Who wants to be a Supermarket Superstar and build the start of an empire... on TV? One San Francisco-based graphic design outfit can help: 99designs is featured on a new reality show called Supermarket Superstar, airing on Lifetime Monday nights. Fans of Michael Chiarello, Stacy Keibler and Debbi Fields (of Mrs. Fields cookie fame) will find something of interest on the show, as well as anyone who has ever wondered what it’s like to try and create, market and sell a food product on a mass scale. The first episode on July 22 featured products like overly boozy "Cake Buzz" cakes (actually, this product has potential), peachy desserts with real Georgia peaches from a gospel singer, and cupcake cookies from the Princess Cake Lady, who kept viewers guessing about how crazy she is--seemingly an essential for the reality TV genre. The three contestants were able to tweak their concept, recipe and design in a mad dash to impress one person: a supermarket buyer from A&P.
The local Bay Area angle for this one is that 99designs was approached by Supermarket Superstar’s producers (Project Runway, Shark Tank and Undercover Boss) to provide design assistance to contestants competing to get their homemade creations on grocery store shelves. The competition entails home chefs competing to win money and get their food products distributed at A&P supermarkets. Contestants pitch their actual products (which they've typically been honing for years), packaging design and branding concepts to judges. Each episode names a winner who scores $10,000 in cash and $100,000 in marketing support to produce actual samples as they'd be sold. In the finale airing later this year, those winners present their samples, and the grand prize-winner gets national supermarket distribution.
99designs sent two in-house graphic design pros, Art Director Kyle Wai Lin and Visual Designer Matthew Basham, to Los Angeles to film the 10-episode series. Lin and Basham helped contestants create their final packaging designs on-air, and the design concepts were sourced through 99designs' global design community. 99designs has connected thousands of food entrepreneurs with designers around the world to source logos and product packaging designs, and this show is a way of educating would-be entrepreneurs about how important branding and design are to business success.
Bay Area Bites caught up with Lin recently to find out what filming was like. Before 99designs, Lin previously worked in digital advertising at agencies R/GA and AKQA, and with a wide variety of brands from Apple and Nike to Walmart, Converse, Old Navy, eBay, Taco Bell and L'Oreal. In his free time he's an adjunct professor at Miami Ad School, teaching mobile, social media and product development classes. Lin’s comments have been edited for content and clarity.
Bay Area Bites: What was it like to film the show and work with food-loving contestants angling to win thousands of dollars?
Lin: Matt and I had a fantastic experience working with food-loving contestants because you could really tell they didn't just love their food, but they also enjoyed creating a stronger brand narrative around their product. The "thousands of dollars" aspect added a lot of pressure on us, as well as the contestants. It definitely made for an interesting show.
Some contestants came in with a strong sense of what they wanted to communicate, but others didn't, which made it challenging because we had no idea what we were walking into with each episode. The first thing we'd ask was about them and their product narrative. Some contestants went straight into execution like choosing colors and fonts, while others needed more guidance.
One contestant came from a family with a lineage of seafood. She wanted to communicate something elegant and modern without losing the historical value of her brand. It was a bit of a balancing act of managing communication expectations; some contestants encouraged the visual design to flow harmoniously with the wording on their packaging, while others were much more literal with their communications and wanted to say too many things, thereby losing the value of a singular idea. Mostly, it was a lot of doing what we as designers love to do every day -- tell stories visually.
Bay Area Bites: And how about hanging out with Stacy Keibler and Mrs. Fields' guru Debbie Fields? Any gossipy tidbits to share?
Lin: I can't say I wasn't a little starstruck. These are celebrities we've all seen and heard about and it was a bit surreal that Matt and I got to share the stage with them. I met Stacy and she's super nice -- and surprisingly tall! -- in person. Debbie is the nicest person I met on set, followed by a long line of others behind the scenes. Debbie's daughter was even backstage pitching in. The entire team, from the talent to the writers, producers and P.A.s, were awesome. I can't share any real gossip in the negative sense, just have great things to say about them all. What it boils down to is they're just regular people with incredible talent and business acumen.
Bay Area Bites: Michael Chiarello now has a San Francisco restaurant called Coqueta. On the episode, he wasn't displaying his fun-loving side as much and was more of a hard ass. What are your thoughts on Chiarello?
Lin: Michael Chiarello is the boss! I think some of his comments were the most insightful and honest among all the judges. He is a genuine article, someone who really wanted contestants to succeed, even if it meant breaking a few hearts along the way. Everything that came out of his mouth came from a thoughtful and intelligent place, and he really helped improve contestants' products. With the filming of each episode I gained more and more respect for him and I think viewers will feel the same way. Here's my shameless self-promotion — Michael, if you need any design help with your next San Francisco venture, call us!
Bay Area Bites: Did you get to sample the food? What was it like?
Lin: Matt and I got to taste most all of the food products, usually after their transformations with Michael. Some were better than others. Without divulging too much about future episodes, I'll just say that we got to sample a few things that we never thought we'd be eating in our entire lives! All the food was great, though I have a personal preference for seafood and tacos.
Bay Area Bites: What are some familiar food products that show "good" design elements? And what products do not?
Lin: I can't speak for specific products on future episodes, but in general I believe the most successfully designed food products on the show have a compelling backstory, cultural history, family lineage or a strong and simple perspective. You can almost taste it in the food if the contestant really poured their heart into what they were making.
"Good" design in terms of food branding can come from many places and I suppose it all depends on the product's narrative. For example, I love kimchee. You can find a 1,000-year-old recipe someone's grandma sells in an inconspicuously marked plastic container at a Korean market in Daly City, or you can find a more modern vegan, organic, all-natural version at an upscale grocery story dressed in ultra modern design. Each tells a different product narrative, and both have their merits from a communication design perspective.
Bay Area Bites: Is Melissa Randall, the cupcake cookie contestant, as crazy as she seemed on the first episode?
Lin: Melissa was one of the most charismatic contestants and most fun to work with. Melissa might have been a little eccentric, but I have to say it's in the best possible way. She's the kind of crazy I love and that I'd love to have around every day. She lives and breathes her brand and people respect that kind of commitment. Although Melissa might not have won the episode, she has an interesting idea and the beginnings of a great brand. I wish her the best.