An Interview with Jill Ahern, SENIOR DIRECTOR, CONSULTING SERVICES, PACKAGING TECHNOLOGY INTEGRATED SOLUTIONS
Getting a product off the ground is no easy feat. With so many factors for companies to take into account before hitting shelf with their item, even the best brands can get bogged down on the way to market.
BRANDPACKAGING interviews Jill Ahern, senior director, consulting services, Packaging Technology Integrated Solutions, about steps teams can take to make product launches or reintroductions to market a success.
BRANDPACKAGING (BP): Let’s start with the basics of bringing a product to or back to market. Is there a semi-consistent recipe or, at the very least, points all brands should consider? What should the cycle to market look like?
Jill Ahern (JA): While it would be difficult to say there is a recipe across products and categories, there are some common packaging elements that must be considered any time a product is being introduced or reintroduced to market. We often refer to the package feel, form and function. Often times the feel and function are glossed over in an attempt to rush a product to market, or they are inadvertently diminished through decisions made for cost, manufacturing or supply requirements. While the cycle is crucial from a business perspective, if the looming launch date forces major compromises to the product value, the results can be diminished and disappointing.
BP: What kind of research could and should be done, from the moment a product idea is formed to the day it hits the shelf and after?
JA: In the world of fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG), research at both the consumer and retailer level is critical to product development. Most companies do a good job on upfront research that inspires an idea, but continually researching and testing iterations can be a major challenge. Often times, a product is dramatically different at launch than it was at inception, and packaging changes are very common. So while a concept test may be favorable, the packaging often morphs into a version with fewer features, less design impact, and, ultimately, reduced value to consumers. Research throughout the process and at shelf that ensures value is being maintained is crucial to the highly competitive launches in today’s FMCG market.
BP: There are two types of product introductions, evolutionary (latest versions or line extensions) and revolutionary (new to the industry). What are some best practices for each type of launch?
JA: We know from our research with consumers that their impression at shelf is a combination of past experiences and reaction to new stimuli. In the case of new products and line extensions, both sources of consumer attention can be important. Line extensions parlay the trust and positive associations with the core product and brand to a new experience, so packaging for the line extension must carry with it the comfortable and positive associations to the new product. Commonly, this is achieved through graphics, but as many brand owners seek to move successful brands across categories, we know that elements such as color, font, material, shape and imagery can all help support the desired effect — trusted and known but with a twist that interests the consumer.
For revolutionary products, there is a great need for the packaging to instantaneously communicate the value and benefit of the product. Usage cues, often borrowed from the category being entered, can help new products be understood. Consumers must understand how, where and why the product will be used. Brand promise should be clearly communicated through color, graphics and imagery. Consumers will take just a few seconds to make a decision of interest, so packages should communicate without words whenever possible.
BP: How can brands get everyone from R&D to marketing on the same page with the launch/relaunch? In your opinion, what does this accomplish, and why is it important?
JA: The need for involvement of cross-functional teams is almost never higher than at launch or relaunch! There are so many factors to consider, and all of them are valid and necessary. Since packaging touches everything from product development to merchandising, it has the unique power to unify a team if considered early in the development process. While the product development process will inherently focus on certain aspects throughout the cycle, having visibility and collaboration from the outset is key to avoiding delays or re-work that can derail and add expense to any project.
BP: There’s a commonly referenced stat that says 75 percent of new products to market fail. Many times, a lack of consumer education contributes to that percent. How can packaging be used to educate potential buyers about new or reintroduced products?
JA: Our research with consumers yields staggering findings about the willingness to read copy on pack. Phrases with more than four or five words are frequently ignored, as consumers move on to another area of focus. So often, brands clutter the panel with copy, which can actually detract from consumer education. Brands that communicate through alternate means such as emotional connection to images and visual use cues, shapes, colors or even brand marks are much more likely to gain the attention of consumers. Consumers should be interested, informed and intrigued enough from several feet away to pick the product up for a better look. Relying on copy is not a great choice, especially given concerns about language or visual barriers to reading copy on pack.
BP: What are some other packaging errors that frequently happen or good features to include that are easily overlooked?
JA: Often times, clients fail to properly identify packaging equities, either because they do not understand an existing aspect that has value to consumers, or because they believe consumers value something when they do not. Many high visibility packaging errors stem from changes that were not well researched and failed to retain an equity with great brand meaning. But even more frequently, brands tend to protect packaging attributes that should be changed because they incorrectly attribute that consumers value the existing package. Packages that are truly iconic would be the exception, but most packaging should be regularly revisited, researched and evaluated. While consumers may accept a package, looming dissatisfiers over time can leave brands vulnerable to competition.
BP: Everything from the product name to the material chosen for the structure plays into consumer perception. That’s obviously a broad range, but how should brands approach all the choices they face in getting to shelf? What kind of filter can they apply to make sure decisions make sense and will aid in the product’s success?
JA: The brand/package connection is one of the most critical measures of success at shelf, and this realm is the fastest growing area of our practice. Understanding how well the current package aligns with a brand’s essence and then designing against it is so important for delighting consumers. Starting with a strong package design brief is critical, as is constantly challenging decisions against the brand promise. So often, the packaging or procurement teams are not fully engaged with the project team and are not aware that design and material decisions can influence brand impact and success. Material selection, color management and graphics changes all need to work together and be integrated in order for the package to deliver on the brand experience. Finding a way to ensure that the entire team is working against the same brief and that the brand and design teams can maintain connections to package decision making through the launch process are key to a high-performing package that delights consumers and aligns with the brand promise.
BP: If the launch/relaunch doesn’t go as planned, what can brands do to remedy the situation? Consumers aren’t always eager to give products whose packaging failed them a second chance.
JA: Unfortunately, that is all too true. However, there are some things that brands can do to mitigate the impact and make corrections. Interestingly, social media can be both a challenge and solution in packaging failures. Quick and transparent communications have helped many recent failures turn around and, ultimately, find success. In today’s retail climate, it seems that consumers are generally willing to extend latitude to companies that readily acknowledge and remedy errors. There are a number of companies that have recently used social media to communicate in the wake of launch and relaunch issues, with good success.
BP: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
JA: Packaging has tremendous power to make or break a product launch or relaunch. Brands that leverage the power of packaging through thorough planning and precise execution will gain a competitive advantage on shelf and with consumers.