In a photo studio in Manhattan this summer, a prop stylist carefully places toys on a platform. It’s meant to be a playful scene, part of a shoot of family-friendly meals for the meal-delivery startup HelloFresh. But the company’s associate graphic designer, May Parsey, notices a problem. “Is there a way to flip some of them upside down?” she says, and points to a collection of toys. There’s a little plastic flamingo, a miniature tuba and some playing cards, all facing up in a neat arrangement. “Because if a child were playing with these things, some of them would end up upside down.”
It isn’t the only thing Parsey is here to tussle. When the food is plated and put next to the toys, she’ll find ways to mess that up, too. That’s because HelloFresh has come to an important realization that all companies must in some way embrace: There can be a big gap between how a company talks to its customers and how customers want to be talked to. HelloFresh was once on the wrong side of that -- portraying meals that didn’t reflect its customers’ reality. “It’s easier to make food look as nice as possible,” Parsey says, as two cooks prepare today’s meals nearby, “but then we have to remember that Barbara in Kansas has five kids, and she isn’t wiping down the plate before serving.”
HelloFresh is part of a cluster of startups, including Blue Apron and Plated, that send ready-to-make meals to customers’ doors -- all ingredients proportioned out, with instructions. For years, HelloFresh promoted these dishes with restaurant-quality images. When a user would search meals online, they’d find a menu of meticulously crafted photos. Then the food arrives with recipe cards, also bearing those photos.
The company began in Europe and expanded into the U.S. in 2016, and the team here, like everywhere, experiments with how to connect with its local market. The U.S. team began playing with the photo compositions -- putting some of the food slightly out of place, including a hand in the shot, and so on. Then they’d run different versions online to see which one did better. The results were consistent: Sales went up when the photos were messier.
What’s going on? For one, the meals look more realistic. People can imagine themselves actually cooking something imperfect. But Edward Boyes, HelloFresh U.S.’s CEO, says it goes deeper than that. “The photo we’ve provided sets the expectation of how the finished dish should come out,” he says. “If there’s a mismatch, we find that the home chef feels they’ve somehow failed to create the perfect meal for their family.”
So late last year, HelloFresh changed its U.S. photography. From now on, meals would look approachable, not artful. Boyes won’t share data but says the change has increased customer retention as well as boosted weekly orders. Now the company’s international markets are following, mussing up their food as well.
Boyes’ team will keep experimenting, and not just with photography. The key, he says, is to assess everything with an open mind. “While we have our hypotheses about what might work well,” he says, “it’s important for us to focus on having several options, because often the conclusion might be something unexpected.” After all, a company can’t really know what a consumer wants -- until it asks them.