SEMA News—June 2011

What’s in the Box?

Creating a Total Package That Sells Both Brand and Product

By Michael Imlay

   Packaging has evolved significantly over the past four to five decades
Packaging is about more than protecting a product during shipping, handling and storage. It’s an extension of the product itself. When properly executed, good packaging reduces costs while branding and promoting the company and the product to consumers. Ultimately, it’s all about promise and performance to the buyer.

Packaging has evolved significantly over the past four to five decades. According to Diana Twede, Ph.D., a professor at the Michigan State University School of Packaging, one of the greatest contemporary trends can be summed up in a single word: Plastics.

“Wasn’t Dustin Hoffman’s The Graduate about that long ago?” quipped Dr. Twede rhetorically. “His dad was right. We’re seeing many more plastic shipping containers now, too, especially in the automotive OEM market. Trends in better supply-chain management make reusable plastic containers and pallets more feasible because there are better ways to track and return them to service. Automatic identification has enabled this, too. As for one-way shipping containers, most are still corrugated board, but we’re seeing an increasing trend to shrink- and stretch-wrap packages for products that are suitable in terms of strength.”

In fact, cost and sustainability are driving an overall transformation in packaging strategy. In a March 2011 article, “Why Sustainability Is Winning Over CEOs,” Bloomberg Businessweek reported that besides projecting a socially responsible public image, “sustainable packaging [can dramatically] lower freight and warehouse costs.” A prime example is WalMart’s work with retailers to simplify packaging and switch from oil-based to corn-based plastics for Japan-destined product. “That cut the packaging’s weight by 25% and its cost by 13%, saving more than $195,000 a year,” according to the article, which added that other major merchandizers, such as Target and Sears, are following suit.

To be sure, truly successful package design requires careful thought, research and planning. Unfortunately, the process takes a back seat to product development for many small to medium aftermarket businesses. Dr. Twede asserted that package development should coincide with product development from beginning to end.

“Of course, this is more difficult for auto part manufacturers because the primary design factors have to be designing the part to fit the car,” she acknowledged. “But when you can design the part to enable distribution—for example, make it more square, less fragile—you reduce packaging and cost.”

Doing the Research


AMP Research recently repackaged its popular BedX-Tender, breaking it down into an easily assembled item and creating a smaller, more cost-effective box for shipping and shelving.

AMP Research is a case in point. Its recent redesign of BedX-Tender packaging meant a rethinking of the product itself.

“We wanted to sell more product,” explained Mark Wronski, the company’s director of marketing. “Looking at the environments that our distributors and retailers deal in, particularly space, we wanted to make the product more friendly to the size of those environments.”

With a little brainstorming, the company determined that it could break its BedX-Tender down into a quick-assemble item, substantially reducing box size.

“We came up with a package that would protect the parts so that they wouldn’t bang into each other and included good instructions so people could easily put it together themselves,” Wronski said. “From there, we [looked into] the minimal amount of material needed to shape the box. That was a radical change, and there were lots of internal discussions about whether people would want to put a product together.”

Wronski said that the company’s in-house designers worked closely with engineers, field reps, WDs, jobbers and retailers to overcome such concerns. The result was a more economical, highly visible box that fits better on retail shelves.

“We also shifted our materials to a high post-consumer recycled corrugated paperboard, and we used soy-based ink in printing,” he said. “We found that, for relatively the same dollars, we could have a more environmentally responsible package. It follows our product design philosophy: clean, simple, to the point, minimal use of materials, maximum strength.”

  high post-consumer recycled corrugated paperboard 
In the great scheme of marketing and branding, the packaging-development process is often just as important as designing the product itself.
Moreover, the concept of integrated marketing now dictates that logos, color, shape, size, type styles, label information and even the packaging materials themselves should blend perfectly to identify and sell a brand.

Selling a Brand

“The whole thing is branding,” said Jim Flowers, a manager in BubbaRope’s business development team. Introduced to the consumer market in 2009, the nylon, military-spec recovery strap’s packaging took Best New Product Packaging honors at the 2010 SEMA Show.

“If you have a clear idea of what your brand is, it’s a lot easier to figure out what doesn’t fit,” Flowers said. “It all starts with an extremely clear vision of what you want to communicate with your brand.”

For its award-winning packaging, BubbaRope’s in-house team conceived a mesh carry-all bag that allows a dirty rope to be tossed in the wash. The bag sports camouflage detailing and a pocket for accessories, plus recovery instructions flavored with “Bubba-style” humor.

“Here in Florida and the southeast, Bubba is a fun name we call each other,” Flowers explained. “It’s a good thing, like a buddy or pal. So we said this is like your buddy rope and called it BubbaRope. Once we did that, we were quickly able to develop the whole genre and packaging. For example, the character in our packaging is Jake—actually a character from a syndicated cartoon called ‘That’s Jake’ that was here in Orlando for 20 years.”

BubbaRope also worked closely with its box supplier to create a clean, highly visible cardboard box that stacks neatly on retail shelves but is also sturdy enough for web-order shipping. Styrofoam and molded plastic packing materials were rejected in favor of plain brown paper. Box sides feature Jake and clear content labeling.

The Science of Packaging

Like any other business discipline, there are actually schools for packaging. In fact, The Michigan State University (MSU) School of Packaging, East Lansing, even offers online certification courses and a master’s degree in the field. Faculty member Diana Twede, Ph.D., noted that packaging is both art and science.

“Our school focuses more on the science, leaving the art to those involved more in advertising and graphics,” she said. “Our students learn to compare materials and systems from ‘cradle to cradle’—production, marketing, use and disposal.”

Along those lines, Dr. Twede offered the following tips for automotive specialty-equipment marketers:

  • Minimize your cube to reduce transport costs.
  • Be aware that the advantages of a “standard” container that fits everything are often outweighed by increased costs.
  • Track damage to identify packaging that needs improvement, and analyze alternatives in shock-and-vibration tests.

Above all, foster a close relationship with warehouse distributors and retailers to identify how packaging can improve their operations. While appeal to consumers is the ultimate goal, satisfying the retailers’ needs is what puts your product in customer view.

For more information about MSU’s packaging education, available research and publications, visit packaging.

Winner of the 2010 SEMA Show’s Best New Product Packaging Award, BubbaRope sports packaging that combines fun with functionality. The washable rope, logo, shipping box and purposeful mesh carrying bag all work harmoniously to tell consumers everything they need to know about the product and brand.
“We wanted the packaging to be really good but not overly slick and the logo to tell you exactly what the product does.” said Flowers. “The logo makes you smile. Our whole philosophy is to take our customers and product extremely seriously but not to take ourselves too seriously.”

Both BubbaRope and AMP Research were able to brainstorm initial design concepts in-house because their management teams boasted expertise from multiple marketing disciplines, including advertising and graphic design. Smaller or less experienced companies will undoubtedly rely on the many expert advertising and package design agencies throughout the United States and Canada found on the web. Referrals from other manufacturing and business associates can help take the guesswork out of choosing the right designer/supplier at the right price.

A solid relationship with a package designer or box supplier will prove vital not only for new products, but for ongoing lines as well since packaging should always keep pace with new technologies, shipping methods and marketing concepts.

Small-Business Help

“Companies of our size rarely have guys in-house to do design,” said John Perkins, IT director and graphic designer for Scorpion Coatings, which introduced its Al’s Liner DIY spray-on bedliner kit in 2008, then updated the packaging in 2009. Researching automotive outlets, the company discovered that red and blue were common colors for competitor packaging. Scorpion opted to stand out with a bright “hexachrome orange” package. “You can’t miss the box,” said Perkins, adding that he called several box companies to see what was available.

“We ended up going locally to find the most sturdy and cost-effective boxing,” he said. The chosen supplier then sent reps to Scorpion’s facility to assist development of several prototypes. “Our shipping master tested each,” Perkins recalled. “He’d throw it around, beat it up and see how it held up.”

Even after product launch, regular reevaluation of packaging is a must, but any changes in design will also require proper marketing support. When Turtle Wax recently turned to Berlin Packaging’s Studio One Eleven to improve the look and functionality of its flagship Super Hard Shell wax container, the manufacturer followed up with a comprehensive public relations campaign (including YouTube videos) to inform consumers. Otherwise, buyers may have been confused by a known brand seemingly disappearing from retail shelves.

The goal, said AMP Research’s Wronski, is to quickly key consumers into a brand from every touch point—from the advertising to the packaging to the instructions inside to any follow-up communications to the product they hold in their hand.

“Beyond the basic job of holding a part and protecting it in a retail environment,” he said, “when you’re standing across the showroom with all the clutter, can you squint your eyes [and immediately see] something about the shape and color that says ‘that’s our brand and there’s no way to miss it?’” 

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