The importance of being Honest

Lisa McTigue Pierce, Executive Editor

January 30, 2014

12 Min Read
The importance of being Honest




Honest Tea beauty shot


When Honest Tea redesigned its single-serve PET bottle in 2009 to remove 22 percent of the material, it never imagined that there could be a negative reaction to such a positive move. Surely its eco-aware fans would appreciate the change, right?

The thinner bottle needed a deeper vacuum cavity on the bottom, though, to counter internal pressures when the hot-filled beverages cooled. The new container still held the same amount of refreshing drink—16.9 oz—but more than a few consumers complained, saying the company was being dishonest (!) about the amount of product in its package. Co-founder, president and TeaEO Seth Goldman says, "It was a huge victory from an environmental perspective. So the complaints caught us by surprise."

The timing was a perfect storm. At the height of the Great Recession, consumers scrutinized every purchase for ultimate value and were hypersensitive to corporate deception and greed. The year before, 2008, The Coca-Cola Co. bought a 40 percent stake in Honest Tea (it became full owner in 2011), a move that many brand loyalists saw as a signal that the independent and entrepreneurial Honest Tea was selling out to Big Business.

For a company whose mission, whose identity, whose very name boasts about honesty, being transparent to its consumers is vital. Goldman explains, "It's what our brand is about. We've always tried to be as straightforward as we can be in terms of the product we sell, the design of what we make, ingredients-wise as well as our packaging. This helps us fulfill the expectations we're creating for the consumer."

Consumer feedback drives many decisions at the nation's top-selling organic bottled tea company. So Honest Tea set about improving a move that was not-so-wrong to begin with. According to Dan Forman, director of public relations and digital media, the company spent months figuring out a solution that maintained the environmental standards set with the previous bottle yet didn't play tricks on the eyes.

The result—a proprietary PET bottle—launched nationally in April 2012 in several varieties of Honest Tea and Honest Ade. "We weren't doing anything deceitful with the first design," Goldman explains, "but this [design] removes that from the equation that the consumer might have that interpretation."

Honest Tea was equally motivated to change the container for operational reasons. 

The previous design limited the number of plants where the product could be filled. That same troublesome vacuum dome that was undermining consumer perceptions required the use of a specialized piece of equipment on the packaging line. Called an activator, this multi-million-dollar piece of equipment inserted a rod into the mouth of empty bottles and pushed down the bottom just prior to filling. After filling, bottles had to go through a second activator station to push the bottom back up from below.

The new container doesn't need the activator; the bottle's bottom moves up on its own as the product cools—after being hot filled at between 185-190 deg F—and creates a vacuum. Forman says, "Without it, we are saving money, and the plants are more efficient, which increased production speeds and volume."

Now, Honest Tea will be able to expand production from its current two locations—in Mount Jackson, VA, and at a Coca-Cola facility in Sacramento, CA—to any Coca-Cola plant capable of running single-serve plastic bottles. Goldman says, "The goal is you always want to be able to produce close to your customers."

That proximity matters much more now. The brand has seen a six-fold growth in distribution since 2008, mostly as a benefit of the Coke buy-in. Before that investment, Honest Tea drinks were sold in about 15,000 outlets. Fast forward to 2012 and that number is expected to top 100,000 as the company ramps up for sales this summer. 

Another coup: The bottle's latest iteration not only got rid of the "funky dome," as the company calls it, and the need for activators, but it kept the same material savings (22 percent vs the pre-2009 version) and the same physical dimensions (height and diameter). "There were no changes to our supply chain or packaging operations as a result of this new version of the bottle," Forman says.



Honest Tea conveyor line

Honest Tea worked with its supplier, Graham Packaging Co., on the new package design. The 2009 light-weighted bottle was based on Graham's Active Traverse Panel (ATP) technology. The 2012 bottle uses the manufacturer's Slingshot technology, a hot-fill technology that absorbs vacuum in the base of the container allowing the side walls to be free of structural geometry. This provides for a smooth label panel, as well as a high degree of shape freedom to give brand owners the particular look they desire.

Shaping the brand's image
Mark Grant, vp, marketing and communications, North America, at Graham Packaging, explains, "In this particular case, Honest Tea had built its brand around a particular shape. We worked closely with the Honest Tea team to incorporate the SlingShot technology into the container to help maintain the brand identity while providing certain design features to improve performance at a reduced weight."



Honest Tea bottom

The brand's signature shape is slightly bulbous in the upper third portion with a straight-wall label area and a sturdy base. Underneath the bottle, the bottom is much flatter now—and that came in handy. Honest Tea took the opportunity to emboss "EST 1998-Bethesda, MD" there. "We wouldn't have spent the money to do that just for that," Goldman says. "But because we were redoing the mold, we said, ‘Let's put this on there.' It's a nice way to connect to our roots."

Graham has applied for a patent on the container. "Through the use of our advanced design simulation suite of tools, we were able to work through many iterations of designs in a virtual environment, narrowing down the best options before we produced the actual test samples," Grant says. "With this approach, we were able to meet Honest Tea's design and performance goals on a compressed schedule."

Bottles are blow molded from preforms using Graham's proprietary reheat blow (RHB) process. Currently, the containers are made with up to 5 percent recycled PET, but Honest Tea has plans to increase that amount. "We're on a path to access more sustainable ingredients for the bottle resin," Goldman says, referring also to Coke's PlantBottle technology, which sources about 30 percent of the PET material from non-petroleum polymers.

Serving up better labels
This new bottle follows an earlier redesign of the label graphics and nutrition facts box for single-serve PET bottles. (The heritage Honest Tea varieties sold in single-serve glass bottles will retain the brand's familiar "black bar" label graphics.)

At the same time the refreshed graphics appeared in September 2011 (more on that in a minute), Honest Tea took the bold step of changing its serving size so that "1 bottle = 1 serving," instead of the previous industry norm of "about 2." Forman explains, "We didn't think [the previous facts box] was properly reflective of the way consumers interact with our beverages." After all, the bottle is described as a single-serve size.

The nutrition facts panel was updated to reflect the change, making it easier for consumers to watch their calorie and sugar intake. (Honest Tea was one of the first beverage companies to add calorie counts to the front of the label; it did that in early 2010.)

Honest Tea used social media—Twitter and Facebook—to get the word out about these labeling changes and to gauge consumer reaction (see "Facebook fans give their Honest opinion" at "The response has been great," Forman says. "When people write in, concerned about the increase in ingredients, we get back to them within 24 hours. We let them know that the ingredients are the same. Then they say they like the change." The company responds to nearly every, if not every, e-mail and phone call, and it does as much as possible to educate consumers.

A side note here: When asked how Honest Tea is explaining its latest bottle to consumers, Goldman responds, "The new bottle needs a lot less explanation because we're not going to get questions about it. The bottle we moved out of clearly needed an explanation. I guess what we should do is still remind consumers that this bottle is 22 percent lighter than other alternatives. But it's rare that a consumer is going to buy our bottle because it's 22 percent lighter than somebody else's. They're going to buy our product because it tastes great. We're happy to share on our website and in our mission report that our bottle is lighter, but we don't think that the fact that it's lighter, on its own, is going to help us sell more tea. It's no question that it's better for our margins."

Brand building
Honest Tea started working on a graphics redesign in 2008 after a series of consumer insights revealed that the brand could be making a bigger visual impact at retail. "Gaining national distribution is like getting a primetime premiere, and we want to make sure we're wearing our best outfit," Goldman said in a press release when the new look launched in Fall 2011.

Honest Tea's internal team worked with international brand design agency Turner Duckworth to help develop the new label design. Turner Duckworth focused on a limited number of SKUs and Honest Tea expanded it across the full family of products.

The objectives were to emphasize the ingredients and brand name in a simple, appetizing label that felt less crowded. Michael Kravit, Honest Tea's creative director, says, "The general goal was to simplify the label because our ingredients and brand are simple and straightforward. That was what we wanted to accomplish...along with having a little fun along the way. As a result, the labels are true to the Honest brand and what's inside the bottle."



Honest Tea graphics redesign

Elements of the new design include:

Overarching logo: To create a cohesive Honest family feel, the word "Honest" is larger and on a line by itself. It still uses the Garamond font that has become part of the brand's graphic identity. The sub-varieties "Tea" and "Ade" appear below this overarching brand name. This also allows for future sub-varieties in PET bottles. (The company has a few line extensions already in other types of packaging: Honest Kids in pouches and Honest Zero in 16-oz glass bottles that were introduced at the Natural Products Expo West in February 2012.)

White space: The graphic design removes some visual barriers by taking away the black frames on labels. This opened up white space and made labels look simpler.

Featured ingredients: On the Tea products, the iconic "T" shape remains as a recognizable symbol and frames beautiful shots of the ingredients.

On the Ade products, the labels bring a character to life, create graphic interest through use of scale and tell a bit of a story. "The emphasis is keeping the fruit front and center-keeping it the main character but giving it personality," Kravit says. On Super Fruit Punch, for example, putting eyeglasses on the yumberry is an indirect nod to a super hero who disguised himself by wearing glasses.

Samantha Hall, senior account director at Turner Duckworth, explains the unexpected scale and context, for example, shown on the Orange Mango label: "The mango sits in a tiny wheel barrel, alluding to the fact that there's a lot of flavor, so much that it's bursting out of the wheel barrel."

The labels educate consumers about the ingredients, too. "We have a story on the back of the Limeade label," Kravit relates, "about the British who came over and, to prevent scurvy, they ate limes for the vitamin C. We have a soaking wet, enormous lime with an anchor hanging off the side."

Authenticity call-out: To reinforce the authenticity of the ingredients, "Tea" labels include a prominent call-out on the right side of front panels that say "Brewed Organic [Green, Black or White] Tea Leaves."

To optimize the brightness of the label, Honest Tea sourced a high-white resin composite substrate from Treofan America LLC that delivers vibrant color. "We wanted to make sure the beautiful fruit imagery came through to deliver the taste appeal," Hall says.

Labels are printed at Hammer Packaging on a Heidelberg Speedmaster CX 8-color UV roll-to-sheet press, which has built-in closed-loop color control and spectra-photography to ensure quality color management. Lou Iovoli, vp of sales and marketing at Hammer Packaging, says, "We were extremely happy to meet their graphic goals. They've made that brand have its unique identity. When you look at an Honest Tea label, you think of that natural softness in the graphics. It's simple yet graceful and reflects the heritage of brand, which is hand-selected, organic, all-natural teas."

Always innovating
Whether it is new flavors, products or packages, Honest Tea plans to keep innovating, a strategy its owners support. "They want to see us continue to take risks that innovators take as opposed to established companies," Goldman says, adding that innovation isn't just a Coke expectation. "That's a consumer expectation and an Honest Tea company expectation."

It's also one of three main company values: Mission, Innovation, Growth. "Our mission is about creating healthy products; finding ways to promote environmental sustainability and consider the economic impact of our decisions on the communities we work with," Goldman says. "For us, that feeds a process of innovation—meaning we bring out new products to market—that meet those goals. And because we do that, we grow. Because we grow, we help deepen the impact of our mission. They're all intertwined. If we're not growing, then we're not achieving our mission. If we're not innovating, then we're not growing. It's like the recycling bug, they all work together."

Graham Packaging, 717-849-8500.
Hammer Packaging, 585-424-3880.
Heidelberg, 888-472-9655.
Treofan America LLC, 336-766-9448.
Turner Duckworth, 415-675-7777.


About the Author(s)

Lisa McTigue Pierce

Executive Editor, Packaging Digest

Lisa McTigue Pierce is Executive Editor of Packaging Digest. She’s been a packaging media journalist since 1982 and tracks emerging trends, new technologies, and best practices across a spectrum of markets for the publication’s global community. Reach her at [email protected] or 630-272-1774.

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