Reach For It! Product Packaging Secrets with Watermark Design Packaging

Reach For It! Product Packaging Secrets with Watermark Design Packaging

Picture this. You started a food business out of your sheer love and passion to create something of quality that’s unique, and is good for the planet. You made something that you, as a customer, were desperately looking for. You’ve nailed the product. You get great feedback from your customers at farm markets and pop-ups. You are ready to hit the retail shelves. Then…

Crickets chirping. 

Your products aren’t getting picked up the way you’d hoped. And the thought that keeps you up at night is: Why aren’t people buying it? What happened to those great sales? Why is this taking so long?

If you’re toying (hopefully not struggling!) with the same thoughts, you’re in for a treat. This week, I’m joined by Darcy Lacy, owner and Creative Director of Watermark Design in Charlottesville. And we talk specifically about product packaging as your silent salesman, the tool that a food brand uses to tell their brand story on the retail shelf. 

Darcy’s company is the success behind the package redesign that brought Crescent Simple’s a big boost in sales. Learn how colors, correct font choice, and imagery all help reinforce a brand’s message in subtle ways that entice shoppers to put them in their cart. As Darcy says, many times businesses already have a clear idea of how their packaging should be - but the devil is in the details. The tweaks and improvements, as small and simple as they may seem, could really elevate your packaging and help grab customers' attention and create that first and lasting impression. 

Virginia Foodie Essentials:

  • I always say that it's Watermark's job to get someone to pick it up off the shelf the first time they haven't tried it. They don't know what's in the bottle. And then it's on the client to sell it the second time. - Darcey Lacy

  • I love talking to the Megans and the Bills and the Christines and the Jakes and the  Aarons and the Michaels. And that is what Watermark is. Keeping those relationships close and really knowing the clients inside and out, I always say we're an extension of their team.  We become a part of them. - Darcey Lacy

  • Product packaging is one of the five key tools in food marketing. It's the silent salesman that tells your brand story when you aren't there to do it.   And yet it has the smallest real estate that makes your packaging the hardest-working member in your team. - Georgiana Dearing

  • We want to help someone bring their brand to life. After the branding and packaging, how does that interact with social, the website, sales sheets, distributor materials, and the shippers? There's so much that comes after that. - Darcey Lacy

Key Points From This Episode:

  • Packaging has the smallest real estate, but it does the hardest work for food brands

  • Packaging tells your brand story when you aren't there to explain it to the buyer

  • Product Packaging is an investment that can pay off exponentially over the life of a brand

  • A good package design firm will understand all the legal requirements for food and beverage packaging

  • Regardless of brand size, selling into large retail chains requires compliance to FDA packaging guidelines

More About the Guest:

Watermark is a deliberately small branding studio that hones on their clients’ specific industry challenges to create a unique, high-quality design that outpaces competition.

With Darcy Lacy, owner and Creative Director at the helm, Watermark believes that great design drives sales through increased shelf presence and strives to help businesses entice customers to choose their product or company using clear and impactful branding.

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Full Transcript:

[00:00:00] Darcey Lacy: That's the ideal client is someone who knows that we can help them, that trusts us to help them. So it doesn't really matter if it's a small business, medium, or large. It's somebody who has a passion for design and knows what design can do, and trust us to do it.

[00:00:18] Georgiana Dearing: Welcome to The Virginia Foodie Podcast, where we lift the lid on the craft food industry and tell the stories behind the good food, good people, and good brands that you know and love. If you've ever come across a yummy food brand and wondered, “How did they do that? How do they turn that recipe into a successful business?” Then we've got some stories for you.

Hello again, my Foodie tribe. I'm so glad you're here with me because this is my 50th episode of The Virginia Foodie. When I started recording this podcast in late 2020, I had no idea where this journey would take me. But I'm very glad to report that since then, thousands of people have downloaded the podcast and found value in it. And for that, I'm really grateful. The reason I started this podcast is that I'm always curious about what other small businesses are doing. Plus, I love talking to craft food brands about their success. What I didn't realize is that every conversation I have with a guest opens a door to another learning opportunity.

And today's episode is a great example of following that trail of topics. One of my very early interviews was with Crescent Simples, a Richmond-based cocktail syrup brand. Our first interview took place right before a big rebrand was launched. So I made a point to check back with them later. In that follow-up conversation, they gave one of the best endorsements for a creative agency that I've ever heard. They told me that they could attribute a big jump in sales directly to the work that Watermark Design did for their new packaging. Now, I've known Watermark Design for many years but we've never crossed paths. So I was very happy to have a reason to track down Darcey Lacy, the owner, and creative director, and ask her about her views on branding and package design.

Product packaging is one of the five key tools in food marketing. It's the silent salesman that tells your brand story when you aren't there to do it. And yet, it has the smallest real estate. That makes your packaging the hardest-working member in your tool kit. Color, font choices, and imagery, all help reinforce a brand message and a good package design firm understands how to make them all work to help get your products off the shelf and into shopping carts.

It's an investment that can pay off exponentially over the life of a brand. And I loved listening to Darcey talk about how she manages that investment for her clients, large and small. If you're considering a brand refresh or a packaging update, listen in for some valuable insights to what a good creative vendor should be bringing to the table.

[00:03:14] Georgiana Dearing: Hi, Darcey. Welcome to the podcast. I'm so glad that you're joining me today, and I would love it if you would introduce yourself to our listeners.

[00:03:23] Darcey Lacy: Sure. My name is Darcey Lacy. I'm the owner and creative director of Watermark Design. And we are a Branding and Package Design Studio located in Charlottesville.

[00:03:31] Georgiana Dearing: So I know you as branding and package design which is primarily for food. And the food industry's been crazy since the pandemic. So I always like to start by just saying, how has your business fair during the past two years or so?

[00:03:47] Darcey Lacy: We are doing good now. I will say that those first few months of the pandemic, were not great since we work with a lot of hospitality-based businesses and wineries, and places that people visit. It was rough. And it came very close after, I guess, 14 years at that time. And by some miracle, we made it through, squeak through and things started picking back up. And we saw a lot more growth in spirits so that rescued us a bit since we do a lot of beverages.

[00:04:17] Georgiana Dearing: That's a little telling story for the pandemic experience.

[00:04:21] Darcey Lacy: I hate to say it, but yes. And now, we're seeing new brands launch. We are seeing growth coming out of it or wineries that want to refresh their brand. They made it through and they want to do something fresh and new. So to look at the positive side of it, some people are refreshing and looking forward to the future.

[00:04:40] Georgiana Dearing: Good. Well, I've known about your company for years. They have been on the peripheral of my awareness in Virginia business. And then most recently, as I’ve focus in on craft food brands I have seen your work and I have talked about your work with your people. But today, I very specifically invited you here to follow up on a success story that another guest shared with me, and that was Crescent Simples. I love them as a startup brand and they gave you probably one of the best endorsements that I had heard for design which just warmed my heart. And that was that they attribute their recent growth in sales directly to the package redesign work that your company did. So I wanted to learn more about you and talk to you about what you're doing.

[00:05:27] Darcey Lacy: Well, Megan and Bill, they're wonderful people and they're a small business. And it was great to have a client that trusted us to invest in design. And they understood that design can definitely impact sales. So their old package just wasn't telling the story. It wasn't telling the story of the brand. It wasn't telling the story of the product inside the bottle. They had this great liquid inside that they put so much love into, and the package just wasn't selling that. And I always say that it's Watermark's job to get someone to pick it up off the shelf the first time they haven't tried it. They don't know what's in the bottle. And then it's on the client to sell it the second time.

So it was our pleasure to help them through that process. And we began with the logo design and really told the story of Crescent Simples. They're from New Orleans. So the Crescent City, really leaning into that with the architecture. You can see the filigree on either side of the crescent moon. Just really telling the story of their roots and where this company started. And then we moved into the package design and we brought a little bit of that brand equity over with the design of the fruit and the background pattern. But we just improved upon it and then added color so that you could tell which flavor was which because in the old packaging, it was all the same. You couldn't really tell. So now, each label really tells you immediately what flavor it is. And then there's a little text tape on top to further define what flavor because the pattern in the background, watching their budget as well, is the same on everyone. Thus, the adding of the color on the label. And then on the text tape, it does call out what flavor it is individually. So, there are multiple moments throughout the package where you can tell what flavor it is. So yes, we just improved upon what they were already doing.

[00:07:07] Georgiana Dearing: Yes, I was going to say that their packaging wasn't horrible. It was appropriate for probably the age of their company and how they started out. I see a lot of that, and I think it's really fun. I feel like what they did was almost a giant leap compared to what many brands do which they start with something that they did on their own and then they go, okay, who can I get to help me? Then may have to move on to, okay, how can I make this actually work at the shelf? And some of the considerations you just mentioned like color coding for flavor variations and thinking about the cost-effectiveness of what you do are things that are often broken in that middle step. Someone who isn't experienced in just package design will design without thinking about the entire life cycle of a product in Product Development for a food brand. Which is me, talking a lot about the lead-in to your niche. You say specifically packaging and branding which I think is great. And I think the more specialized you can be, the better service you give. But are you primarily in the beverage industry? Can you tell me more about your specialization?

[00:08:20] Darcey Lacy: We are primarily beverage and a lot of alcoholics. But we are moving into non-alcoholic. We have a great non-alcoholic Spirulina-based beverage coming out soon. So as the industry changes and non-alcoholic becomes more popular, we are moving into that space as well. We do branding for restaurants and some food packaging. We don't have as much food packaging at this moment, but we have done several projects in that space. And I think it's just what we specialize in is bringing someone's brand to life whether that's on a beverage or on food. And we work outside of these industries as well. It just happens to be our niche.

[00:09:00] Georgiana Dearing: Any reason that food is a niche? Or was it a coincidence and you've leaned into it?

[00:09:04] Darcey Lacy: I loved wine tasting. That's how it began. So, I loved wine tasting and of course, it was like, what can I do so that I can design what I love? So it began with wine. I was introduced to Michael Shaps. Michael Shaps introduced us to Afton Mountain. And that was our first wine label. And then it grew past there. We just got more Virginia Wineries. And now, we're in a much more national space. But I think food pairs with wine. And probably around 2008-2009, we got into craft beer. So then we moved into that space. And then the last five years, there's been a lot of spirits work as well. So now we're pretty heavy into spirits. As I mentioned, now we're heading into non-alcoholic. So it's ever-changing and ever-growing. And that's why I'm able to do this 15 years later. It's just that there's something new every day. We're doing custom molds on bottles now. So I think food and wine and all of this, it pairs well together.

[00:09:59] Georgiana Dearing: So primarily, your focus is beverage right now?

[00:10:03] Darcey Lacy: Yes, definitely primarily beverage.

[00:10:05] Georgiana Dearing: We said a little bit about being on the national level. How far do you reach? Are you looking for clients outside of Virginia? Where are you?

[00:10:14] Darcey Lacy: Yes. So obviously, our foundation, we were built in Charlottesville and we know that when you try to work within and help our local community. But we definitely work in California. We have some wineries out there. We have a brewery in Jackson’s Hole, Wyoming, Roadhouse Brewing. Back and turned in Texas, we have clients in Florida and New York. We're talking to a hotel in Massachusetts, so we do work outside beverage. Sometimes we have a great candle client on the Eastern Shore. So premium goods fit in with this space as well. But yes, primarily beverage. And I would say we're a national company now. But we're small and located in Charlottesville.

[00:10:50] Georgiana Dearing: For sure. I think when you become highly specialized, your location then becomes irrelevant. Even particularly now, I mean, if the pandemic taught us anything, we can be anywhere and work for the most part. But my background really is in packaged foods and not beverages. And there are a lot of regulations to follow on food, particularly with nutrition panels, the hierarchy of information on the face of the panel, and all kinds of things. Can you speak a little bit to the guidelines that you're paying attention to for your clients?

[00:11:28] Darcey Lacy: The nutritional panel is probably the first place we have to struggle with figuring out which one is the correct size for the package. We do a lot of honey now so figuring out which one can fit on the honey or with the Spirulina-based beverage also has to have a nutritional panel. And which one are we allowed to use? A lot of times we are working with lawyers that the clients have hired, or the group of Virginia Tech helps us out a lot figuring out what's what and making sure. Once we find that, there are a lot of documents about what font sizes need to be so that part's not as bad. And as you mentioned, the principal display panel, making sure the right things get on that panel. So we have a good knowledge of what goes where, and then we run it through the client's lawyer to make sure that we've done everything correctly.

[00:12:14] Georgiana Dearing: Craft brands and startups, there is that sort of threshold. You actually don't have to comply if you're under a certain production volume. But if you moving into retail or if you're trying to get into Whole Foods, they want you to comply because they don't want to think about it. They don't want this like, yes, you just have to do it. So I have always started from the point of, let's do it now. Let's start where we need to be so that you aren't having to reinvent. What are the cost savings too? Real estate for messaging is so small on a bottle. In particular, if you don't use that space correctly the first time around then you're going to have to reinvent it all when you hit that production level. And it becomes a legal requirement.

[00:13:00] Darcey Lacy: Yes, I think you can just use hierarchy through design. There is so much that's required that we'll put it at the minimum size that is possible and legal. And then try to make sure that the things that we want to get across are large enough and noticeable so that everything's there that needs to be there. But as long as the hierarchy is correct, and you can still get across what you need to get across from a branding perspective.

[00:13:22] Georgiana Dearing: So can you talk a little bit about the choices you're making when you're trying to get the entire brand story in this tiniest space possible, tiniest space you're allowed?

[00:13:34] Darcey Lacy: Sure, I think people forget that you have side panels and back panels. So we tend to put the larger story on the back or on the sides, and only focus on the most important things on the front panel. What are the things you need to get across so quickly when someone's just glancing past the shelf? So we really try to focus on what are those like two seconds and things that you need to get across that you want someone to read. And that's what gets on the front panel. And then we use the rest of the package to supplement what's on the front.

[00:14:03] Georgiana Dearing: My practice, we always talked about the hierarchy of information as streakers, strollers, and studiers. And so, people are streaking by the store. What do you want them to get? Strollers, you're going to spend a little more time. And the studiers are going to flip the package over and they're going to read the entire ingredient list or read the entire like, we were born in a cabin, you know.

[00:14:26] Darcey Lacy: Absolutely.

[0014:27] Georgiana Dearing: Or you're going to direct them to the website where they could learn more if they really need to study that hard. And so that we try to talk about, okay, if you only have the glance, what are you going to convey? Other things that help tell that story, I mean, we're talking about words right now. But you mentioned things like filigree and patterns when you talked about your specific design for Crescent Simples. So can you speak to some of these things?

[00:14:53] Darcey Lacy: Sure. So with Crescent Simples, we wanted to bring the brand story in through the logo design. And then they use fresh fruit and fresh ingredients so that had to be on the front of the package. It had to be visible color choices. Fresh fruit, they wanted vibrant colors because muted colors would not communicate this delicious fresh fruit that they're using. Even though in the market, a lot of people are using muted colors in the simple syrup space so differentiating yourself by going a different direction. But it's also true to the brand and the product that's inside.

Let's see. Other products, another good one here in Virginia is Ankida Ridge Vineyards. So we refresh their brand last year. And their drawings, there's so much to the story so this is a little bit more for the people who are going to sit there and study it. At a high level, it says in Ankida Ridge you get the brand across and you can tell that it's natural and organic-based on the drawings that are on the front of the bottle. But when you dig in and start looking at the illustration, we've looked at the profile of each wine and the notes, and then illustrated imagery that evokes those notes. So you know what you're getting before you even taste the wine based on these illustrations. So again, telling the story of the liquid through what's on the front of the bottle.

[00:16:08] Georgiana Dearing: There's your wine tasting experience coming there. You put a little artistry behind the experience.

[00:16:17] Darcey Lacy: Absolutely. And sometimes, it is an experience. Carter Mountain, we worked on their wine this year. And it's such an iconic Charlottesville experience of driving up that long winding road up the mountain. Even though there are a lot of mountains on a lot of labels, we wanted to get that experience on there. And it's fun when you go up there so using bright colors. But we did illustrate that meandering path up to the top apple barn on the front of that package so people have something to take home with them. They can remember their experience. So it all depends on what the product is. Are you trying to send home an experience? Are you trying to talk about the liquid inside the package? What is it that you're trying to get across? That's what we design around.

[00:16:55] Georgiana Dearing: So I'm going to throw a curveball in here. What is your ideal customer like? Is it big or small or emerging? Who are you wanting to work with the most?

[00:17:05] Darcey Lacy: Whoever trusts us. I think Crescent Simples is a great example because they came to us and they knew that design could impact their sales. And they knew that we could help them, and they trusted in what we do. And so, that's the ideal client is someone who knows that we can help them, that trusts us to help them. So it doesn't really matter if it's a small business, medium, or large. It's somebody who has a passion for design and knows what design can do, and trust us to do it. And I can think of other clients. We have a distillery in New York. Similarly, they'll give us a concept and then they let us fly. And that's where our best work comes from is when you just let designers fly. So yes, I'd say we're usually in the medium-sized business space. I think you get into large businesses and you do have a lot of restrictions and requirements. And we are doing some projects on that level but you're working with larger in-house groups. And there are just more restrictions to it and we enjoy it just as much because it has different challenges. But probably a small to medium.

[00:18:05] Georgiana Dearing: Just for our listeners, what does that look like sales-wise, units-wise, if you say medium? Is it somebody who's doing beyond farmer's markets, I guess?

[00:18:15] Darcey Lacy: Absolutely. So, I would say you have to have the budget to be able to invest in design. You're probably past the farmer's market and you're in a space where you're growing and you're moving to that next stage. And that's probably the stage in which you would engage Watermark. And medium is you've been in business for 10 years and you're like, oh, it's a time for a refresh, it's the time for that next step. We have a project coming out in partnership with LA Libations for Molson Coors, and that would be what I would call large.

[00:18:43] Georgiana Dearing: Yes, that's large. And that's probably, at some point, it feels a little bit like designed by the committee because there are so many departments that are going to weigh in at one point or another.

[00:18:52] Darcey Lacy: Yes.

[00:18:53] Georgiana Dearing: Good on you.

[00:18:54] Darcey Lacy: Thank you so much.

[00:18:57] Georgiana Dearing: I have gone that route but not a cores, but I've gone there in a corporate route before. I wanna quote one thing at a very early in our conversation when you were, again, talking about Crescent Simples, and this is more to educate our listeners. You said something about the pattern on the label and you said it's one pattern across all flavors because of budget. Is that because of the design budget or is it because of the print budget? What impact did that have?

[00:19:27] Darcey Lacy: So we have a singular dye. So the dye-cut the outer shape of the label is the same across all of them to save on the printing budget. And then design budget, yes, it saves to have the same pattern on the background of all the different labels. Because if we had done a unique illustration per flavor, that would have driven their costs way up. So we used the color palette to indicate the flavor instead of changing the illustration on every single one.

[00:19:51] Georgiana Dearing: That's great. Those are two really thoughtful examples of being a good steward of the client's budget. The keeping a dye went to one dye line which are things that food makers aren't thinking about those things. They see a paper with color on it, that's it. They're not thinking about, oh, it's cost something to have it all cut a certain way. We've done things even for large clients where we had a common plate-like just one plate and then whatever ink they put on the press that day made the change. That helps save production costs long over the lifetime of the product. So those are all good decisions that a good design partner will make for a brand. So, yay, good on you. Again, congratulations.

[00:20:33] Darcey Lacy: Thank you. I think you just look at the pieces that are really going to make an impact and you invest in those pieces. So if it's a shipper that's not going to sit on the floor, you don't need to invest in that ship. Or let's invest in the shipper that might sit on the floor or something that is going to leave in the customer's hand. That's where you invest your design dollars.

[00:20:50] Georgiana Dearing: Those are great thoughts to have. It sounds like you do a lot of nurturing through your onboarding process, helping your clients make the decisions.

[00:21:00] Darcey Lacy: Yes, well, we designed for things we love. Similar to food, our candle client, if it's shipping to you, if you had a food product that was shipping to you, that experience of unboxing it. I find that really important. Now that everything's shipped to you, when that box shows up on your doorstep, have you branded the box? What happens when you open the box? Is there some kind of postcard lane on top thanking them for their order? What is that packaging when you pull it out? So every step in the process where you're interacting with the customer is important. It's the same in restaurants. It's the same with every product.

[00:21:29] Georgiana Dearing: Well, this is all been really interesting. But I do want to talk about what is next. What happens next for your business? Where do you see Watermark at the end of next year?

[00:21:39] Darcey Lacy: End of next year, we're growing a little bit. Our intention is to stay in a small studio and choose the work that we really are excited about. Those partners that trust us, those partners are excited about design. And in doing that, we are probably going to grow by maybe two more people. So we're looking at our internal team, at this moment, to make sure that when those projects called that we're passionate about, we have the bandwidth for that. So we're more internally focused right now. Getting ready for what's to come.

[00:22:07] Georgiana Dearing: So before we really hit the official record button, you said your studio is five people right now. And then you expect to maybe just cap it seven.

[00:22:18] Darcey Lacy: Yes. We don't want to grow too big. I don't want to take on work just to have work or to make salaries. I want to take on work that we're all passionate about. All of our designers are artists, and their work is so beautiful. You don't want to take on work that's just busywork. You want to take on work that you're passionate about. So I want to stay small for that reason.

[00:22:37] Georgiana Dearing: Yes, that's good on you. I, having run a team of eight, there's a point where you're running the business and not running networking in the work. Well, this isn't about me so we won't go down that road. I agree that once you get to seven or eight, that's probably a good cap. Then you have many layers between you and your client.

[00:22:59] Darcey Lacy: Yes, that's the thing. And that's another reason I don't want to grow too big is I love talking to the Megans and the Bills and the Christines and the Jakes and the Aarons and the Michaels. And that is what Watermark is. It's those personal relationships. And I think if you grow too big, someone's going to come by and you didn't even know they came by because you have so many people. So I think keeping those relationships close and really knowing the clients inside and out, I always say we're an extension of their team. We become a part of them. Most of our client relationships are long-term relationships so, no, I don't want to lose that.

[00:23:29] Georgiana Dearing: So what is the long-term look like for you? Does it begin and end with packaging? Or do you go on into other marketing materials for your clients?

[00:23:38] Darcey Lacy: We love going on into other marketing materials. No, long-term means... Like Afton, we've been together since 2008. I want to say, I forget the actual date, but we still help them with their wine club newsletters or postcards or whatever else. So yes, we want to help someone bring the brand to life. After the branding and packaging, how does that interact with social and the website and the sales sheets and the distributor materials, and the shippers? There's so much that comes after that. So sometimes they want to take that over in-house. And sometimes, we get to stay on and help them through that at least through the initial launch phase. But no, a lot of them are very long-term.

[00:24:18] Georgiana Dearing: Well, that's good. That's really good. I've really enjoyed talking to you and hearing your story. And it's funny because I feel like we have such commonalities in our background. I feel like I know so much about you, at least through the work experience, even though this is the first time we've met. So thank you for making time for that and for sharing your story with the listeners. But can you tell people how to find you? Where would they find you? Website, social handles, things like that.

[00:24:45] Darcey Lacy: Sure. Our Instagram handle is @watermarkdesigncville. And our website is So no (.com) just to be difficult, you know.

[00:25:00] Georgiana Dearing: Okay. Thank you for that. And I really look forward to the next thing that comes out of your studio. I follow you on Instagram, and I've seen some of these projects you've talked about. And I think our listeners should go take a look because you do do some lovely work.

[00:25:12] Darcey Lacy: Thank you. And thank you so much for having me on, today.

[00:25:16] Georgiana Dearing: Thanks for listening. And if you want to learn more about how to grow your own food brand, then click on Grow My Brand at If you're a lover of local food, then be sure to follow us. We are at @vafoodie on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Join the conversation and tell us about your adventures with good food, good people, and good brands.