TWENTY FOURTEEN WAS A BIG YEAR FOR BUGS. You didn’t have to look far to find Kickstarter pages, Shark Tank appearances, and Fast Company articles detailing the glorious benefits of eating insects: high protein, low cost, and an environmental footprint that makes chicken, beef, and pork look hopelessly outdated. Overnight, it seemed, investors were clamoring to put their money where absolutely no one’s mouth was.
Nearly four years later, industry insiders remain optimistic: The number of companies producing everything from insect-rich protein bars to chips has jumped from zero to 20 in that time, and domestic farms raising crickets for human consumption now number close to half a dozen. But great ideas don’t always lead to blockbuster revenues. And although millions of people across the globe have long considered insects a healthy part of a nutritious meal, most Westerners get their first taste while traveling to exotic locales overseas—a time when they’re primed to explore new things. So how do you persuade someone in the Midwest to eat a cricket on a Tuesday afternoon in January? And what role is design playing in converting the masses? We spoke to designers helping three startups bridge the gap, each in their own unique way.
Strange = Change
Exo was one of the first companies to make headlines, securing $1.2 million at its launch in 2014 and bolstering that investment with another $4 million from celebs including Tim Ferris and Nas in 2016. But the protein bars’ plain white wrapper wasn’t nearly as flashy—just ruled boxes full of bland type and color blocks hinting at flavors. Enter New York design firm Gander.
“Before we started working with Exo, their goal was to fit in with all the other protein bars: ‘We’re just like Clif bars and everything else on the shelf, and, oh yeah, we have crickets,’ which was actually hiding what makes the product unique,” says Mike McVicar, cofounder of Gander. “Exo came to us wanting to let people know exactly what they’re getting right away.”
As the Gander team worked to identify Exo’s target audience, they considered targeting fitness fanatics who might patronize a high-end gym like Equinox but ultimately landed on Tough Mudders and Brooklyn crossfitters—lifehackers who will do whatever it takes to get results, even if it means getting a little dirty. That direction led to a gritty street-art aesthetic that comes through in scribbled illustrations, photocopied clip-art, and harshly lit photography courtesy of Patrick Kolts. While other brands embrace bug-related puns with all the sophistication of a knock-knock joke, Gander took it up a notch with clever references to “All-You-Can-Eat Wings,” a phrase coined by Gander co-founder Katie Levy.
“It’s all about bug pride,” Levy says. “We’re not here to hide it—we’re here to embrace it and accept all the quirky things about eating bugs.”
“We wanted the copywriting to be pretty subversive—not punny but proud,” McVicar says. “One of my favorite lines is ‘Strange Equals Change,’ which fits with the idea of challenging people. It’s less about trying to convince people to change their habits and start eating crickets, and more about taking a strong stance and being confident that the audience will follow.”
Targeting Impressionable Little Kids
When Meryl Natow and her fellow Harvard grads founded Chirps chips, they were looking to craft a friendly, approachable brand that started with children, hence the bright colors and cartoonish mascot created by agency partner Good Forks.
“We focused on kids because they have the greatest opportunity to have a big impact on our environment—because they’ll be around much longer than the rest of us, and also because they’re not as put off by the idea of eating an insect as my 61-year-old mother is,” says Natow, Chirps’ creative director. “We also know that a lot of parents are looking for a way to sneak more protein into their children’s diets, and [Chirps are a lot better] than the Doritos they’d be eating otherwise.”
Unlike Exo, Chirps’ brand guidelines explicitly prohibit showing photography of actual insects, in keeping with more established food brands, which rarely show a cow, a chicken, or a pig in anything but cartoon form. And just as ground beef in cellophane bares little resemblance to a cow, the use of “cricket flour” (created by dry roasting insects and milling them into a dark brown powder) assures consumers that they won’t be picking legs out of their teeth.
“I’m always telling people those little black specks that you see in our chips are not crickets—they’re actually chia seeds,” Natow says. “We knew our product is a first step in someone’s experience of eating insects—you’re probably not going to take a bite of an insect or fry them up and eat them straight. We want people to understand that you can eat insects and not keel over and die, and they won’t even taste bad. So the next time you’re given a chance to eat crickets, you might be more likely to say, ‘Sure, why not? I’ve already done this and it isn’t so scary.’ I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t eat chips, so for us, it was the best way to make sure we would have a wide reach.”
Just Another Radical Idea
Where Exo embraces clever and Chirp goes after cute, Seek stakes a claim on classy. Warm, botanical illustrations convey a refined, thoughtful brand that whispers “insects” rather than screaming it. But there are no secrets here: Products like cinnamon-almond crunch granola and coconut cashew snacks are presented in clear packaging, which minimizes shelf life compared to opaque packaging but allows consumers to know what they’re getting. And those floral illustrations are about more than just looking good.
“So few of us even know the natural form of the food we eat anymore,” says Seek co-founder Robyn Shapiro. “Most people don’t even know that cashews grow on a tree, at the very end of a fruit that looks like a bell pepper or an apple; and almond trees have these beautiful pink flowers. We don’t know everything there is to know about the food we eat everyday, so we’re asking people to be open to being pleasantly surprised about crickets as well.”
The idea of fostering curiosity is evident in the company’s name, which evokes the idea of seeing things in new ways, while containing the word “eek,” a sly acknowledgement that eating insects can be a little terrifying. Shapiro jokes that she’s a “PR agent for insects, the unsung heroes of planet Earth,” and she’s clearly in it for the long haul. In conversation, she compares crickets to sushi, another cuisine that was considered peculiar and possibly unsafe when it was introduced to Americans in the 1970s. But a better analog may be lobster, which was once so plentiful it washed up on the shores of New England and was served to prisoners. Years later, lobster is a delicacy, but as a member of the arthropod family, it’s essentially an underwater insect. The question is, will we ever view bugs the same way we view their bigger, bright-red cousins?
Shapiro thinks so.
“I just read a study by people researching ‘radical creativity,’ which points out many times throughout history that something was negatively perceived just because it was radically different,” she says. “One of the authors’ examples is hot-air balloons, which people immediately said were crazy, dangerous, and made no sense at all; now hot-air balloons are thought of as romantic, like a picnic in the sky. We need to keep putting forth radically creative ideas, because in a lot of cases, the status quo isn’t working out. And design can help educate people, to get them over that hurdle.”