Unleashing the power of free: How free-from can broaden its appeal

By Ed Silk

- Last updated on GMT


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The ‘free-from’ phenomenon is reaching a tipping point. Originally born out of dietary necessity, it’s now taken a global grip with hyper-health conscious consumers, who love to experiment with new food and drinks that deliver all of the good stuff free of the bad.

Recent Mintel research revealed sales of ‘free from’ foods in the UK grew 13% to reach £531m (€594.6m) in 2016 with a prediction that it will grow further to reach £673m by 2020.

Beyond the healthy hardcore, however there still remain barriers of entry to this emerging free-from world. With misconceptions of free-from being the edible equivalent of magnolia paint, mainstream consumers are nervous about compromising or diluting their food taste experiences.

So how do brands overcome negative perceptions of free-from being free of taste, personality and a compromise too far?

Today, most people now take a more holistic and balanced approach to nourishment, health and general wellbeing. We’ve moved from the old world of daft diets and going nil by mouth in the vain hope of getting beach body ready in next to no time. It is now about taking care of the internal and the external, as one.

While this shift in lifestyle behaviour has encompassed more than just the healthy hardcore, free-from has failed to whet the palate of mainstream consumers.

To embrace the power of ‘free’, brands need to push the boundaries and break the design rules, dispelling free-from’s staid, sensible, ‘subtraction’, socks-and-sandals image and instead turning it into something that promises culinary excitement, but with all the glorious health benefits. No more wheat sheaf icons and bland, taste-free packaging. It's time to shake up the status quo.

New players entering the category are revitalising the proposition with a focus on flavour and enhanced taste experiences full of personality and edge.

Vegan fried chicken shop, The Temple of Seitan, is a serious case in point – offering all the finger licking voluptuousness of the popular bird-based takeaway but being100% meat free. Their Instagram feed appeals even to the most diehard of carnivores – expect ‘chicken’ encased in golden breadcrumbs that’s been fried to alchemic perfection with a zig zag of naughty sauces that uplift the vegan fayre to new levels of indulgence.

Oumph, also follows on this trend, elevating soy-based meat-substitute frozen meals to something that looks and tastes like the real deal for the Swedish market. The pack identity gives a nod to the vibrancy of street food. The logo font has the look of brushed chalkboard scrawlings you see in café ‘Specials’ boards; the food photography is vibrant, dynamic, tempting and rustic all at once – all brought to life with injections of colour from the vegetable garnishes in the composition. It all comes together to position an eco-friendly veggie product that packs attitude in terms of flavour and personality.

Then there’s ‘Glutiny’ - a premium, gluten-free Belgian beer donning a daring identity inspired by the skull and cross bones and a name built around its benefit. The design resonates deeply with the craft beer movement – appealing to connoisseurs, experimenters and the hedonistic beer swillers equally.

The Booja-Booja brand is the Mozart of the free-from world. Its exquisite handmade chocolates, truffles and ice creams are presented in beautifully crafted boxes and tubs adorned with a foil and velveteen skin that oozes a sense of occasion and class. Again, this is a great example of a brand that is pioneering vegan produce as both indulgent and luxurious.

In the cereal aisle, brands like Rude Health have grown to become the cool kid of the free-from category, with their use of playful graphics and bright colour blocking that gives their identity an urban and street feel. Meanwhile, Nature’s Store and Nature’s Path – pure proponents of the movement – remain unapologetic about their wholesome and rustic brand identity. And why should they? There’s an unfussy earnestness to their visual proposition that’s compatible to their healthy, hearty fayre. Graphics of the earth and dreamy fields of gold pay homage to natural produce and remind us, if only by osmosis, that the world is a precious place that should be enjoyed but also respected and preserved.

There is much to be said about unleashing the power of ‘free’; clearly its potential is huge – and the mass consumer market is very much ready to explore the culinary delights this category has to offer, if only brands can be both inventive and authentic when communicating its appeal.

Ed Silk is head of strategy at Bulletproof​ ​ 

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