The story behind Trader Joe’s “Taste Test of Caramels”

Trader Joe’s just dropped their 2023 holiday edition of their infamous Fearless Flyer. The front page of this successful piece of marketing is akin to what the New York Times would call “above-the-fold”; meaning, the products that are most prominently featured are considered top retail billing.

I generally do a pretty terrible job propping up my creative resumé, but after seeing a product I designed and conceptualized nearly eleven years ago still resonating with one of the all-time retail greats, perhaps it’s worth a post.

For about a decade I was a senior creative at Trader Joe’s. My core function was design, but also providing copy, naming conventions, product positioning, and other marketing creative support. (I love seeing people toting around TJ’s reusable grocery bags I designed.) One of the things I appreciated about my function at Trader Joe’s was the end-to-end ownership of my projects.

One such project was the creative and design for a holiday item… “The 12 Days of Caramels”, an assortment of chocolate caramels with varying flavor profiles.

The structure of the box was long and narrow so this presented some challenges. I iterated on the design and presented my team with a work-in-progress prefacing the critique with, “I know this hasn’t landed.”

My Creative Director kind of stared at the design with his hand on his chin before saying, “It looks like an Auto-Trader ad.” The thing is, he wasn’t wrong. But what I realized was, designing to the structure wasn’t the problem. It was designing to a weak concept.

Trader Joe’s had plenty of other chocolate assortments in the line-up, but what made these unique were the interesting parings… think stem ginger and strawberry black pepper.

And then it hit me, what if this was made into a game that people could bring to a party? I came up with “Taste Test of Caramels.” Conceptually, it worked perfectly with the structure because the design replicated a parlor board game. What I was previously struggling with suddenly “wrote itself”.

This was, of course, a radical shift in the product’s positioning. At the time, the Category Manager and VP of Merchandising overseeing this product were both offline traveling abroad visiting with vendors. In good faith I ran the change past our VP of marketing. It was instantly approved with excitement.

It sounds far-fetched, but I single-handedly executed every detail of this package. The copy. The art direction of the photography. The design. The illustrations.

This was designed in 2012, so there are some things I might have done differently; however, for the most part I would say the design captures the spirit of the concept.

But, here’s my favorite part of the story: I shipped this to print and a few weeks later the VP of Merchandising and Category Manager returned from their trip. When they saw the new direction and positioning of the product they were beyond furious. I had ruined what was going to be their “legacy holiday item”. 

But that’s not what happened. Upon its debut, Taste Test of Caramels was the first holiday item to completely sell-through and continued to do so year-after-year. I think it’s safe to assume that its top billing on the Fearless Flyer means it’s, in fact, a Trader Joe’s legacy holiday item.

This is why creative is so important, but sadly, often ignored or given little value. I’m confident “12 Days of Caramels” would have been just another caramel assortment in the wind. In contrast, Taste Test of Caramels transcended the product with an additional form of engagement, and also made it non-denominational in the process.

 

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