BOXING CLEVER

New product development is re-emerging from the recession. Packaging is an essential element in unveiling a brand and manufacturers are turning to consultancies for expert advice on launches.

SBHD: New product development is re-emerging from the recession. Packaging is an essential element in unveiling a brand and manufacturers are turning to consultancies for expert advice on launches.

There was a time when almost any new product could be packed in a box with the word “new” flashed like a beacon across it and shoved on a shelf, and it would sell.

It was relatively easy for the manufacturers, the packaging designers and the advertising agencies to get at least a decent result from a new product development (npd).

Then came the recession, and many manufacturers cut back on npd, preferring to survive in the present rather than look to an innovative future. Packaging design reflected that mood, “the tweak” became the order of the day.

But over the past 18 months there has been an upsurge in npd activity. Increased budgets and more forward thinking have been welcome. But has anything been learned about npd? Does it still have to be the case that most npd will fail? And how can packaging shorten the odds on success?

The recession, with its years of frusttration for designers keen to innovate, has left some scars. “There are very few really new products out there,” says Jonathan Kirk of packaging specialist Jones Knowles Ritchie.

“Manufacturers have just been playing safe. It’s all been reactive and not proactive,” he adds. Kirk singles out examples such as the ice-cream bars developed from chocolates and sweets such as Mars, and Tetley’s round tea bags as being among the few npd stars during the recession.

“Brand managers have been burdened with day-to-day administration rather than having the luxury to take a step back and think a few years ahead,” he says.

Tom Blackett, deputy chairman of naming consultancy Interbrand, says: “During the recession a lot of packaging designers found it difficult. There was work about but it tended to be rejigging existing packs.”

But it’s echoed throughout design, and with some relief, that npd is picking up. “Npd has been more active in the past 18 months compared with the previous years,” says Blackett. “Companies are now using npd to get back into growth, and they are being bullish about it.”

Blackett identifies packaged goods, including fmcg, as a key area of npd growth: “When that happens, it’s a very good sign for the whole of the marketing services industry.”

Creenagh Lodge, chairman of brand specialist consultancy CLK, says: “The consumer is changing more rapidly. Even though the recession has receded, the consumer has continued changing, which means there are new opportunities emerging.”

Another changing factor in the npd landscape has been the emergence of supermarket own-labels. Supermarkets are using good packaging as a significant weapon against the brands.

Last year’s skirmishes, with the ranks of me-toos and look-alikes, reinforce how important packaging is in both building and protecting market share.

So how has packaging design responded to these changes? It’s no secret that design as an industry has had to do some pretty serious growing-up during the recession.

The result is that more design consultancies offer in-depth strategic and tactical thinking from concept through to production. Another phenomenon is the emergence of more and more specialist consultancies, such as CLK.

There are consultancies to spot market opportunities. There are others to develop your product. There are more to actually name the item in question. Most of them have packaging design experience.

For instance, cigarette manufacturer RJ Reynolds asked CLK to help innovate and generate new product ideas. And this was within the bounds of the cigarette market, itself an increasingly restrictive environment, with little room for real innovation.

Objectives were defined and an idea-generating session was set up. The result was to take the “treat-size” convenience of confectionery, offering “a few high-quality puffs” for those who did not want an entire cigarette, says a CLK spokeswoman. Camel Minis were born.

The practice of using more and varied specialist designers to tackle the various aspects of design as part of marketing services appears to be gaining ground.

New Solutions is another of the specialists. Managing director Simon Avison says: “There is a far higher success rate for companies that use specialists to help them with npd.”

The enthusiasm with which manufacturers rushed to register aspects of packaging following last year’s Trade Marks Act was no surprise to packaging designers such as Jones Knowles Ritchie.

“It’s easier than ever to register the physical aspects of packs,” says Kirk, who reiterates what many designers say – that shape, texture and even smell are going to increase in importance for packaging to adequately build and protect brands.

If design is to deliver, packaging consultancies say they need better budgets and greater belief from manufacturing clients.

Such faith should be shown, says Blackett. “The quality of pack design has improved a lot in the past five years and client companies are rightly focused on packaging design and what it can do.”

In some sectors, packaging itself can take on the mantle of a new development. Watches have traditionally been packaged in boxes that the consumer only saw after the purchase.

Nick Smith is managing director of Sekonda, whose watches for Dr Martens, (itself an example of npd through brand evolution, with its move into clothes and accessories), have used packaging as integral to the proposition.

“Packaging is definitely an opportunity for the watch sector,” says Smith.

Design consultancy Michael Peters Limited was asked by manufacturer Bongrain Italia to name and package a cheese to compete with Bel Paese. Brainstorming led to the name, Torrigiano, and the packaging was designed to repeat the name in a creative way, so even after slicing the brand was identifiable. The T of Torrigiano serves as shorthand for the brand.

Most packaging now goes through research before hitting the deli counter or supermarket shelves. But designers are united in a plea for more rigorously-defined and executed research.

“I’m a believer in research,” says Wickens Tutt Southgate’s Mark Wickens, “which is quite unusual for a designer. Most designers hate research because they think it screws up their pack designs. You can find out an awful lot about certain issues through research with consumers. But I believe in it only if used correctly.”

But where in the npd process should research be used? Wickens says: “If your starting point is to use research, you are going to end up with a boring product. Making it interesting has to be the starting point, and then use all the advanced research methodologies you want,” he adds. “Still mistakes will be made, but you don’t get success without mistakes.”

Research can play its part in npd, but Gaylor suggests that researching and testing npd that is truly innovative is a tough task. “It is so much more diffi-cult to research something that is new, where no similarities can be drawn with existing products. You have to be socareful.”

So, after all that, how can npd still fail? Above all, npd fails when the product itself is simply not good enough. Then packaging, however good, will not suffice.

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