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In common with much of the packaging industry, creative challenges faced by design studios have been more of the balance sheet rather than the drawing board variety. Des King discusses the practical realities

Like so many others in the packaging industry, the driving forces behind PI3 Innovation graduated from the Metal Box academy of excellence.

Since its inception in 1984, this largely structural design led consultancy has picked up 16 Starpacks and 8 Worldstars, and sports a client list made up of some of the world’s best-known brand-owners: Allied Domecq, Proctor & Gamble, Nestlé, Unilever Bestfoods and GSK.

This year might probably not rank as PI’s best ever – the Brussels office was strategically closed down – but unlike so many of its competitors, the chill winds of retrenchment have not been blowing at HQ.

The designs might be highly innovative – the Windolene trigger spray-head and, of course, Guinness draught in a bottle – but the philosophy is disarmingly simple. “People often only notice packaging when it goes wrong,” says structural design director Steve Kelsey. “If packaging works really well, then all the values are ascribed to the brand. And that’s exactly as it should be. Packaging is doing its job and so it never draws attention to itself.”

DK: Who is your focal point within the client organisation?

SK: Primarily, our client-base is made up of multinationals running international brands, and so nine times out of 10 it’s marketing. We very quickly establish links with production, with R&D and with purchasing. These groups all have different motivations and it’s not uncommon for us to be introducing people within the client organisation that haven’t previously worked together or even met before.

DK: What are your clients looking for in the main?

SK: Protecting market share, improving profitability, developing a new market stream – it could be any of these. The successful companies are the ones that basically innovate all the time. They’re constantly attending to the possibility of someone coming along with a better product.

The days are gone when the one in 10 new product development success rate was deemed to be acceptable. Instead of just trying something out they’ll have a pretty good idea of where the gap in the market is.

You have to ask yourself some fundamental questions about the brand first before you enter into any pack redesign. You might need to take it into completely different directions, but you can’t afford to alienate the existing consumer.

Oil of Olay took a big stretch with its new range of facial wipes in extending out of skin-care towards a toiletries positioning. We had to retain enough existing values to hold on to loyal users. If you’d just stuck the Olay badge onto a dispenser for tissues you’d have lost them and devalued the brand at the same time.

DK: So would you say the better designs are more functional than visual?

SK: Within the structural context if it doesn’t improve functionality or deliver new ways to support the brand experience, you’re clearly under-performing.

It’s the complexity that makes people nervous about the structural route. Delivering technical solutions is invariably seen as the preserve of the suppliers. We feel that we have to be able to deliver those solutions ourselves to give the suppliers the best possible opportunity for successfully taking it forward.

If you get the client excited about a new design concept, then you know there’s going to be an end dialogue with a supplier to make it actually happen. If you don’t attend to that gap then you’re gambling.

DK: Isn’t there a perception that structural design costs a lot of money?

SK: You either deliver good value or you’re perceived as being expensive. People talk about design being subjective but it isn’t. It either works [increasing your sales] or it doesn’t.

If you’re charging people money for what you do and, if you’re not attending to whether that’s delivering commercial value for them, you need to be asking yourself some serious questions about your operation.

What can sometimes happen is that the brief is to one side of where the business problem lies. We’ve had situations where there was nothing wrong with the packaging per se. It’s just that the product was being sold in the wrong unit size.

It’s not just about creativity and inventiveness; it’s the commercial nuts and bolts reality of delivering commercial value to your clients.

DK: But aren’t in-house designers more attuned to that commercial reality?

SK: There is a tendency to experiment with in-house design departments again. People use consultancies for a period of time, and then might conclude that, in terms of value for money, they can invest a percentage of that spend employing good quality in-house designers to achieve solutions at a much lower rate.

First-pass analysis might show that that works but pretty soon those guys need the kind of stimulation that you naturally find within a consultancy.

Also there are the inevitable internal pressures that can modify the deliver-ables. It’s very easy for the organisation to say to the internal designer you’re probably right but we can’t afford to do it so can you carry on as normal instead.

DK: How much lead time do you get on a project?

SK: If it’s a new product, we’ll maybe get a full year. If you’re dealing with issues such as significant capital-expenditure, the introduction of completely new packing lines, then you could be looking at 18-24 months.

In the interim, of course, the market can move on. So we’re never designing just for today, but to be acceptable to consumers in two to three years time.

DK: What will be significant in packaging design by then?

SK: Increasing intelligence will become background almost in that people will simply expect more from packs in terms of the jobs that they do.

Also, instead of looking at single pack designs, manufacturers will want to achieve multiple solutions from the same investment so modularity is going to become increasingly important.

This year we’ve received three briefs which imply complete changes to the technology base. What’s happened is that they’ve bought the lowest-cost solution, just as their competitors have, and they’re in a straitjacket.

They can’t always get any further improvements in terms of functionality. Often, the only way they can achieve this is to change the machinery.

DK: And what does the future hold for packaging manufacturers?

SK: Suppliers are shaking down into two groups – those heading for the lowest cost manufacture and those that are adding value. My money is on the ones adding value rather than cutting costs.

Today’s market is global. We recently had a Chinese manufacturer delivering a prototype in the time it took UK and US suppliers to reach a quote.

The quality was absolutely fine. They were very fast, very cheap, and there was no question about them getting the business. It’s a misconception to think of China just having a lot of cheap labour – it’s very bright and intelligent too.