A Blog Series: Reflections on my experience working in CPG branding and design with P&G, applying it to the produce industry, and what the fresh sector continues to teach me.
Working in CPG branding and design makes you an expert in any number of the weirdest things. For example, I can tell you every size maxi pad and tampon that exists in the entire world. I can identify them by color, and indicate the cultural implications of those products are in most countries. This kind of information doesn’t exactly get me trophies on Trivia night. However, it was imperative knowledge for the seven years that I worked on Femcare at my former agency, LPK.
During my tenure, I worked on varying CPG branding and design projects. Through it all, my career was tightly bound to P&G’s Femcare business (Always, Tampax, Naturella) and P&G as a whole, from Baby (Pampers) to Personal Health (Vicks, Pepto Bismol, Sinex). I learned A LOT about branding and design… the P&G way.
Yes, I uncovered the many, many, many different ways to say 12-hour protection. I also learned how much visual identity impacts the success of a product in retail. I saw first-hand how integral an agency partnership can be for building a brand.
Two years ago, I packed a U-Haul, took my dog (and my husband) and left my beloved tampons behind. I went from a global agency of hundreds to a South Florida based boutique brand and package design firm called Freshmade. At Freshmade, we work on CPG branding and design for all food and beverage categories. I already had experience in pet, snacking, grocery, and spirits at the time. This new career move introduced me to a new category, and ultimately, another world: fresh produce.
After only a handful of industry conventions, I’ll admit that I still have much to learn about the colorful, gritty, and exciting world of produce. My partners (Agency founders Russ Martin and David Edmundson) and our amazing clients are an incredible source of knowledge for me. Plus, I’m a pretty smart cookie with over ten years of experience in branding and package design. I’ve seen a thing or two.
So, like some other flagship brands (Sunkist, Taylor Farms, Dole), I’ve determined that when it comes to CPG branding and design in produce, there actually is an opportunity for a “best of both worlds” approach. We can take learnings from huge corporations like P&G while celebrating and capitalizing on the authentic, entrepreneurial spirit found among many produce brands.
Part 1: What can produce marketers learn about CPG branding and design from a big corporation like P&G?
It’s all about driving trial.
Every true believer in their own brand knows one thing: “If I can just get someone to try my product, they will fall in love with it.” But how do you compete with brand loyalty? Attract someone to randomly try your product? How do you steal shares from a competitor? So much of the work we did around our beautiful, strategic package design on Always was working very hard to communicate the benefits and innovations around the product and how it could make a woman’s life better.
I’m not talking about the claims (although to be fair, P&G loves their claims!). I’m talking about the fact that no detail went untouched: the movement of the patterning reflected the fluidity of the product; the premium touches of a rose gold foil alluded to embracing one’s femininity; the window shape and gorgeous wrappings indicated transparency and quality. You get the idea.
Beyond the quality of the product, why should a consumer pick your tomatoes over another? How will they know it’s juicier or sweeter? Lean on your package branding and design. I don’t care if it’s only a PLU sticker––it’s an opportunity! Use every tool in the kit to get someone to pick it up and try it. If just one person becomes a believer (and can actually remember the name of your company), they’ll become brand ambassadors. And so will their Mom, and best friends, and kids.
Big brands know that brand loyalty is the name of the game, so do whatever it takes to be the pick of the bunch.
Learn from the other guys.
Working on Femcare, we didn’t just look at our major competitors, like Kotex. Competitors of similar size often volley one idea back and forth and try to do it better than the other (like a wing shape on a maxi). Of course, we paid diligent attention to those competitors, but we were also highly aware of what brands like Thinx and Lola were doing and, more importantly, what they thought of us. When you look at how a brand tries to not just differentiate themselves, but put themselves in DIRECT OPPOSITION of you, it helps you experience how others might see you. It’s usually not flattering, it’s rarely fun, but it is very informative.
With produce, I think there are two opportunities on each side of the coin here:
First, be the little guy and learn from the big guys, like Dole or Sunkist. What are they doing that you are not? How are they creating mass appeal and driving that brand loyalty we just spoke of? One example is “Sunkist: We are Citrus.” They own a certain message about their product. Or look to Driscoll’s, who has established trust and loyalty with their products and have dominated the use of yellow in the category. Could there be an opportunity to use yellow to communicate quality and consistency in your branding and design without being a copycat?
Conversely, if you are the little guy, you could begin to own what makes you different and place yourself in direct opposition to those bigger companies. How can you stand for something different and steal brand loyalty? Be bold!
There is strategy in being a category disruptor. It could be compostable packaging and shouting from the rooftops, or picking up color cues from another category entirely. We know metallic finishes and black cues premium for many products, like chocolate. When we designed Sunset®’s WOW™ Premium Berries, we leveraged these premium cues for cross-category consumer recognition. The fact that we used them for berries added unique taste appeal.
Point is: You look at innovative growing technologies, up-and-coming varietals, and other ways that your competitors are getting ahead in the produce industry. You should apply that same diligence and observation to your branding and design.
I’m just going to say it: I understand that the challenges for many produce companies are resources, but I also don’t think they are putting enough value into branding and design as a key component of their growth plan. Most, if not all, of the brand managers at P&G have degrees in design and they truly understand––revere, even––its place in a branding/positioning endeavor.
I’ve observed, and spoken to, many produce companies that make marketing decisions without design as a core component, and the result is that they don’t invest enough capital in their identity or they try to do it all internally. I love to garden; that doesn’t mean I know how to run a successful greenhouse operation. If you really want to become the Sunkist of Squash, The Driscoll’s of Daikon, or the Dole of Dates, design should be at the top of the heap, alongside all other marketing efforts.
That doesn’t mean you have to spend your entire marketing budget on branding/design or that there aren’t plenty of opportunities to engage an internal team. But if you are looking to launch or rebrand your company, it requires serious strategy and seasoned design thinking to be successful. Your branding and design agency can include consultation or guidelines once the project if ready for hand off. (Though personally, I recommend staying closely connected with your agency––especially in the beginning––as you start to adapt the design to new uses. It’s harder than it looks!)
Regardless, if you’re gonna do it, do it right. And don’t do it alone.
Build a true, long-withstanding relationship with your CPG branding and design agency.
Now that you see it my way and you’re going to engage an outside design firm, there is also something to joining forces with an AOR (Agency of Record). LPK has worked with P&G brands for decades, and our creative director for Tampax was on the business for many years before I was. Having a design agency and team members that know you and your brand is an amazing asset. They know the unique challenges you face beyond those within the general category. It’s also in their best interest to stay abreast in the produce category. Now you’ve not only invested in a design agency, but a strategy team, an R&D leg, and an innovation resource. Essentially, you’ve beefed up your marketing team!
Because you are committing to them, your CPG branding and design agency is more likely to extend a hand. Go the extra step. Maybe even cut you a deal when you need it most. Switching agencies frequently will lead to bigger learning curves and a more limited trust factor. This can result in a lot of cost inefficiencies. You also run the risk of losing the perfect agency fit for your brand to a conflict of interest.
And it’s not just P&G who understands the value of these life-long relationships. Unilever, General Electric, Ford, and yes, even Sunkist have had decades-long relationships with their agencies.
Put power into process.
During a session with my manager, I once hinted at a CPG branding and design project outside of P&G. Maybe try my hand at one of our “smaller” clients in their growth phase? She guffawed. “You?! But you love systems and processes––you think working with P&G can be chaotic? You have no idea.” She was right about it all. I DO love process, and we had one for every component of working with them. No matter how tight a deadline, we couldn’t start a project without an approved P.O. We always had a detailed brief that led each project. We could deliver in addition to, but never instead of. That’s an account executive’s dream. Keep in mind that I’m not a creative, for whom process is not usually as appealing.
This is not something that should be unique to larger companies. If your marketing team wears many hats, processes will help cut down on confusion and increase cost-effectiveness. I’ve learned that the smaller the company, the less processes seem to be put in place. Formalizing the way you work with any outside agency is a great place to start, from briefing to invoicing. My guess is that businesses like P&G learned the hard way about lack of processes. Better to learn from their mistakes than repeat them.
Let me be very clear as I wrap up Part 1 of this series: I did not work at P&G, and I don’t know anything about the inner-workings of their design team. I worked with P&G at LPK. P&G is not some magical place where everything is perfectly designed and branded in the very best way. This article certainly isn’t intended to be an endorsement of their products, either.
I also believe that P&Gs of the world also have a lot to learn from produce companies. This will be addressed in Part 2 of this blog series, so stay tuned.
However, I gained a ton of valuable learnings from my time at LPK working on CPG branding and design for behemoths like P&G. And I wanted to share that knowledge with the produce category… because within this realm are brands, people, and products that I DO truly believe in.
As a strategic and creative leader, Vanessa helps spearhead growth for our clients. She has extensive experience in CPG branding and design as a senior project manager on P&G brands, such as Always, Pampers, and Vicks. Between her dual master’s degree in Writing Theory and Pedagogy from DePaul University and experiences as a sailboat racer and bar owner, Vanessa brings well-rounded intelligence and determination to everything she does.