On the bottle of each Karuna beverage, the roots of a beautiful Bodhi tree become the letter ‘u’ in the brand name. The seamless integration of the brand name and the logo carries over to the tagline on Karuna’s website: “The root of good health.” It’s difficult to imagine the product being marketed in any other way. Yet this is the story of a branding strategy that almost didn’t happen.
THE ROOTS OF COMPASSION
Angela Zeng, co-founder of Karuna, nearly killed herself experimenting with different herbal remedies when she was a young girl in China. Today, her beverage formulas are about to hit the store shelves in St. Louis, MO. These are backed up by years of science, since Zeng now holds several post-graduate (Master’s and doctorate) degrees in medical research and business. But her experience ending up in the emergency room twice as a child gave her a sense of respect for nature.
The idea for Karuna was born after the grown-up Zeng noticed several disturbing trends in the cold-pressed juice industry. Zeng was appalled by how some companies make beverages from products that are not naturally juicy, which results both in environmental waste and a loss of nutrients, and then add synthetic nutrition powders to “natural” drinks instead of maximizing nature’s resources, and finally charge premium prices for these products.
Zeng set out to create natural drinks that are healthy, affordable and sustainable. Her years of research into different ingredients and formulations was paired with powerful collaborations: Zeng co-founded a company together with her husband, Dr. Shawn Hu, and doctorate holder and food scientist partner, Zebin Wang. Angela Zeng then turned to design firm Flood Creative to help build a branding and package design strategy.
The foundation of the branding and package design would be built on the company’s name: Karuna.
The name Karuna means compassion in Buddhism, and it came to her because the word illustrated her motivation to create the product. “I want to call out attention to compassion,” says Angela Zeng. “Compassion to your own health, compassion to other people, compassion to other living creatures (which is why our product line is all plant-based), compassion to nature. I want to promote the idea that we should not waste food; we should not waste natural resources. We should think of the environment, not just focus on how much money we can make now.”
Although the name seemed like a natural fit from the start, Angela Zeng wanted to do her due diligence to ensure the brand name would convey the same positive messages to others. “She wasn’t sure whether the religious or spiritual aspect would be a turnoff,” says Renée Whitworth, strategic director at Flood Creative. “Part of the initial discussion would be what could happen to that story. Rather than just being about sustainability, we wanted to tap into the why. We definitely guided her on whether or not to use spirituality as a brand platform. We showed her something that could be modern and also have some aspect of spirituality and that made her more comfortable with that proposition. Once we showed her the design, she felt she could be differentiated, but not alienating, if she went down that spiritual route.”
Whitworth, however, did not have any doubt because of the target audience for the company. “We knew that millennials now gravitate towards what the authentic story is,” says Whitworth. “If there is a person behind it, to let that person be who she or he is.”
When Angela Zeng settled on the brand name Karuna, the rest of the design came together naturally, so to speak. Flood Creative created several different logos for the potential company names. The use of the Bodhi tree, a symbol for Buddhism, was an easy choice to accompany the name Karuna.
Angela Zeng also enlisted Paradigm New Media Group to help design the website and create a digital media strategy. The tagline for the website, “The roots of good health,” was born after Angela Zeng settled on a company name.
“That tagline really kicked off the product,” says Michael Huber, creative director at Paradigm. “When Angela finally settled on a brand name, we really started talking more about the purity of the ingredients and healthy living. Some of the options tied into the alternative brand names she was interested in. The root of good health really works well.”
Whitworth says that while the story behind the product played a key role in choosing the logo and brand name, it became less about what to put in and more about what to take out when it came to the bottle labels. Because a product only has a few seconds to make an impact on the shelf, describing the ingredients and their purpose became the focus and nothing about Angela Zeng’s motivation for launching the company made it onto the back of the bottle. The reasoning behind this is simple, Whitworth says: “The brand is more important than the company.”
Not every decision is carefully made after a thoughtful discussion about pros and cons. Sometimes, the lawyer just calls the shots. Zeng wanted to describe the products as ancient elixirs to illustrate the healing powers she says the ingredients (for example mung bean sprouts, aronia berries and longan fruit) hold. But the food label attorney she hired said that the descriptions should be simple and straightforward. The resulting product lines are called “plant-based drinks,” “fruit-infused drinks” and “plant-based nutritional shakes.” Angela Zeng is also leaving room for expansion beyond beverages by calling Karuna a natural food company.
The company is officially launching in January 2017, when its products will be available to local retailers. Karuna plans to expand into the national market later in the year. Zeng hopes that the company will shake up an industry she says is too eager to cater to every new trend without thinking of the impact on consumers and the environment.
“I just want to do something different,” says Zeng. “We know we are just a small startup, me and my husband and our partner, but we hope that through our practice we can set an example for the industry players.”