Special Report: Marketers’ Guide to Packaging: Converting the skeptics to believers

To understand the contribution that a well-thought-out, strategically accurate package design can make to the success of a product, one need look no further than the Cantel Amigo.Until the launch of the Amigo last spring, the marketing of cellular phones in...

To understand the contribution that a well-thought-out, strategically accurate package design can make to the success of a product, one need look no further than the Cantel Amigo.

Until the launch of the Amigo last spring, the marketing of cellular phones in Canada had been directed to the business user.

Cellular phones were a ‘destination purchase’ – in other words, they were sold by cellular specialists, and were generally unavailable to a broad consumer audience.


Research in Canada and the u.s. had indicated consumers were looking for ways to enhance their personal safety and use their time more efficiently, findings which suggested the consumer market would be the next big area of growth for cellular service.

But, there was a problem. The average consumer was not buying.

Paul McAleese, director of consumer marketing at Rogers Cantel, the Toronto-based marketer of the Amigo, says ‘one of the interesting things about cellular, is that if it were free, and the use was free, probably everyone would have one.


‘So, what was it that had not moved them off the couch?’ McAleese says. ‘What had been the barrier to entry in the consumer market?

‘In many cases, it was simply the fact that the product was not readily available to them,’ he says.

The solution, therefore, was to merchandise, or package, what was essentially a monthly service as if it were a consumer electronics product.

‘We had to make the purchase effortless for the consumer,’ McAleese says. ‘And, we had to make stocking the product retail-accessible.’

‘The notion became, if you will, cellular in a box,’ he says.

It was at this point that Cantel brought in Toronto-based package design firm Spencer Francey Peters to create a package that would appeal to consumers and retailers.

‘That was important because we were going to retailers like Eaton’s and The Bay, that had never sold cellular before, and we really had to demonstrate that this was going to have shelf appeal,’ McAleese says.

He says the resulting design, which uses whimsical characters to illustrate various uses of the product, strips away the ‘fear factor’ resident in the cellular category by staying away from technological imagery.

Says McAleese: ‘In the environment in which it appears, which is often in the consumer electronics bullpens in the Eaton’s and Bays of the world, or in the more traditional consumer electronics retailers, like Radio Shack and Canadian Tire, the package is sufficiently different that it breaks through the clutter of that high tech environment.

‘We have gone away from high-tech, low-touch, to low-tech, high-touch,’ he says.

Of Spencer Francey Peters’ contribution to the thinking behind the launch of the Amigo – the most successful product launch in Cantel’s history – McAleese says it was ‘enormous.’

He says the design firm even came up with the product name.

While there is little doubt that strategically driven package designs, such as the one for the Cantel Amigo, can contribute to the success of a product, it is only recently that marketers have begun to take that contribution more seriously.

For years, package designers have complained that marketers thought of them more as ‘box decorators,’ in the words of Jean-Pierre Lacroix, president of Toronto-based design firm Shikatani Lacroix, than as true partners in the marketing process.

And, to some extent, they still do.

Thomas Pigeon, president of The Thomas Pigeon Design Group, a Toronto-based package design firm, divides the world of clients into two distinct camps: skeptics and believers.

‘Skeptics are, typically, people who have never seen the results of strategic package design,’ Pigeon says.

‘Believers, at the other end of the continuum, are people who have experienced the upside dynamics of well strategized and highly creative package design,’ he says.

‘They have seen it make a difference in their business.

Commit resources

‘So, they commit the money, and the time, and the human resources necessary to ensure it is successful,’ Pigeon says.

According to Pigeon, there are a couple of reasons package designers continue to be thought of as box decorators.

The first is that too many brand identity and package design decisions are driven from the bottom rungs of the client’s corporate ladder.

‘Assistant product managers continue to be given the onerous task of redefining a brand’s future, its epidermis,’ Pigeon says.

Not a reasonable burden

‘I don’t think it’s a reasonable burden to put on these young guys and girls, the day after they have graduated from their mba class,’ he says.

‘Frankly, they are not playing around with the package design, they are mucking around with the brand identity, the brand equity, the corporate jewels and assets of the company.’

Given a choice between attending a meeting to discuss a $2.5-million television advertising campaign or a $100,000 package redesign, Pigeon says presidents and chief executive officers would be wise to choose the latter.

‘Let me not sound too arrogant in this discussion – everybody has pressure on short-term quarterly objectives,’ he says. ‘So, naturally, that’s the way clients are thinking.

‘Profit. Loss. This month. This quarter.

‘But, the big issue is that a lot of big brands have been hurt over the past couple of years, and I tend to think they need to have more senior level involvement in brand equity decisions – and the most obvious manifestation of brand equity is brand identity, through the package.’

Pigeon says the second reason package designers have not been accorded the respect usually granted their advertising agency colleagues is because they have fallen into the same trap as many of their clients – selling on the basis of price, rather than their ability to deliver.

‘In very simple terms, the package design industry as a whole – and I would exclude ourselves and a few other players from this statement – has done very much what branded marketers have done; they have used price as the principal driver in why you should use me,’ he says.

‘They have said, `If I am less expensive, I will get the job.’ And that’s dangerous, because what that says to our clients is a commodity message, and that’s not what we are.’

Allan Driedger, vice-president of Flight Path Design, a Mississauga, Ont.-based firm, frames the issue this way:

‘What our industry is still struggling with is placing a value on our ideas, not just the number of hours we spend on the computer, inputting those ideas.’

Ideally, what Pigeon, Driedger and others would like to see is a relationship similar to that which a client has with its advertising agency.

That is to say, one in which the package design firm is part of a team thinking on that client’s behalf, as opposed to a relationship in which the designer is asked to submit speculative bids on a project-by-project basis and compensated on the basis of ‘layouts by the pound.’

Pigeon says ‘our belief is that, if we become part of the team, and think on behalf of your brand, in some cases, the package design may become a coincidental activity.

‘We accept that our principal talent is package design. But, if we shouldn’t be altering a very successful brand identity, I don’t think, as an industry, we should be penalized for that.

‘If we come to you and make a recommendation that we should move very conservatively with this brand identity, versus `Trash all the equity, let’s do some pretty pictures because we get paid more to do that,’ that would be irresponsible.’

Fortunately, say a number of designers, there is evidence that the balance is tipping, albeit gradually, toward ‘the believers.’

Molson Breweries, for example, put a stop to the practice of speculative bidding several years ago, in favor of longer-term relationships with a half-dozen key suppliers, according to Gene Lewis, the brewery’s vice-president of business development.

‘Rather than have them go away and develop a package, meanwhile, we’ll go over here and design an advertising campaign, what we said was, `What we are really doing is designing a communication program, one element of which is going to be advertising, one element of which is going to be package design,’ says Lewis.

‘ `So, we should have the communication agencies working together.’ ‘

At packaged goods giant Procter & Gamble, the company has put in place a process called Accelerated Packaging Artwork, or apa, that allows it to spend more time discussing strategic considerations with its design firms by reducing the time it takes to execute a packaging project, from the point at which the concept is finalized, by about 40%.

Craig Stevenson, apa sector owner, says the system, which has been up and running since May, radically reduces the number of changes necessary during the executional stage by requiring the design firm, film separator, engraver and printer to meet and agree on a process for producing the end package.

By implementing the apa process, ‘there is more time for information gathering, there is more emphasis on thinking ahead, getting involved early, and having more time to ask questions before even putting pen to paper,’ says Carolyn Jones, manager of p&g’s package design department.

‘We feel that the decision-making part, or the problem solving part of [package design], is an important part of the process that we are putting more emphasis on,’ Jones says.

As an example, Jones says the design for Ultra Tide, a laundry detergent that promises to keep cotton clothes looking newer longer, came about in brainstorming sessions between the product development people, the brand people and design firm Shikatani Lacroix.

The challenge, says Jones, was to come up with something powerful enough to signal the significant change made to the formula.

‘We had a lot of discussion upfront. We had a lot of brainstorming sessions with the full team, including the people who actually designed and made the product themselves, so they could really communicate to the designers exactly what the difference was.

‘We even had the designers using the product themselves, so they could see the benefit.’

Jones says the end design, which sports a photograph comparing cotton socks washed 30 times in original and Ultra Tide, speaks to the spirit of partnership.

‘You get superior results when you have all of the expertise working collaboratively,’ she says.

Fraser McCarthy, chairman of Strategies International, a Toronto-based package design firm, agrees the relationship between package designers and clients has become a closer, more collaborative one over the past few years.

‘We used to be called in once all the decisions had already been made,’ McCarthy says.

‘The product would be sitting there naked, and somebody would say, `I like blue,’ ‘ he says.

‘Now, we are called in at the time when the product concept is being developed and researched.

‘And, our firm is part of the team that has input into the product’s basic image, before anything like a package is even considered.’

Jim Dollery, president of Toronto-based Dollery Rudman Design Associates and the designer behind Molson Breweries’ Red Dog brand, says the relationship between clients and designers is slowly, but surely, approaching that of a ‘packaging agency-of-record.

‘That’s where it’s heading,’ Dollery says.

‘We are involved with new product work, right from the beginning,’ he says. ‘We are helping to set research on packaging strategy, and working through the budgets with them.

As well, Dollery says, design firms with a grasp of the strategic issues facing a brand are now being asked to bid on a client’s business for the whole year.

Will Novosedlik, a principal at Toronto-based Russell Design, says there are numerous reasons marketers are beginning to pay more attention to package design, chief among them the rise of private label products.

As well, he says, fragmentation of traditional mass media has made the package that much more important as a communications vehicle.

‘Ten years ago, advertising went a lot farther,’ Novosedlik says.

‘Now, with so many cable [tv] channels, and with the media universe expanding so much, it’s much more expensive, and much more difficult to commit media dollars to advertising,’ he says.

‘The package has had to become a form of advertising. The package, in effect, becomes a mass media buy.’

Just as marketers are placing more emphasis on packaging, says Novosedlik, they are also expecting more of package designers.

‘Ten years ago, package designers said `Yeah, we’re just executioners,’ Well, that’s all they had to be,’ says Novosedlik.

‘You had a kit bag full of visual devices and icons, and you just used them over and over again,’ he says.

‘Whereas now, clients are asking package designers to play a more significant role. Because they understand the battle has to be fought on the shelf, not necessarily on tv, or in print ads, but on the shelf.

‘We can’t just go in there and give them a nice-looking design – that’s entry level.

‘We have to understand who our market is, what their concerns are, what kind of lifestyle they have, and we’ve got to understand how to position products for our clients, not only against the needs and desires of their consumers, but against the competition.’

Novosedlik points to a redesign his company did for Smiles ‘n Chuckles Jelly Tots.

‘We went through the process of examining what kids are looking for today, what kinds of stimuli appeal to them, what their interests are, what sorts of activities – sports, fashion, tv shows – they are interested in, before we began the process of renovating this package,’ he says.

Novosedlik credits Nestle with allowing his firm to work through that process, and says the end design was a direct result of having established a long-term relationship based on trust and mutual understanding.

McCarthy says the benefits of such a client/designer relationship flow from an ease of communication.

‘The very first assignment that any consultant does for any client is the riskiest and most dangerous, because neither party knows the other,’ he says.

‘They may think they are being perfectly clear, you may think you understand them perfectly clearly, but the communication may not be there.

‘As time goes by, not only do you understand what people intend to say, even if they don’t express themselves very clearly, but you also develop a knowledge of the way a company works, and that allows you to understand, on an intuitive level, whether or not what you are being asked to do is likely to succeed.’

Chris Plewes, president of Toronto-based Plewes Bertouche Design Group, says a long-term relationship not only allows the design firm to understand a company’s posture in the marketplace – whether it is aggressive or conservative, for example – but can provide the brand with some sort of continuity, in the event the brand manager moves on.

‘On certain brands, we are more knowledgeable than the brand manager, when he’s only been there three months, and when he’s the third new brand manager they have had in two years,’ says Plewes.

While it depends on the category, Driedger says a consistent approach across different brands can sometimes be beneficial.

He points to pet food manufacturer Ralston Purina, for which his company recommended treating the red-and-white checkerboard, a Purina symbol since the 1900s, consistently across both Dog Chow and Cat Chow brands.

‘These are design firm suggestions that you don’t necessarily get when you are working with many firms on a project-by-project basis,’ Driedger says.

Along with ease of communication and consistency of approach, a deeper understanding of the business is a good reason to establish a longer-term relationship, Lewis says.

‘The biggest advantage [of a long-term relationship] comes back to an understanding of the business,’ he says. ‘You don’t lose that time in having them come up to speed in what is going on in your business.

‘They are also more able and willing to provide you some insights as to where there may be some opportunities that you might be overlooking. That is why I am personally not a fan of speculative bidding.

‘We have actually had our package design agencies come to us unprompted and say, `Here are some ideas.’

‘You don’t get that kind of trust relationship when you are in a competitive bidding situation.’

Dollery puts it this way:

‘It’s like dating. You’re not going to expose yourself right off. You’re not going to give all your secrets away. It’s really the same thing, in a lot of ways.’