The world is getting smaller, says Howard Wright, creative director of design agency Equator. “Globalization has not just created opportunity for brands and retailers to widen their customer base internationally, it’s also driving consumer demand for a more diverse choice of products that allows them to experience what they’ve seen online, on TV or in their travels from the comfort of their own home.”
As a packaging design agency based in both the U.K. and the United States, Equator has been actively involved in the increasing trend for both brands and retailers to take their products beyond their domestic customer base.
“On the face of it, the transition of packaging design between the U.S. and the U.K. and vice versa should not be too complex,” Wright continues. “After all, we speak the same language and our culinary traditions have many of the same influences. However, as the Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw, famously pointed out, ‘England and America are two countries separated by a common language.’”
The factors that influence attractive, compliant and effective packaging on either side of the pond go much further than the subtle quirks of language that both unites the two countries and highlights their differences.
“Design preferences are very different in the U.S. and the U.K., affecting choice of color palette, font, materials and images,” says Wright. “Moreover, legislation is also very different, with labeling requirements in the U.K. much more closely aligned to Europe and many commonplace U.S. ingredients outlawed in U.K. products.”
These complexities have become an integral part of Equator’s “under one roof” proposition. Not only does that figurative roof encompass the whole design and development process from strategy and concept through to design, photography and print, it also stretches across the ocean to link Equator’s U.K. experts with their counterparts in the U.S. to create an integrated team with both the professional and cultural knowledge to design for market specific brands or transition those brands to address the needs and preference of their transatlantic counterpart.
Integrating The Team
“Any design-based business needs a diverse team to tackle a variety of briefs,” Wright explains, “from traditional, conservative retailers to edgy, new brands. Working internationally gives us a broader spectrum of cultural and professional influences to draw on, enabling us to assign a best-fit team from our knowledge bank and creative talent pool.”
As a result, while Equator’s account handlers are always based in the client’s home country, the design team assigned to a project may be based across more than one of the company’s four offices, and often straddles the Atlantic. For example, Equator’s work for Texan supermarket H-E-B is handled by a team based in Chicago and both Manchester and Nottingham in the U.K.
“This not only brings wider cultural influences into the design mix,” says Wright, “it also gives us more time in the day because we’re working across time zones on a single brief.”
Technology is a critical element in Equator’s ability to deliver a cohesive inter-office approach because, regardless of where its members are based, the team needs to be able to work as though it’s located in the same building. And because the nature of the company’s business is so visual, real-time file sharing is critical.
“Our systems are set up to allow colleagues on opposite sides of the Atlantic to work on visuals simultaneously while discussing amends over the phone or Skype,” Wright explains. “We also have a flexible working policy to enable colleagues in different locations to overlap their working day or coordinate their time in the office with the client’s business hours.”
Research and Immersion
So how does an international packaging agency go about ensuring its team navigates the complex nuances of cultural influences, legislation and retail environments, regardless of where its account handling and creative team is based?
“We invest time in research for every project,” Wright explains, “regardless of whether it’s going to be delivered by a team based in the ‘home’ country, across the Atlantic or a combination of both. Before we begin any project, we always review the range and create an ‘immersion’ document so that the whole team has a full understanding of the product, where it sits within the client’s portfolio and how it relates to competitor products in the same category.”
It’s all part of assessing how the packaging will perform on shelf. Equator also invests time in understanding different retail environments, by both country and region. Wright films walk-throughs of supermarkets around the world to help the creative teams understand the differences between retail environments in different locations.
“Context is vital to a successful packaging strategy, regardless of location,” says Wright. “In both the U.S. and the U.K., the dominant brand sets the color palette and design cues for others to follow because the level of trust in a brand has to be so high before a consumer is willing to break from the norm. That’s why private label cola cans are usually red; they leverage trust in the Coca Cola brand with color synergy.”
Market Differences Exist
However, there are significant differences in the requirements of U.S. and UK markets. While the U.S. food retail market is dominated by brands, Wright points out that the split in Europe is around 50/50 with the private label offering continue to grow.
The two markets are also influenced by different food cultures. “To a U.S. audience, mac and cheese is as American as apple pie and Mexican food is an everyday staple in some U.S. states,” Wright explains. “Meanwhile in the U.K., macaroni is Italian, apple pie is as English as a traditional country cottage and Mexican food is still spicy and exotic.
“Building those cultural axioms into the packaging strategy from the outset is critical to what we do. We combine our market insights and creative approach with a thorough briefing from the client, detailing their product aspirations within the competitive context.”
It’s an approach that has helped Equator to retain major clients on both sides of the Atlantic, including Co-op, ALDI and Nisa in the U.K., and Roundy’s Supermarkets, ALDI U.S., Sam’s Club and SEG in the U.S.
“Our philosophy is that our transatlantic business helps us to identify global trends and apply market specific insights more effectively,” Wright adds, “taking insights from both markets and applying them creatively across an integrated team in everything we do.”