Pivot-ready packaging in the COVID era

Changing tack. Shifting gears. Making a switch. These days, change is in the air … however you choose to label it.

Political, economic and societal change is a constant in 2020. It may not simplify our jobs as brand stewards or private label packaging partners, but given the historic nature of the current period, this upheaval makes our work as a design agency more timely and relevant — and perhaps makes our creative process richer and more productive too.

No matter where we fall during the branding and packaging supply chain, one of our key responsibilities is to enable a private brand's responsiveness on behalf of a retailer. Our task is to prepare those brands to make rapid changes — spending minimal time weighing out alternative scenarios — so that they can make decisive moves which keep up with fast-moving trends and consumer needs. This has become a fundamental part of our remit.

And internally, this is what I have termed pivot-ready packaging, but it goes far beyond packaging design. From strategy and design through to asset management and production, our capability relies on delivery processes and expertise already in place, so that informed decisions can be made at speed, enabling retailers and their store brands to quickly assess, adjust and move forward. 

When NPD goes into hyperdrive
When it comes to a retailer’s private brand strategy, stagnation is the enemy. The hunker-down mentality, which most suppliers and brands adopted at the start of the pandemic, is quickly being replaced by a hunger for new product development (NPD) and a desire to keep up with the now accelerated pace of new trends and shifting values.

Consider the number of people who have started businesses in 2020 — an affluence of entrepreneurs, all aspiring to a reversal of fortune and making the most of their time spent sheltering at home. Some have set up their businesses because they have spotted opportunities. Others have lost their jobs and are now focussing on their side-hustles or putting previously shelved business ideas into action.

In fact, the third quarter of 2020 saw new business applications hit an all-time high in the United States, with more than 1.5 million applications filed —  an 82.3% year-on-year increase. A similar phenomenon hit the United Kingdom, where an extra 84,758 businesses were founded in 2020 compared with 2019.

For some of this year’s new private label rollouts or private brand products, product development may be key to attack this thirst of new.

COVID-19 has also sped up many consumer trends we’ve seen emerging over the last decade — health and wellness and e-commerce being just two among them. From a retail perspective, these trends and values have become much more amplified and gained real traction. Online shopping has gone mass-market, suddenly picking up pace thanks to consumers wanting to avoid queues and risk of infection, creating new product opportunities but also different competition.

In this environment, store brands can’t be seen simply sticking to the basics. All store brands must transition from a position of hunkering down and protecting availability to a longer-term strategy which reflects the reality we’re living in. They need to understand their consumers evolving needs and provide solutions for them to take advantage of these new opportunities. The difficult question for many is where to start?

One of the simplest and most effective ways of doing this is by altering the marketing and packaging in particular categories, putting forward products you may already have in your inventory but placing new emphasis on them. One example we’ve recently observed is the surge in anti-bacterial formulation products in response to the pandemic and an increase focus on hygiene — not just a national scale but international.

For retailers and their store brands it’s about spotting the opportunity and developing the packaging to reflect consumers’ newfound needs, placing a slightly different emphasis and shifting the communication to acknowledge an altered landscape. Achieving traction in store may be challenging, since shoppers have become less spontaneous and more routine in their buying, so on-shelf standout is essential. This can be accomplished via vibrant palettes and instantly engaging messaging has never been more crucial. 

For retailers and their store brands it’s about spotting the opportunity and developing the packaging to reflect consumers’ newfound needs, placing a slightly different emphasis and shifting the communication to acknowledge an altered landscape.

When process and precision matter
Brands having to quickly add new products to expand their existing ranges, or deal with fluctuations in the supply chain will soon realize the importance of streamlined, tech-supported asset management and production processes. Digital programs such as Equator’s LivePrint make it possible to accurately measure packaging in store, in press and at home, delivering consistent colour outcomes even if production has to be accomplished elsewhere, globally, or onto another packaging substrate.

While challenges in supply have led brands to seek alternative suppliers, a strong, yet flexible brand design can evolve to seamlessly incorporate NPD, as consumer needs change.

 Flexible brand design architecture is a balancing act – striking the right balance will allow brands enough flexibility to bring in products or talk up a particular customer need, without asking them to throw out their brand guidelines or consistency. It also means that as NPD opportunities arise and new trends go mainstream, brands can accommodate those new products, demonstrate early responsiveness to emerging trends and achieve shelf edge presence.

Collectively, we are all setting our sights on 2021, and all the fresh opportunities which will become possible for brands once this unprecedented year is behind us. But it’s what brands put into motion in the nearer term, as they lay the groundwork for quick responsiveness in reacting to those opportunities that really matters most in this moment.

Marjorie Murphy is vice president of client services UK/IE/Aus & global strategy director at Equator Design. She was recently appointed to the position and brings experience that includes creating and executing private brand strategy including packaging design, introducing a category management approach within trading teams, and developing range assortment and retail format strategies.

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