Express Yourself

Connect with your consumer, communicate your essence

By Jennifer Acevedo,
Ask Donna Sturgess how she views the relationship between the package and the brand, and her reply is as articulate as it is engaging. “Packaging has to be an expression of the brand. I think sometimes people get confused that it needs to be loud or attention seeking, but to me that’s temporary,” she says. “The consumer will only glance over and be fooled once. Packaging is all about whether or not you’re expressing what your brand has to sell.”
Sturgess has spent much of her career developing that philosophy in a steady rise through the ranks at GlaxoSmithKline. Her broad range of commercial experience includes time spent running GSK’s Oral Care business (where Aquafresh resides as a number three brand to Crest and Colgate) as well as the GI business (a hotly competitive market that includes GSK brand Tums). This path has given her a unique perspective that she brings to her current role as GSK’s vice president of innovation, a title that includes responsibility for strategic planning and advocacy for the consumer experience.
“You have to be in touch with your consumers because you’re trying to bring higher definition to your brand. Connectivity with the consumer is where this whole business begins and ends,” she says. “You are either good at understanding your consumer, or you’re too far back to be able to feel the changes in consumer attitudes.”
Sturgess shares the story of one project in the Oral Care unit that clearly illustrates the importance of not only listening to consumers, but also observing how they interact with both the product and the package. While small in its change to the physical package—a flat ribbon dispensing nozzle was incorporated into a tube package for denture cream Poligrip—the project proved significant in changing consumers’ in-use experience with the brand.
“I think this is a remarkable little invention. Thanks to the square shape of the nozzle, the product is dispensed in a flat ribbon so that when you apply that to a denture, it reduces the ‘ooze’ that people feel when they’re putting adhesive onto their dentures and into their mouth,” Sturgess explains.
“A consumer might sit in our offices and say, ‘Well, that’s a nice feature, but it’s not critical.’ But if you watch someone in their home actually try and apply an adhesive to their dentures, you suddenly become quite aware of their limitations and what type of product enhancements you can offer to help them,” she says.
And Sturgess’ point about the consumer’s in-home experience cannot be overstated. For packaging to truly succeed, she says, it must do much more than catch the consumer’s eye on a crowded shelf. Exposure in-store is merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
“Take into consideration the fact that your consumer has to take this package home and have a positive enough experience with it to repeat. More and more we are trying to create experiences with our brands. Otherwise, everything you’re selling is one at a time, and you’re not going to build a business that way,” she says.
Sturgess points to another GSK Oral Care project, the introduction of Aquafresh Extreme Clean, as case in point. When her team initially designed Extreme Clean, it was decided that the sub-brand would stand for “clean.” On shelf, its packaging communicates this proposition. A rigid plastic outer carton allows ambient light to penetrate its translucent material and radiate a blue glow that communicates a crisp, clean feeling. Inside a sleek, metallized tube completes the striking visual effect. But Sturgess points to the “sensory” experience of the package at home—the satisfying click of the cap closing, the feel of the cool, aluminum tube in the consumer’s hand, the way the package looks on a bathroom countertop—as equally critical.
So what is GSK’s secret to ensuring that its packaging is solidly integrated into the definition of the brand? It’s simple, really: make sure that packaging has a seat at the table as early as possible, ideally at the ideation stage.
“The great paradox here is for people to try and accomplish remarkable innovation in the time-frame they are given. The biggest handicap that we have around packaging is speed to market,” says Sturgess. “At GSK, we work very hard to bring packaging as far forward and keep that as seamless as possible. Time is certainly our biggest challenge, and there-in lies the conundrum in packaging. Invite me early, and you’ll have more options. Invite me late, and I can’t help you.” BP
Name: Donna Sturgess
Age: 50
Title: Vice President Innovation, GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare
Years in current job:Three
Where or when do your best ideas come to you? 
“Ideas come from letting my subconscious brain loose to connect to opportunities or contemplate problems—connections can come from anywhere!”
What do you consider the ultimate branded package?
“The ultimate brand package for me is the one that best communicates the idea contained within. There are examples in many categories, but a new product I like is the wine for women Little Black Dress by Brown-Forman ( The package speaks to its target customer, and the language and graphics are insightful and unique to the wine business.”