Subscription D2C Supplement Brand Makes Sustainable Impression at Unboxing
The founders ofnutraceutical company Seraphina Therapeutics, producer of the new Fatty 15essential fatty acid supplement, come with an origin story that’s fit for aBond movie. Dr. Stephanie Venn-Watson, the CEO, is a veterinary epidemiologist with a host ofdegrees and credentials across disciplines. Dr. Eric Venn-Watson, her husband and COO, is a Navy physician that spentyears internationally deployed as a military orthopedic surgeon and aerospacemedicine specialist before entering the private sector. Recently, the two havebeen featured in publications like Forbes, Authority, and Worthas examples of an entrepreneurial power couple.
But here’s a wrinkle that couldbe straight from a comic book: the Seraphina pair discovered their first product—anew-to-science variety of healthful fatty acid—by working on a long-standing projectstudying Navy-raised and -trained dolphins. The discovery was corroborated withthe aid of 60 years’ worth of Navy-collected experimental dolphin data and cellsamples. You read that correctly, military dolphins.
More specifically, thediscovery is of a trace fatty acid called C15:0, eventually to be branded asFatty 15, that Seraphina says has evidence of significantly promoting cellularresilience and general health. The company claims this fatty acid boosts humanlongevity by strengthening cell membranes, supporting mitochondria, andactivating receptors in our bodies that regulate metabolism, immunity, mood,sleep, and appetite.
I’ll have to take their wordfor it, but the discovery was impressive enough for lauded scientific journal Natureto publish Venn-Watsons’ findings. Packaging’s World’s coverage area isa little narrower than the publications listed above. Luckily, Fatty 15’spackaging origin story is a good one as well. An exploded view of the Fatty 15 starter kit demonstrates the use of corrugated inserts to safely handle a glass bottle through the many-touchpoint e-comm channel in a compact format without extra space or the need for dunnage.
Shift from academia tocommercializationThe C15:0 ingredient itselfspent more than a decade in research and development. But as promising as itappeared to science and academia, Seraphina knew that C15:0 wasn’t going tosell itself to consumers.
“It’s our intellectualproperty, we’ve published on it, and we now have 28 patents on this technology,nine of which are issued,” says EricVenn-Watson. “We finally had to ask ourselves how would we bring this discoveryto the masses? How could we improve global health? More practically, we askedourselves how we would manufacture this. And what kind of packagingwould we need?”
Upstream,the processing and manufacturing of C15:0 involves a whole lot of regulatory oversight and hoops throughwhich to jump. Seraphina has to keep its whole supply chain FDA appropriate fora food facility, including manufacture of the ingredient itself. Consideringits target market of health- and sustainability-minded Millennials and GenXers, Seraphina also must certify that the product is both vegan andsustainably sourced. Then, once the artificially synthesized product ismanufactured, there are guidelines on safely getting the ingredient into a capsule and safely getting thecapsules into a package to protect it.
Morefreedom in packagingButonce those capsules are safely sealed in a suitable pack, many of thoseregulatory burdens subside. Non-food-contact secondary packaging afforded thebrand a lot more freedom for artistry and latitude for brand positioning.
Atthe time of the January 2021 launch, C15:0 was (and still is) a Direct to Consumer(D2C) distribution play using the Shopify D2C logistics software platform. Thise-comm-based go-to-market format meant consumers’ first physical interactionwith the brand would be by way of a shipper arriving on their doorstep. Thatwould be the true zero-moment of truth.
Tomaximize its impact at this critical point, the company enlisted L.A.-based creativeand brand design agencyPhenomenon (which goes by phno) to work outbrand positioning, naming, identity guidelines, and most importantly for ourpurposes, the sourcing and implementation of the packaging. Ali Filsoof, DesignDirector at phno, led this process.
He was involved in an early,tenor-setting brand decision to move away to the clinical-sounding C15:0 ingredient name to the more engagingFatty 15. The name plays on the juxtaposition between consumers’ historicalvilification of fats and the fact that certain fats, like C15:0, are requiredfor life (putting the “essential” in essential fatty acids). The name Fatty 15is a bold attention getter and conversation starter to the brand’s health-awaretarget market.
Another branded designelement that would end up being reused across the packaging is a “pill pattern” graphic depictingalternatingly oriented horizontal and vertical capsules. One half of eachcapsule is represented by an unbroken “C” shapedline, the other half consists of 15 dots outlining the same, but inverse “C” shape.Taken together, this design ismeant to recall consumers to the C15:0 chemicalname. The branded "pill pattern" is used on the tape and various decorative spots on the pack. the design is meant to recall the C15:0 chemical name for Fatty 15.
AsFilsoof’s brand strategies and designs began to crystalize, he brought in ErinMoharita, CPP, principal of boutique packaging agencyEKM, to make surethey were on point on the technical and procurement side of packaging.Moharita’s specialty is connecting entrepreneurs—many of whom are unfamiliarwith the packaging supplychain or lack enough volume to meet their MOQs—with her extensive network oflarger or premium packaging suppliers that might not otherwise engage with smaller,emerging brands.
Balancingsustainability with product protection, shelf lifeTheset of health and wellness consumers that are likely to be drawn to Fatty 15 isof a piece with consumers who value sustainability and seek to protect theenvironment.
“That’swhy one of Seraphina’s early directiveson packaging was to be as environmentally friendly as possible. When I thinkabout packaging in general—particularly in e-comm, D2C, and Amazon thoughthey're working to change things—I think of a box, in a box, in a box, in a box.There are multiple layers of packaging that come to you in the mail,”Filsoof says. “I challenged the team and myself to practice what I’m calling un-packaging.We’re not putting beautiful graphics on a box that’s bound to go into a plainshipper filled with unnecessary extra material like padding. We thought aboutwhat materials we could use that are unconventional but more sustainable. Weresearched for weeks on what those possibilities could be and then we starteddesigning different packaging options for Seraphina’s Fatty 15.”
Theteam arrived at a dual-pronged packaging strategy that consists of asustainability-minded starter kit shipper, designed to impart a carefully conceivedaesthetic during unboxing. The centerpiece of the starter kit is a durableglass bottle designed to contain the product—eventually. The bottle isdelivered empty. Also within the starter kit are three metallized film pouches that each contain amonth’s worth of Fatty 15 capsules (30).
“Thepouch is a laminate foil—we needed that for shelf life, for the capsules tosurvive the warehouse setting prior to getting to a consumer, and then opening,and then being used,” says Moharita. “We wanted to make sure it had the longestshelf life possible.”
Whilemulti-layer metallized filmsaren’t recyclable themselves, they accomplish the essential logistical task ofgetting the product into homes safely, and carry necessary oxygen and moisture barriers. But the lightweight pouches have somesustainability bona fides of their own. In this case, the top layer of the lamination is made frompost-consumer recycled paper that is 100% FSC-Certified. This paper layer isflexographically printed in three colors, white, green, and blue.
Consumersare meant to open the starter kit, open the first three pouches, and fill thedurable bottle with the 90 capsules. Thereafter, a quarterly, subscription-basede-comm delivery of three of the same three metallized film pouches incrementallyrestocks consumers. After the initial starter kit, only a kraft-style flat mailerenvelope is needed to deliver the refill pouches.
The stakeholders involved declined to name their packaging suppliers.
Durableglass bottleIfyou’ve ever been to a GNC retail location, you know that nutraceuticals andsupplement capsules are largely packed in white plastic bottles, often HDPE,adorned with shrink or p-s labels. While these formats can be recycled, theyoften are sold almost comically under-filled. This also is endemic to OTC pharmacapsules. Consider that a 25-pack and a 100-pack of ibuprofen might use thesame size of HDPE bottle—it may be simpler for a brand to limit pack formats,but it’s perceived as wasteful. Also, though they tend to carry decoration, thesebottles aren’t exactly artistic.This elegant, silkscreen-printed durable glass bottle with bamboo closure doesn’t need to be hidden away in a medicine cabinet with your other white HDPE pill bottles. It’s worthy of display.
Fatty15 takes a different tack with an elegant, durable glass bottle meant to bedisplayed in full view on a bathroom counter instead of hiding in a medicinecabinet. The easily recyclable bottle is sprayed in the brand color specified byPhenomenon, similar to seafoam green, then decorated with simple messaging via silkscreenprinting directly on the bottle, one color—dark blue, bordering on black.
“Consideringthat the bottle is meant to be used over and over again, to be refilled monthafter month with refill pouches, it was really important that we had veryhigh-quality decoration on the bottle. We need it be able to be handledmultiple times with no issue, with no deco coming off,” Moharita says. “Printedlabels in a bathroom over months can become damaged and not look so nice. Wereally felt that direct deco to the bottle not only gave it a really nicepremium feel, but it just would be a longer-standing product on your shelf thatlooks nice and clean.”
Butwouldn’t a nutraceutical bottle be required to contain lots of dosing,instructional, and ingredient information that would clutter up the bottle oreven require a label on the back? Remember, the capsules are primarily packagedin metallized foil pouches. That means all regulatory information andinstructions for use need only appear on the pouches. The durable show piece ofa bottle is allowed to remain simple and uncluttered.
Whatreally makes the bottle pop is its bamboo closure. A wood closure wasoriginally specified in the design briefs, but there were some problemsmarrying the bottle threading to the closure. After expanding a closure search,bamboo’s advantages quickly became evident. First, bamboo is a plentiful, fast-growinggrass, so the material’s renewability profile is strong.
“Andfrom a shipping and environmental standpoint, bamboo is a lot lighter than thewood, so I think in the end it was a better choice,” Moharita says. “I thinkthe wood cap still was a great avenue that we explored, but the end result withthe bamboo cap, in my opinion, is better.”
Thelone piece of decoration that isn’t directly printed directly on the bottle andclosure combination is a piece of recyclable pressure-sensitive tape. Itprovides tamper evidence, but also affords a narrow strip of billboard space toreinforce the “pill pattern” design.
“What'sreally cool is that each and every bottle is unique because the grain patternon bamboo is like a fingerprint,” Filsoof adds. “Essentially each consumer getstheir own unique bottle. We wanted something that could really sit on yourcountertop and be really beautiful, something you're proud of.”
The bamboo closure does have an inner polypropylene (PP) fitment to accept thebottle’s thread that is made out of 100% post-consumer recycled material.
“Anywherewe could, we were as environmentally friendly as possible in terms of thematerial we're sourcing as well as the lifespan,” Moharita says. “Durabilityand lifespan of the piece was really important as well.”
Basedon estimated sales, the company says that in 2021 alone, the use of a durableglass bottle instead of a typical HDPE pill bottle will save 9.24 tons ofplastic.
Secondary packaging’s strongsustainability profileFatty 15 uses a shipper made from 100% post-consumer recycled kraft corrugated, adding a circularquality to what already was recyclable. Instead of printing directly on corrugated,the Fatty 15 team decided to print a top sheet and laminate it to one side, theinside-facing corrugated wall. The top sheet is also recyclable and is made outof FSC (Forest Stewardship Council)-certified paper.The inside of the corrugated shipper is laminated with a printed top sheet that conveys the upbeat, quippy brand messaging. Stacked shippers illustrate how little space is wasted in this packaging system.
“Wedidn’t print directly on the kraft since we just felt that the top sheet gave alittle bit of a cleaner look. The color was a little more vibrant going downthis route, and we just could get better quality. Also, I find that when youprint on these top sheets, you're getting less corrugated ‘dust’ coming fromthe shipper as it travels through the supply chain. That was really important sincewe feature a beautifully decorated glass bottle with no carton protecting it,”Moharita says.
Acorrugated kraft insert is used to hold the glass bottle in place, and to orientit toward consumers as they unbox the product. This bottle-holding insert restson a second corrugated insert, this one seamed and erected to be a 3D,shelf-like structure that forms a collar around the inside bottom of theshipper. This corrugated collar cradles three pouches-worth of capsules, threepacks at 30 days each, the amount that arrives with the starter kit.
“Thisbox was made completely custom for this project, and [Moharita] and her teamengineered it to have the smallest footprint possible,” Filsoof adds. “There isno extra room—there’s only enough room to hold the corrugated inserts, which areholding the bottle and the pouch of capsules underneath, but that’s it.Everything was engineered so it could be handled and shipped across the countryand remain intact. The insert that holds the bottle is perfectly laser cut tothe bottle's size, so we didn't have to put any additional padding on top. Wereally just have an [instructional pamphlet] insert that sits on top. We wentthrough a couple iterations of this to land here and we're really proud of itbecause there’s not an inch of excess of corrugated; it's precisely what weneeded to get this shipped properly.”
With the secondarypackaging format decided, it fell to Filsoof to design what would be printed onthe internal top-sheet. As we’ve seen with other successful subscription basedD2C personal care plays (see Grove and Truman’s), text printed on the top sheetis punchy, upbeat, and implies a wink. The design uses infographic-style visualcues and the brand’s “pill pattern” graphic,flexographically printed in two colors, the brand’s green and blue. Of note,the inks used here are vegetable-based, thus more sustainable.
“We really wanted to get across theexcitement around the brand and tell the consumer what's happening by themusing this product. On the inside top cover, we added this beautiful headline,“Fatty acids to the rescue,” explaining how this product is going toreplenish a user’s cells. We were trying to educate people at every touchpoint,even though they've previously researched it on the website, by reminding themwhat's going on with this product,” Filsoof says.
The final top sheet-printedflourish appears on the inside bottom flap, intended to be read as a consumerremoves the last of the three pouches of capsules. There, dark blue text on seagreen paper reads, “Okay, now you can recycle me,” serving both as a closing remark onthe brand’s sustainability profile, and practical reminder to the consumer.
One final sustainability-related element ofnote on the shipper—the company is using a recycled kraft paper, water-activatedtape that's custom printed. What's particularly interesting about it is that itis fully recyclable while still stuck to the corrugated shipper—no need toremove it. Tapes that are reinforced by fiber crosshatching technically shouldbe removed before entering the recycling stream, but this variety of tapedoesn’t require that. The custom printed tape features the brand name, Fatty15, surrounded by the branded capsule pattern illustrating the C15:0 chemical.
“Asmuch as you might not think about tape when you're looking at the wholepackage, with the careful branding, beautiful packaging, and everything wedesigned in the brand, I think that the tape was a really huge win,” Moharitasays. “Because of the weights, and how we designed everything in considerationof how these ship, we were able to use this type of unreinforced tape, which isreally cool.”
Refill PacksSince the starter kitcontains 90 days-worth of capsules (three pouches at 30 capsules each), aboutthree months pass before the next delivery from Fatty 15 arrives at consumers’doorsteps. The brand calculated that it’d be favorable for its customers tohave enough time to really start feeling the positive effects of the supplementbefore they started the subscription portion of their account.Metallized pouches, with an FSC-certified, printed paper layer exterior, carry the capsules through the supply chain while providing a moisture and oxygen barrier. These pouches easily fit into a small kraft mailer for the subscription-based refills.
The next delivery looksnothing like the dramatic starter kit, instead focusing on minimal design andlimited packaging usage.
“We're justusing a mailer envelope that is fully recyclable. On top of the mailerenvelope, all the printing on there is done with an algae-based ink which isreally interesting, it's kind of a newer product in the industry that’s highlyrenewable,” Filsoof says. “I started investigating it a little further and wefound a vendor. We're really proud of the mailer as well because it's as smallas it can be to hold the three pouches [90 capsules] and it's fully recyclable,and the algae ink is unique.”
Thepost-consumer recycled padded kraft paper is FSC-certified and uses a fiber-based padding that’s alsorecyclable, unlike bubble mailers. The mail is printed with typically quippytext that reads, “Don’t worry, cells. Reinforcements are here.” The tapeclosure is the same water-based recycled and recyclable tape found on thestarter kit’s shipper.
What’s next?The first productproduced by Seraphina Therapeutics, Fatty 15’s initial foray as a D2C play islikely to be exactly that—only its first. The brand is currently looking intoother channels, retail and otherwise, that will be able to accommodate theircurrent pack format, and also is considering new packaging formats tailored tothe channel. All of this is top of mind for Eric and Stephanie Venn-Watson.
Another next step, onethat Eric Venn-Watson think might really blow the doors off of this discovery,is FDA recognition as GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) categorization forC15:0 as a food additive or food ingredient. This takes the fatty acid outsideof the capsule and beyond the nutritional supplement category, and into thefood ingredient category for healthful foods.
“And I think from the Seraphina Therapeutics and Fatty15 standpoint, and theingredient FA15, our goal is to just really improve global health. This isimportant and we want to get this out to people and dolphins,” he says. Wait,dolphins? Bringing the story full circle, Eric adds that, “This supplement'sgoing to go back to the dolphins as well, to continue to improve their health,which is neat.”– PW