The Wrap Race

The packaging market is on the up and clients are commissioning big jobs again, but old suspicions towards designers die hard. Jane Lewis finds out what clients want from design and how relations can be improved

The market

Recent estimates suggest that revenue earned for packaging design by the UK’s top 25 design groups is more than 70m, and that’s a conservative estimate. The market, it seems, has officially picked up and clients are no longer merely looking for tweaks. They want serious new thinking as brand wars hot up and copycatting becomes more of a threat.

For many designers specialising in brands and packaging the challenge is getting on to the growing number of client rosters. “Rosters are still on the ascent and are infinitely more common than in any other area of design,” comments Richard Watson, director at client advisory consultancy EDR. He attributes this to clients acknowledging the benefits of working with half a dozen consultancies which understand the brand and get it right first time. Rosters also foster long-term relationships which clients and designers have long been striving to achieve.

As the market has improved, so it has started to diversify to accommodate clients demanding branded packaging versus own-brand and national packaging versus pan-European or global packs. Watson points out that own-brand is seen as the “main enemy and both camps seem to be polarising, with consultancies specialising in different things”.

Expertise in structural packaging is more widely demanded, but, according to Watson, there are still only a few consultancies which truly offer the service. Nonetheless, it is seen as an important skill for enhancing brand values and adding shelf impact. As Mike Branson, managing partner at Pearlfisher, comments: “Sometimes structural design is seen as a key driver on a project. It may not be a major trend but for us it’s starting to happen.” The consultancy now recruits designers who are “structurally and graphically adept”, and like several other groups, integrates the structural offer rather than separating it into another division.

Geographically, says Watson, the capital is no longer the centre for packaging consultants: “It’s not true that all the good people are in

London any more.” Well established groups can be found in most major cities and clients often deal with consultancies in different locations. Pauline Lamont-Fischer, design manager at IBM in Greenock, commissions groups as far afield as Japan and the US as well as local designers.

According to Watson: “The market is more buoyant than it’s been for the past five years. The number of design agencies has exploded, and clients are using a number of smaller outfits that nobody has heard of.” However, he believes clients still aren’t treating brand design as seriously as they should. “When it comes down to it, it’s whoever is around the corner and who is cheap.”

What clients want

Clients vary as much as the projects, but overwhelmingly they want an understanding of the brand and brief, and, more importantly, integrity. Putting rosters in place has helped forge a shorthand between consultants and clients.

“We have five consultancies on our roster, which is reviewed annually,” states © Chris Nutland, marketing services buyer at Bass. “Rosters stop you going through the dreaded learning curve. There’s nothing worse than someone coming in with a delightful portfolio who knows nothing about the beer market.” Nutland’s criteria for getting on to the list include strategic thinking, creativity, an understanding of technology and its applications, an account team and enthusiasm.

Peter Wilkinson, creative department head at Cussons UK, has 15 teams on the roster, varying from large design groups to small consultancies. “We like a broad mix so we can match consultancies to the brief and look for creativity and design excellence,” he says. Wilkinson adds it’s important that groups have a “good understanding of the brands”, as well as technical knowledge of printing processes. Tim Skellern, brand manager for the healthy options and bakery sectors at Birds Eye Wall’s, is also keen on designers having a practical approach towards printing processes for mass production. “It’s important designers have a creative approach but are also practical. Designs which are fabulous at concept stage but entirely impractical to print are no good.”

Although his department doesn’t operate a formal roster, Skellern admits the designers used tend to be ones he has worked with before or who come highly recommended. His list of requirements include being “competitively priced, able to inspire confidence and trust (that takes time and pressure off you) and delivering on time”. He adds that a good test is asking consultancies whether they are more creative or more executional. Although most say they are both, according to Skellern some do admit to being more one or the other which can be useful, as at times different projects require different approaches.

One client from a soft drinks manufacturer who prefers to remain unnamed, says designers should offer more than just a design package: “We look for an intellect that’s more than just being a designer. We expect them to think strategically and more broadly about the commercial arena. By being part of a cross-functional project team they add value to the whole process so that the end result isn’t just from a design perspective but will work commercially.”

Clients commissioning for own-brand products perhaps have different needs in terms of types of project and level of involvement. As Carol Turner, head of design at Asda, explains: “We like to have a broad depth and breadth to the roster. Creativity is the most important element, but we also like consultancies that can do something very quickly. We’re fast-moving, and we expect fast turnaround and quick decisions.”

Pentagram partner John McConnell, who is design consultant for Boots, is very definite about the sort of designers he looks for to work on Boots packaging. “I spend my life looking for new groups. I tend to pick consultancies that don’t have account handling facilities and I don’t pick people with suits. I try and pick consultancies which are not owned by corporations but are still owned by the practitioners. Consultancies owned by large corporations are usually driven by the need to make money.”

He adds he also looks for designers who are “witty and clever enough to provide what the market wants but give [packaging] the handwriting to support the brand”. “I want people with personality. The key is the relationship,” he concludes.

The prickly issue of copycatting touches a raw nerve with many clients. Turner, however, declares: “We shouldn’t be in the realms of copycatting. We should be confident about our own products and pack designs should represent that.” According to McConnell, copycatting is a “bankrupt notion”, which can lead to own-label products being perceived as “poor me-too”. While retailers claim they are moving away from the rip-off scenario towards packs which reflect their own corporate values, the recent litigation between superstores and manufacturers is too close to home for some clients.

According to Nutland: “If anyone’s working on own-brand they wouldn’t be in the top 25 consultancies as far as we’re concerned.” Other clients acknowledge their designers may also do own-brand work, but on the understanding that it wouldn’t be in the same product areas.

Clients commissioning for global brands will seek an international perspective. IBM’s Pauline

Lamont-Fischer states that a multilingual approach is important for pan-European or global packs, and that “each country needs to be given equal weighting”. She adds: “We don’t tend to be tarred by geography so we might be using someone in Japan or the US.” At Cussons, there is “more call for pan-European designs, and knowing different languages is important”, states Wilkinson. But the demand for expertise in global brands has not grown as fast as predicted in the early Nineties. More projects are coming through, though some would argue that the market for true global brands is a limited one.

Room for improvement

“Most design groups are unscrupulous buggers who court opportunities with other clients in the same market place,” suggests Nutland. He cites an example of a group who were about to go on the Bass roster when it came to Nutland’s attention that they were working for a rival. The account team denied it, but the managing director admitted it was true and they never made it on to the roster. He therefore would like to see more integrity among designers, and believes they oversell themselves by claiming to be experts in technical issues from art work to packaging technology when they aren’t.

Skellern would like to see more all-round knowledge of printing processes for mass production and isn’t convinced about designers getting involved in marketing issues: “They try to get too involved in the strategic side of things so you can end up having a jack of all trades and master of none.” McConnell goes further to dismiss account handling activities and says designers he chooses “are single-shop people who do design. I get concerned where account handlers and administrators are taking over.”

For Turner, her major gripe is that designers should be more aware of Asda’s business and requirements. “I’d like to see them getting the right answers more quickly and being more proactive about projects. It should be more of a team effort. We work with our consultancies, they don’t work for us and we think they should have that vision as well.”

According to Wilkinson, designers can be a bit “lax” about their admin, but what really riles him is when jobs go over budget without him being forewarned. “If we ask for another ten mock-ups we’d rather know what the costs will be than be sent a big invoice two months later.”

On the creative side, Lamont-Fischer feels more could be done to exploit opportunities to make pan-European cartons look better. “There’s a lot of opportunity for creative designs. A lot of our products are sold in different countries and there needs to be imaginative ways of handling that,” she says.

“Designers can always get better,” declares Nutland. “They are sometimes reluctant to show you things they have rejected; the first stage thinking. We’ve paid for it, if we want to knock it out, we’ll knock it out.”


“Ten years ago design groups were getting greedy, they used to put a couple of noughts on it. Now it’s become more realistic, and they can’t pull the wool over my eyes because I’m a designer by training,” states Wilkinson. But Pearlfisher managing partner Mike Branson claims: “Fees are still under pressure. For

certain projects, like the multinational ones, we are seeing fees at the right levels and people are placing the right kind of value on design. There’s still a task to increase fees to the level they were and we still haven’t achieved the same perception as advertising. We’re taking on more strategic planning but it’s still undervalued.”

Future trends

Rosters look set to become more widespread among clients. Widely used by own-brand clients for some time, rosters are becoming more commonplace.

However, some designers have misgivings about their blanket-use. Branson says he gets concerned if they have been put together based on price purchase and adds: “Rosters can be a bit of a smoke screen for clients to hide behind because they don’t want to talk to people.” Sam Blass, planning director at FLB, agrees there can be a downside to rosters and says designer/client relationships only grow stronger if “complacency doesn’t set in”.

Fears about copycatting will lead to greater need for brand protection and many clients may be reluctant to use designers working on own- brand. Several groups have already decided to stick to branded packaging and avoid the supermarkets, which adds weight to Richard

Watson’s theory that the market is diversifying into those who do and those who don’t. The latter seem to be tapping into the limited but growing market for pan-European or global packs.

Meanwhile, Elmwood designer Andrew Lawrence predicts own-brand is moving “back to really simple old, honest values” and suggests brands may follow suit.

Taking artwork away from design groups is likely to continue, although Jones Knowles Ritchie partner Andy Knowles claims clients don’t save much money by doing it and the end- product suffers for it. “Designers are more concerned about quality control.”

With advances in new technology, location will become even less relevant, and Knowles predicts it won’t be long before his consultancy presents work on-screen. “ISDN has become an everyday thing, we’re always getting e-mail and neither us or our clients can afford to spend three hours sitting in traffic on a motorway. Eventually computers and ISDN links will be handling up to a quarter of all meetings. It’s nothing to be frightened of. Who would want to go back to the days before fax machines and mobile phones?”

Although much progress has been made in the client/designer relationship, Richard Watson questions whether clients are aware just how much they are spending on design or if they yet fully appreciate the type of consultancy they are commissioning.

John McConnell, speaking from the designer’s perspective, comments: “Most people buying design see the design process as a confrontation. The gain would be immense if they understood it’s a partnership issue and not a supplier issue.”

Environmental issues

Being Green was in vogue not so long ago. Now environmental issues are no longer top of the list for consumers or clients. But that’s not to say packaging designers should be complacent about it – if anything they should be brushing up on the latest regulations on packaging and waste which were passed by Parliament in March in response to an EC directive.

Clients may not be demanding solutions from designers, but they certainly expect consultancies to be aware of the issues. It is hard to believe the UK produces eight million tonnes of packaging waste per year. Now the Government has passed regulations requiring companies involved in the packaging chain to take some responsibility for their products and has laid down targets to recover and recycle packaging waste.

“Packaging designers will be under pressure to reduce the amount of packaging, and should be aware of the cost implications for recovering and recycling materials,” states John Devereux, communications director of Incpen, the membership group representing companies in the packaging chain.

“There are a lot of myths around and people think it’s all about saving trees. It’s not, it’s about saving resources. Designers have to be aware of the issues and try to be responsible for what they use,” comments Cathy Lauzon, packaging technology director at Lewis Moberly.

The Body Shop has long had its 3Rs policy in place – reduce, re-use and recycle – and is taking the lead in a group of retailers interested in phasing out the use of PVC in retail packaging. Sam Towle, head of environmental audit at The Body Shop claims the new regulations will mean “a whole new recycling market will have to be created. Something has to happen with the materials that are recovered and recycled and end-uses have to be sought.”

Chris Nutland, marketing services buyer at Bass, says although designers aren’t in a position to ,influence decisions concerning environmental issues, they “should be aware of them”. But he believes the new regulations are a “tad more complex than people would have you believe”.

Tim Kellern, a brand manager at Birds Eye Wall’s, states that,in view of the regulations: “Environmental issues are important and are becoming more so.”

Further information is available from the Environment Agency, telephone 0645 333111.

Case study: Bacardi Chillstream by Jones Knowles Ritchie

Charlotte Emery, marketing manager at Bacardi Martini, had no qualms about using Jones Knowles Ritchie to help develop an exciting new concept for Bacardi. JKR already had an ongoing relationship with the drinks company, having recently completed a global redesign of the Bacardi brand. But Emery’s brief for this project was a little more unusual. She was looking for a drinks container for Bacardi specifically for use on the dance floor. “We wanted to target the nightclub sector where traditionally spirits aren’t drunk because you can’t take glasses on to the dance floor. We wanted to badge the brand. When you’ve got a glass it doesn’t say anything about you, but when you’ve got a bottle you’re making a statement. Also Bacardi tends to have a female image and we wanted to bring the masculinity back.”

JKR was given quite a specific brief for a drinks container suitable for the dance floor that was masculine and relevant for 18 to 24-year-olds, but had a free rein in how it looked. Emery points out she would expect a graphics consultancy to have the structural expertise to handle this sort of project.

The Chillstream option was an instant hit with Emery. Devised by JKR designer Paul Stebbens, the hand grenade-style cannister was inspired by the shape of bike bottles and features a leakproof plastic cap. The impact-extruded aluminium containers can be recycled up to 20 times (unless they are stolen by clubbers first), claims Stebbens, and are designed to hold Bacardi shots with different mixers and ice cubes. “They are easy to hold in the hand and feel extremely cold,” he adds. It was important to keep the cost of the container within a budget of 25p per item, so an original idea for a flip-up lid was dropped because of the extra tooling costs.

The graphics have a club feel and were created by JKR designer and “club maniac” Glen Kiernan, while Bacardi’s icon bat device features prominently on the front of the mixer cans.

“It was very much a team effort,” states Emery. “It’s important an agency has enough resources to be able to run a project like this to time. It had to be right first time and JKR was on the case and worked closely with our purchasing department.” The consultancy has also designed a large container-shaped dispenser for Chillstream.

Launched this spring, Chillstream is already a hit with clubbers. Initial figures show an increase of 232 per cent for Bacardi sales in the nightclubs and bars where it is available, according to Emery. “It was fascinating to take a brand with a sound Cuban tradition and position it in a completely new sector through structural change and a modern treatment,” states JKR creative director Ian Ritchie.

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