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Vicki Strull

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    StrategyCreative DirectionPackaging DesignBrand Identity DesignSpeakingOther

    The Art of Effective Collaboration: Infusing Value from Concept to Cart


    Recently, I read a LinkedIn post by Adam Peek, a self-proclaimed packaging evangelist. In the post, he boldly stated that label printing is becoming a commodity and explained that the differentiator is the value a good label supplier can add to the process, not just what they add to creating the label itself.

    After reading comments, I could not help but wonder about the value converters bring to CPG brands and their sales. What parts of the design process are ripe for converters to add value and collaborate with brand managers and creative professionals? What ‘entry points’ are ideal for converters to step in and offer their experience, advice, and inspiration? Why do some converters become valuable partners while others remain stuck in a cycle of commoditization and order-taking?

    Collaboration begins with a need

    Just like any endeavor, designing a label starts with a need. How many times have you heard any of the following requests from your clients?

    We need a line extension.
    This is typically requested by a brand that is expanding to more flavors, formulas, categories, etc. In the last issue, I discussed a rebranding project I did for a specialty food company, Wildfare, where I described the design process and the various extensions within Wildfare’s product lines. The brand’s need was for more shelf appeal – to get shoppers to quickly notice its products on the retail shelf while also differentiating from its competitors. Most converters I know have strong opinions about what gives packaging its shelf appeal, whether it’s a finish, a specialty effect, a format or something else. Here is an entry point for converters to add value by sharing their opinion and experience.

    We need to create a ‘wow’ moment during our unboxing experience.
    This is typically requested by a brand that sells primarily online. Unboxing experiences are valuable because so many people post videos on social media as they open their purchases, potentially reaching a vast audience. Did you know that one of the most popular ways that people shop today is by researching unboxing videos online?

    In fact, 62 percent of people watching unboxing videos intend to make a purchase. For those of you with experience in corrugated packaging, you may have ideas about how to improve a brand’s unboxing experience. Another opportunity to bring value.

    We need to show our customers we care about the environment.
    Many of you may have customers who are trying to reduce their carbon footprint or make their packaging more sustainable and recyclable. This is an area where not only converters but also suppliers and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) can educate brand managers, packaging designers, production managers and procurement managers about new innovative materials and processes that meet the brand’s sustainability goals and initiatives.

    “If product packaging begins to look alike, the category becomes a sea of sameness. A converter with deep knowledge of a category is a valuable resource for a team”

    Research leads the way

    After the need is defined and the creative brief is approved and the paperwork is signed, the first step for brand managers and designers is research.

    Creative professionals need to understand the ins and outs of the category. It’s not surprising that it’s very different to design packaging for a luxury cosmetic brand that sells directto-consumer than it is to create a craft brew label that’s sold in grocery stores. If a converter specializes in a particular niche market, their knowledge and experience within that category are valuable to the creative team.

    Understanding the category also entails researching the brand’s competitors so that the packaging design is differentiated from the other brands adjacent to it on the shelf or even online. Brands have very little time to attract a consumer’s attention – research shows it’s about eight seconds – so the design, graphics, format, shape and textures need to entice shoppers fast so they will pick it up, learn more and put it in their cart.

    The minimalist packaging trend that began 10 years ago was effective for the first two to three brands in a category, but after that, minimalist packaging grew bland, and customers have had trouble differentiating brands on the shelf. If product packaging begins to look alike, the category becomes a sea of sameness. Again, a converter with deep knowledge of a category is a valuable resource for a team.

    Creative professionals also need to understand the brand’s audience – their demographic, geographic and ethnographic data. Who are the brand’s customers? How old are they? What do they have in common? What do they believe in? Are they pet owners? What shows do they stream? The list goes on and on, but it helps to identify specific existing and potential customers.

    Recently, I worked with a client on a new concept for a convenience store. One of the primary audiences we identified were parents who like to walk their children to school, along with kids who are 10 to 16 years old who would walk or ride their bikes to the store after school.

    Sharing your deep knowledge and experience within a category or with an audience does not have a direct ROI to your selling situation, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable. In fact, it definitely adds to your ‘ROR’ – Return on Relationship. Advice and education build trust with your clients and prospects.

    Gathering inspiration

    The next step is for the creative team to collect inspiration and assemble a mood or style board. During this phase, creative professionals gather ideas for imagery, typography, color palettes, layouts, call-outs, finishing techniques, textures and formats. The inspiration on a board may not solely be related to that brand or category, and that’s a good thing. Instead, creative teams should assemble a board with pieces that spark creative exploration.

    Suppliers and OEMs have historically created pieces that inspire and reveal possibilities. For example, Sappi, a global supplier of renewable and recyclable packaging, specialty and graphic papers, has developed a series of educational books called The Standard, which focuses on various printing techniques to achieve optimum print and packaging. The series includes books on color, varnishes, folds and specialty effects. Sappi’s latest book in the series —Standard 7— is about the importance and impact of sensory marketing on packaging for people’s perception of a brand. Each book in the series, full of inspiring imagery, bright colors, unusual special effects and various haptic elements, is a treasure trove of inspiration and a tool for converters to use with their clients – the brand managers and creative teams.

    The value for the OEM and converter comes once the team prototypes and manufactures packaging, then chooses that converter and specifies the supplier whose imagery and inspiration were on the idea board.

    From vision to reality – it’s time to prototype

    After brainstorming ideas and concepting the new or updated design, it’s time for prototyping. According to Mauro Porcini, chief design officer at PepsiCo, prototyping has ‘distinct superpowers.’ Prototypes align stakeholders around an approved idea by creating a tangible piece for everyone to see, touch and evaluate. The prototype reduces risk, sets expectations and instills confidence.

    While the previous collaboration opportunities I’ve mentioned are consultative, prototyping directly relates to sales and your capabilities as a converter. If you cannot prototype in-house, partner with an external vendor to prototype to your capabilities. Prototyping is the place where your capabilities shine, as you have an open invitation to suggest various specialty effects, varnishes, spot UVs, tactile finishes, metallic inks, foil stamps – any of the techniques that you know will advance the goals of that brand for more shelf appeal, a memorable unboxing experience, and/or a more sustainable packaging solution.

    As prototypes are approved, the next steps are those that converters are very familiar with – the RFPs, quotes, prepping files and production. In Peek’s post, he suggested that one way to add value to a commoditized process is through optimization, which is another opportunity for collaboration. For example, converters impose labels on a roll to reduce or eliminate the most waste. If my label can be shortened by a half inch and I can get more across the roll, that’s valuable information that ripples across departments – design, procurement and finance, for example.

    Recently, when I was designing pouches for a specialty food company, we had designed the pouch to be 7.25in tall. When talking to the converter, they told us that reducing the pouch to 5in would allow them to impose more pouches on the roll and cut our costs by more than 25 percent. However, in this brand’s case, they needed more shelf appeal; they decided that making the pouch smaller would sacrifice some of the shelf presence, so we kept the pouch the same size. However, the suggestion to optimize the size made the converter a more valuable partner in our packaging solutions.

    Launching production and bringing the product to market

    Most large brands have production managers who prep files, work with the pre-press teams and supervise production. However, the advent of many new brands over the past two decades has created a production environment where a production manager may not be part of the team. Instead, a new brand frequently launches quickly – a product, an e-commerce website, social media pages and videos. Often, the designer overseeing digital media is also designing packaging. Files may arrive in RGB with flattened layers without bleed. The final opportunity to collaborate in the process is to coach these designers. Ensure they know what is expected of their files and share best practices. When on-press, teach them the difference between high-quality and bad-quality printing, the acceptable delta variations, and the benefits of metallic ink or foil stamping. Designers unfamiliar with production will remember connecting with you and the time you took to mentor them. Not only will the designer thank you, but your pre-press team will, too.

    Experience, knowledge and trust combats commoditization

    It is said that people do business with people they know, like and trust. Being a resource for education and inspiration builds trust. Collaborating with brand managers and creative teams throughout their process builds rapport. Sharing your experience and advice primes your prospects so that when they are ready with a need, you are the first resource they contact. That strategy is not a commodity; it cannot be replicated with AI. It is a value-add that fosters trust, partnership and long-term client relationships.