics, as well. Burger King's rebrand probably gives you an idea that once the big food companies pick up on a trend, that's just basically cementing it.

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Photo courtesy Burger King

Why do aesthetics matter so much for food and drinks brands right now?
You're competing for eyeballs everywhere because you have saturated shelves—and online, there's so many marketplaces as well. That's another cool thing to see: how companies are thinking outside the box and not being afraid to play around with aesthetics. [But] sometimes that can backfire; sometimes that can be off-putting. Sometimes that can also set expectations too high.

Do you think that consumers, overall, are looking for products that suggest visually that more care went into them?
Oh God, yeah. Especially in 2020, [when] the only signaling that you could do was [with] whatever you have in your house. We're Instagramming everything that we're doing indoors. That's become our major venue for [the external signaling that] we used to do.

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Is part of the goal that if a product looks good, people will Instagram it as free marketing?
I feel like [brands] have to build towards what people want to see, especially if you can get people to do what they call "user-generated content." Before, you didn't need to post pictures of your cereal—that wasn't a thing—but now you have these pretty-looking products that you do want to signal and tell people, "I just bought a $10 box of cereal and I'm gonna let you know about it."

When it comes to a brand like Burger King, are new aesthetics a way of pulling in new audiences?
Oh, 100 percent. I wrote about this in my last issue: Big Food was a giant, bloated, couldn't-see-their-shoes type of corporation. It got left behind. It left a lot more to be desired, especially as millennials [gained spending power]. There's a lot of up-and-coming brands that you saw [become] super successful in a very short time, because they were fulfilling a specific niche that big corporations weren't doing. I feel like sometimes you get too big to be able to keep a pulse on the ground and understand what's changing. 

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Collage of food and drinks branding trends/Courtesy Andrea Hernández​/Snaxshot​

If more and more brands have this eye for grabby aesthetics, how can consumers differentiate between a gimmick and what's actually good?
Marketing is gonna capture you on something that's not logical. It's trying to appeal to your emotions or your senses: your eyes, your nose, touch, taste, et cetera. They're gonna want to get you when you're not being rational, because that's what they want you to kind of fall for. 

There's literally brands that promise you "this is a meditation in a can"—and you know that's bullshit. You know that's not really gonna work out. You just have to take a step back and be like, What am I being promised here? I feel like we just have to be a lot more honest with ourselves and admit, I don't know what a nootropic is. We just have to be a lot smarter: I don't know what an adaptogen is; let me look for it.

[On the brand side,] I think that there's a balance. You can over-promise and under-deliver—it's the worst thing you can do [as a brand]. I would say, like, just stick to promising what you can deliver, for starters, and then maybe grow from there. From the consumer side, I would just be like: Get smarter, look up the terms and stuff, know what you're putting into your body. I think that millennials—we're pretty good at that. Gen Z's even more.