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Data-driven decisions are far more successful than “going with your gut” when choosing the best packaging design for your brand.

With so much variation in where consumers buy their favorite brands these days, it’s hard to create  the best packaging design for all environments. One thing’s for sure: Subjectively picking a design is not the way to go.

Objectivity, grounded in real-world consumer research and data, is essential to create pack designs that not only work where they need to but also speak clearly and persuasively to the brand’s targeted consumers.

In this podcast, Michael Keplinger, managing partner of package design and branding agency SmashBrand, walks us through his firm’s data-driven approach to creating pack designs that work in actual retail environments, with specific types of consumers.

Keplinger leads SmashBrand’s strategy and insights team in developing design strategies for consumer packaged goods (CPG) brands and producing packaging designs that drive purchase.

His team brings qualitative and quantitative data obtained from in-depth consumer research to the design process. The research emphasizes consumer perceptions of brands and packaging designs and provides an understanding of competitors and the dynamics of the retail environment.

Multiple rounds of testing assess consumers’ reactions to words and visuals on-pack. Insights gained through the testing are used to shape packaging design iterations, each a bit closer to the goal than the one before. Extensive use of digital packaging designs streamlines the process.

Some great advice as we celebrate #NationalPackagingDesignDay on May 7, 2023.



PACKAGING POSSIBILITIES - Season 3: Episode 4

If you have a topic you’d like to propose for a future PACKAGING POSSIBILITIES episode, please email Lisa Pierce at [email protected].



TRANSCRIPT IS AUTO GENERATED



Lisa McTigue Pierce

Hello, this is Lisa Pierce, executive editor of Packaging Digest, with another episode of Packaging Possibilities, a podcast that reveals what’s new and what’s next for packaging executives and engineers, designers, and developers.

In this episode, I’m talking with Michael Keplinger, managing partner of SmashBrand. SmashBrand is a package design and branding agency that creates and tests packages with consumers, then optimizes and tests them again, so that you can be sure your product is going to sell before it even hits the store shelves.

And despite all the talk about being data-driven these days, a surprising number of packaging design decisions are still being made by people “going with their gut.” So today, we’re going to explore this outdated practice of picking packaging designs subjectively, rather than objectively, based on hard numbers from consumer research.

Welcome, Michael, and thanks for taking the time to talk with us today.



Michael Keplinger (guest)

Thank you, Lisa. It’s great to be here. [It’s] a topic that is near and dear to our heart, and happy to kind of talk through some of this stuff.



Lisa McTigue Pierce

Tell us a little bit about the typical decision process that clients go through when they’re signing off of new or updated packaging designs, which for a brand usually happens every couple of years, right?



Michael Keplinger (guest)

It does — at least. [They] probably should look at deciding to do that every couple years. It’s a good idea to signal the consumers that you’re relevant and still important to them, as lots of competitors come into the marketplace all the time.



Lisa McTigue Pierce

So what’s the typical process that these companies go through when they’re creating a new design, an updated design?



Michael Keplinger (guest)

Well, we do work with a lot of brands in different life cycles. I think in the past decade, and even longer, there’s been a lot of challenger brands, newer brands. But generally speaking, depending on the level of sophistication of the brand, there is a lot of subjectivity.

A typical kind of engagement is our looking at that. As you look at creative, and it comes forward, there [are] a lot of stakeholders at play, and the questions typically revolve around what we like, what we think.

[Conveying] the brand in different ways. How do we want to sound? I like how this sounds. Can we change? Can I see this a different way? This is kind of early stages of that decision-making, and I think what for us seems to be a little bit missing from that is the actual consumer, the consumer who is ultimately the one [whose] opinion is driving their purchase decisions.

More and more today, especially in fast-moving consumer goods, where we spend most of our time, those low-engagement decisions tend to be made at the shelf more than anywhere else. And so I think that as we look at the decision-making and [try] to overlay the entire brand, and how we activate and market, there seems to be a little bit of a loss of looking directly at the consumer and getting that feedback.



Lisa McTigue Pierce

I know you said you work with a lot of different brands and different size brands, and I loved your description of a challenging brand rather than, a lot of people would say, emerging brands or entrepreneurial brands and things like that — new brands.

So I love your description of that. But does it matter on the size of the company? And does it also matter because of the, maybe, experience or lack of experience with the packaging staff that’s at those companies? Do you see it more with the challenging brands, challenger brands?



Michael Keplinger (guest)

Well, the challenger brands, you know a new brand or even a young brand, maybe they’ve sold online or direct to consumer, which is a popular model to get some traction and almost a proof point that you need to get into retail, but they are in a place where they can take a lot more risk.

And whereas an established brand, especially as they revisit every couple years a packaging refresh and changes, it does require a different approach. And so those questions about design are different, but again you have to put a strategic hat on, and the brand that’s existing in the marketplace, they have revenue they’re protecting. Will those consumers show up at that shelf and remember — recognize that this is the same brand?

And so you definitely [need] more of a thoughtful approach to that decision-making. But it still is important to bring [the] consumer into that. So I guess to answer your question, even these newer brands — there really are so many out there — some brands, I think, do a great job of planning and really putting something out there. And we like [to see from] new brand owners especially, or even an existing brand that wants to launch a new product, a sub-brand, or expand out, the examples of really successful brands.

“… many brands launch, and it’s almost through trial and error —we only hear about the successful ones that come forward, and they figured something out that resonates, that works with consumers. And some of it again is purposeful, and I think some of it happens just out of sheer luck.”

But I think what really happens is many brands launch, and it’s almost through trial and error —we only hear about the successful ones that come forward, and they figured something out that resonates, that works with consumers. And some of it again is purposeful, and I think some of it happens just out of sheer luck. And so those are the examples that we hear of.

But when we really think about what does work, and [we’re] purposeful about it, [that] is some of the decision-making that you can get in front of and increase your odds of success, in particular for a new product launch.



Lisa McTigue Pierce

So I’ve heard a lot about making sure that your package design brief is the right balance of being descriptive enough that you communicate what it is that you want to communicate to whoever’s coming up with the new design, but also broad enough so that you can give them the flexibility of perhaps coming up with something brand spanking new.

Do you want to talk a little bit about the package design brief, and how maybe that could enter into the whole process here and downplay subjectivity a little bit?



Michael Keplinger (guest)

Sure. Probably a way to think about a creative brief [is that] every creative deserves or needs a good brief. Traditionally, you see models of what those look like, and probably for a long time we had things that maybe had a lot of similarities to how an ad agency might function and [brought] a lot of elements of the brand in there.

“… to win at the shelf, especially in today’s day and age, packaging is doing all the work. It’s doing all of your branding. It’s doing all of your messaging.”

And what we’ve learned over the years, and where we’ve really narrowed our process, is [in] really believing that to win at the shelf, especially in today’s day and age, packaging is doing all the work. It’s doing all of your branding. It’s doing all of your messaging. That’s not to say that there aren’t other elements at work in there.

And so a brief that SmashBrand makes is really centered on what is going on in that environment. In an advertising space, you can create the emotion. You can create the context. But when a shopper shows up at that store shelf, they’re showing up with a lot of stuff in their head. And everything that they see and think about on a package, on a product, is related to their view of what that category, that product, means [and] the other products on the shelf, in relation to it. And so the way that we approach design and strategic design to be a high-performing product in a retail environment is to really spend most of our time understanding what’s going on with consumers in that space.

They show up, and what we find when you really focus all of your energy on that, is there [are] nuances in that category that we have to work around. Sometimes consumers show up with a preconceived conception about an entire category, and we have to work around that, or understand how retail is typically going to slot things — like where it will be faced? [These] are unique challenges.

And so [for] our brief, we actually take our creative team frequently out into the field, and we’ll pick a category. It’s kind of a fun thing that we do. What do we think is going on here? A typical consumer shows up. [What] are they showing up here with, what are they thinking about, what are the objections they already have in their head, what do they see, what’s grabbing their attention, and who are the dominant players? And so our creative briefs really focus on that shopping context.

It’s very important [that] our creative team, without having to be in the field, understands and almost can feel and see through the eyes of the consumer what they experience, because they’re plotting a design, that creative path through that, to react to what consumers see that ultimately positions the product the way that we’re trying to get the product perceived by the consumer.

And so that is really a brief, and the role of a brief, I think — for brands, in general, to really think about designing towards an action, an outcome. Those are the consumer perceptions that ultimately lead to purchase.



Lisa McTigue Pierce

A couple of times, you’ve mentioned something about “in the environment,” and then you’ve given a couple of examples. Well, not strict examples [but] format examples, which I totally get. But what struck me is, as you were talking, you were talking about the variations that are in here. It could be the product category. It could be the channel — a dollar store vs. a grocery store, for example. To me, because of all those variations, I could see, very easily, how and why the decisions could get made very subjectively, because there are so many variations there.

Could you kind of outline what are some of the dangers, I guess, or the downsides of making subjective decisions when it comes to picking a packaging design?



Michael Keplinger (guest)

I think probably a good way to bring a little more life to this is to color it in with a specific example.



Lisa McTigue Pierce

Wonderful.



Michael Keplinger (guest)

I won’t talk about a specific brand, because this is something that we’re working on, but the category. I’ll preface that by [saying] let’s look at mayonnaise. That’s something that everybody understands.

So a consumer, they show up, and they’re very habitual about what they buy. And we know this through research and things. They don’t expect mayonnaise to be different, one brand to the next, and when a brand comes forward, which we saw recently, with kind of a special recipe, so to speak, and what that means and explaining that with how mayonnaise is made.

So it’s important to understand. As a consumer, I show up. Do I know — does the average consumer know — that mayonnaise is made with eggs, and your recipe is about using some specific kinds of eggs? Those are the kind of things you really need to understand. What the customer shows up with at that shelf.

Now take dog food, for example. Now this is very different. This is on the heels of some mega trends of big brands, trustworthy brands, brands that we expect to do things the right way, getting in trouble and having recalls and having bad food and getting caught behind this.

You couple that with [the trend] I think that most people can relate to, the humanization of pets.



Lisa McTigue Pierce

Yes.



Michael Keplinger (guest)

We tend to think of our pets like part of our family. And so the analogy is, how do I think about my babies and buying that kind of food? And so when a consumer walks into a pet food store like PetSmart or Petco, it’s a very different shopping environment.

They show up there with apprehension. They show up there with distrust to a brand. And so, a new brand or an existing brand that wants to switch a customer needs to understand these things. And what we find through the research that we do and talking to consumers so extensively — getting back to your question, I want to tie it all together, because it’s subjectivity.



Lisa McTigue Pierce

Yep.



Michael Keplinger (guest)

As a brand, I might go into that store and observe that all these very successful brands are putting all these statements on their pack, and they’re saying all of these things. And so, therefore, I need to do these things, also. You know, stand out and [be] different. But what we find when you go in there and you talk to consumers is that they have distrust for brand.

[Regarding] the statements that brands make, if they can think about them in their own head — kind of weigh the validity of that, or they have some third-party signal like, say, veterinarians or something along those lines to validate it — then they have to trust the brand. But knowing that there’s a fair amount of distrust for new brands, for different brands, what we find is that the more you say, the less trustful it is. And so a very unique situation here arose.

Really, you can’t get these insights and understanding of this without putting something in front of consumers and kind of weighing and getting inside of their head about how it reacts. And so if you take that subjective decision-making, you’re missing the point. You’re missing the point that you actually can have more credibility as a brand in that space by saying less. And so every category has these different nuances that I think may be hidden to brands.

And so we overlay our opinions of what we think, what we think people want, without actually knowing. And I think that where it comes from is [that] it’s really hard to get those insights. It’s really challenging to try to use them to make decisions. And so we’re left with our opinions, and they tend to be varying and different. And if you have a broad team of stakeholders and decision-makers, it tends to gravitate towards the safest approach and the least risk, which is usually not what works with consumers.



Lisa McTigue Pierce

Is it important, then, to get inside the consumer’s head, as you said, at various times? So where and when they buy? And then where and when they use the product? Are those the two main areas? And I know ethnography has been, you know, studied at the consumer level for a long time. But is that where you’re looking? At the store, and then at the point of use?



Michael Keplinger (guest)

It is. We think about a lot of things. What’s the role of the product in the consumer’s life when they go home? Because then it really could be, is it a granola bar, where you’re going to tear off the wrapper, and it goes in the trash? And so the role of that packaging is to just sell the product.

“… Method soap, a very successful brand that smartly figured out that essentially their soap is home furnishing. And they realized that by creating a very attractive packaging and a very stylistic thing, that it was going to actually sit on someone’s counter for weeks to a month.”

Whereas something like Method soap, a very successful brand that smartly figured out that essentially their soap is home furnishing. And they realized that by creating a very attractive packaging and a very stylistic thing, that it was going to actually sit on someone’s counter for weeks to a month.



Lisa McTigue Pierce

Yep, I’m looking at a [Method] container cross the room right now.



Michael Keplinger (guest)

You have to differentiate, and not everybody’s product itself has a rational differentiation to it. And then you have a brand level, and we connect to brands through different emotive ways. But when we think about physical products and at retail environment — this is getting to what you’re saying — like how do they use the product after they take it from the store? Is there something that is an experience that happens?

You know, we see this with tech products a lot. You open the box, and the unboxing actually enhances that experience and either meets, exceeds, or disappoints consumers in a way that is just as important for them to not only refer the brand, talk about the brand. Especially in products that are consumable, that we come back, [it] is an important part of getting that repeat purchase again and again.

So those are all important considerations, and the hardest thing — unless you disappoint your consumer — the hardest thing is really getting that first trial. We tend to focus a lot of our energy at what’s at play there in the retail environment. I think that what we do is transferable to other channels. But knowing that the packaging is all by itself there, we focus on really how you first attract those eyeballs in the competitive space, again standing out and then succinctly communicating that unique position that you have.

And then those follow-on things that you’re talking about are important, too, but to differing degrees, depending on what kind of category you’re in.



Lisa McTigue Pierce

I loved the examples that you gave of the dog food and the mayonnaise. Those were great. Tell us a little bit more now about what your process is, and then maybe what are some of the benefits of being able to make a data-driven decision?



Michael Keplinger (guest)

Sure. I mean, we’re a full branding agency, and so it’s important to focus on the brand. But we have decided to really narrow and focus intently, at least in the data side of what we’re doing, as I’ve talked about, on that retail shopping experience in the store.

And so as I talk about and really explain how we think about it, those other components of the brand are very important. How your physical product and its packaging fits together in an overall brand activation — like where you mark it, and where you connect with consumers, and the digital world, and print, and these kinds of things are all important, and they need to be cohesive.

But I’m going to focus a little bit on this part, because I think it’s really challenging. And I don’t think as much attention in the industry is given to what realistically, in a fast-moving consumer goods product [environment] like a grocery store or drugstore, happens sometimes in three to 20 seconds.

And a lot happens there. You know we focus on that brand, that position, and as I talked about, there’s a piece of that, and only really a piece, that has space and place on the package. And so it’s understanding that brand, that position, what do you stand for? Are you leading with this kind of emotive position, or do you have a very strong rational differentiator? But in a small world of like 30 to 20 seconds, you really can’t accomplish a whole lot.

“People talk a lot about differentiation, and this is all in that scope. But I like to even think of it as perception. We weigh everything in the world that we see, in the products that we see and the packaging that communicates [about] them. And we judge them, because that’s human nature.”

And so I think that we find a lot of success thinking about what is that primary perception? People talk a lot about differentiation, and this is all in that scope. But I like to even think of it as perception. We weigh everything in the world that we see, in the products that we see and the packaging that communicates [about] them. And we judge them, because that’s human nature. We make quick, immediate judgments. And those judgments are done, and we’re trying to lead to perceptions.

And so that essentially is the root of the strategy work. None of this can be done without a deep, deep audit into that competitive space. We have to understand, who are the competitors and what does that retail shelf look like? The retail shopping environment — who are those consumers, and not only what products are on the shelf next to [the brand’s products], but who they compete with, and their substitutes, and the job of that product. And then the brand itself, and that unique place that it fits in there.

And so that is the first kind of step, I would say. That bucket, we’ll call it, of positioning, of really understanding that white space — how do you want to stand out and feel different in such a short amount of time?



Lisa McTigue Pierce

And Michael, if I could comment for just a moment here, it’s very interesting to me because I could imagine the consumer’s mindset being completely different based on whether the new package design was for their primary brand, or if it was for their substitute brand. So I loved, again, those descriptions — primary vs. substitute.



Michael Keplinger (guest)

[As] a side note, there’s an author I follow that I really have a lot of respect for, Byron Sharp. He wrote a book called “How Brands Grow,” and it’s all backed by science.

“… consumer behavior is so fickle … your customer is your competitor’s customer a week later.”

There’s a lot of science behind this and backing up brands that really think that they own a particular consumer. But what you find is that consumer behavior is so fickle, and especially on these types of brands. If you think about your own shopping, I might buy one granola bar one week, and then two weeks later, I just feel like I want to try something else. And so your customer is your competitor’s customer a week later.

I’m oversimplifying it. When we think about positioning, and that unique place — I’m gonna go back to [that] — that’s the very strategic part of it. And then there’s a visual part, right. You have to stand out on that shelf and be distinctive. We actually get pretty scientific about this [with] colors and shapes and these things that essentially create memory pathways to be memorable and stand out and just be different.

And like we talked about [with] Method, the actual substrate, the bottle, that they chose is very, very distinctive to an otherwise rather boring category of soap. And so really, our process [is] about how do we grab that attention? Following on what I talked about before, [we create] a leading, singular, simplistic message to kind of anchor the brand in position, and then follow on and communicate what that brand is, understanding the role of the different sides. So the front of the package is rather limited. There’s usually a lot of things that you have to communicate.

[For] positioning the product, I think maybe some brands try too hard to do it all on front of pack. And so we spend a lot of time on understanding where is the difference, of creating intrigue. And enough where I’m thinking about what’s going on in those 20 seconds? Is this enough that they pick it up? They’re intrigued. It’s grabbed their attention. They kind of understand how this product might be different. They might not be convinced yet. But as we test, and we learn what other information consumers need, then it kind of paints a picture where we can fill in the blanks on other panels to ultimately communicate that exact position of [being] very different and special in the competitive space, [which] ultimately leads to persuading them to buy this product over another.

And we do several rounds of consumer testing. Each of those are focused on, [as] in our early stage. It’s very much of a learning phase. We’re learning what’s working, what’s not. We’re able to explore a large range of creative, both in messaging that is going on-pack and the visual creatives that work with those. And then narrowing down to finding what worked, and then simulating that buying experience to understand what is driving purchase.



Lisa McTigue Pierce

Explain a little bit more about how your process taps into the data and helps brands make those package design decisions based off of the data.



Michael Keplinger (guest)

Sure. We have, probably four distinctly different ways that we can talk to consumers. Not every brand needs that. But early in the position phase, it might be more like a traditional research study, where you’re just kind of understanding more about the consumer and trying to find that white space. But I’ll spend a little bit more time as we narrow down, and we’re focused more and more on the performance of the packaging.

In the early phase of creative exploration, now this is what we talked about early on, where an agency or creative team may come up with some concepts. They’re presenting it to the brand owners, the stakeholders. I think the traditional way is, hey, we like this, can we see more of that, and several rounds of creative go there.

“… in such a small amount of space to communicate, it’s so critically important that you understand what you say — how do I react to that? Does it create the proverbial scrunchy face?”

But what we do, before we even really present any creative, we purposefully explore a wide range of creative. We go through two rounds. One is focused specifically on the words on-pack. If we’re talking about dog food — we were talking about that earlier — we might use a completely white package that shows some dog food there. Consumers really understand what we’re looking at, the product category. We’re understanding words on-pack. What’s piquing interest? What’s driving importance? What’s resonating? Also learning what is less believable, because in such a small amount of space to communicate, it’s so critically important that you understand what you say — how do I react to that? Does it create the proverbial scrunchy face? [Does] it create apprehension and doubt? Or is it actually believable?



Lisa McTigue Pierce

Yeah.



Michael Keplinger (guest)

And so we focus on believability. We focus a lot on measuring different purchase drivers and ranking those, because what those will translate to on-pack is where do we create emphasis? Like is something large typeface and [something else] really small typeface — like they need to know it, but it’s actually driving purchase. And so one round of creative is focused really on the front-of-pack words.



Lisa McTigue Pierce

And it sounds like as you had already said, that it’s just as important to know what not to say and do, as it is to know what to say and do.



Michael Keplinger (guest)

It’s a funny nuance. This is something I think in the process could be passed over without really even a thought. But every word has meaning to us. And so we take that as consumers, and of course, context always matters. So in the context of a retail environment in, let’s say, a Petco store, talking about dog food, when you say this, is that believable?

By testing it this way and putting it in front of consumers and creating a similar context that they’ll find in that shopping environment, we’re able to understand how they take their meaning of words and apply it within that very, very specific environment and measure what resonates, and what is believable and what is not believable.



Lisa McTigue Pierce

Michael, how are you doing that? Are you creating prototypes at this point, or is this digital design?



Michael Keplinger (guest)

We create digital designs, create a very visual testing that’s done through online panels and highly targeted consumer audience that shops this category. These are your potential customers, target customers, and we put it in front of them and measure that both quantitatively and qualitatively.



Lisa McTigue Pierce

And then what’s the next step after the words?



Michael Keplinger (guest)

So we find a group of words, and it’s not singular, like we’re done. But we’ve learned so much that we can actually now take that and apply it to the creative, and what I mean are these concepts, the visual — actual representations of the front of pack of whatever kind of product category we’re looking at. If you’ve got a really good strategy, a position you want consumers — we’re shaping perceptions. That’s what we’re trying to do.

We’ve identified this white space, and we want this brand to stand for X, and so we kind of paint a picture of what that looks like, and then we let the consumer guide us on what’s resonating, what works, what fits with that, what helps shape those perceptions. And one design might be really strong on say, believability. Or flavor force, if we’re working on a food product, but it might come at an expense of something else.

You know, if it’s a kids’ juice beverage, and my kids would love this, but as a parent it doesn’t seem healthy, and I’m trying to strike a balance between what my kids want and a healthy product. And so we learn through these visuals what’s pushing different perceptions, and then the words that work there, that are driving purchase selection. Our goal there is to explore a large amount of creative and then narrow those down to eight that we’re going to take into testing.

“We’re purposefully looking for a wide variety, because in this process we can confidently and comfortably explore things that they may never put on the shelf, but there’s still so much insight to get from the consumer reaction to that.”

We’re purposefully looking for a wide variety, because in this process we can confidently and comfortably explore things that they may never put on the shelf, but there’s still so much insight to get from the consumer reaction to that. And essentially now — we’ve already talked about that brief before — we make another brief, and this brief is a consumer-insight brief. We take those pack words through this concept testing and understand what works, what resonates, and put that back to our creative team to kind of take that into another round of creative. And essentially now at this stage, our goal is to go down to three products, three designs that [include] messaging and visuals that the brand, the client, would be happy if any of those are on the shelf, and then simulate with who their top competitors are likely to be, simulate that buying experience.

How do consumers that are familiar with shopping this environment [and] typically familiar with these other brands, these competing brands, [shop]? And measuring specifically which of those three designs is more likely to drive purchase intent.



Lisa McTigue Pierce

A couple of the things that you said that I like [are] being able to do this consumer testing with potential shoppers in that category. So you’re not just testing consumers, you’re testing purchasers, people who are going to buy, who buy in this particular category.

So I really like that, and I think that the world that we’re living in now, being so digitized, that it does make sense to do a lot of the testing with digital products. But when do you get into the actual physical forms?



Michael Keplinger (guest)

Towards this end phase, and it really kind of depends on the brand owners and if we’re building prototypes and putting those in front of the brand. On rare occasions, we may put that in front of consumers and physically test it in that. It’s a lot more challenging to do and from a cost perspective, it’s orders of magnitude more expensive.

We’ve found that by having a high volume of highly targeted consumers in this type of simulated environment, we’re able to focus on the relative performance. So it’s about concept A, B, C. Which of those drives more perception? Which of those drives more purchase intent, to essentially reduce a significant amount of risk in that subjective decision-making of what they’re going to put on the shelf [and] is most likely to perform?

Now if we go and do that at a smaller scale with physical, mocked-up products, we find that the results are the same. With the exception of some rather challenging or unique categories, especially if our consumer audience has a lot of familiarity with that category, which we find a lot in fast-moving consumer goods — they’re mass market, they’re everywhere, consumers have a lot of familiarity with them — that this type of testing works very well.



Lisa McTigue Pierce

Who is it who is analyzing the data?



Michael Keplinger (guest)

My team does that. So this is the piece of SmashBrand that I own [and have] innovated on and built into our process. I come from an engineering background, so I’m not a designer. But I have a history of brand ownership, and you will find actually that the large Procter & Gambles of the world, they have these types of tools available to them. They can go to Nielson Bases and Ipsos and other research-specific agencies that can do this work.

It is cost-prohibitive to most brands, and so we bring this in an effective way. But I go a step beyond that, because even in those types of environment[s], where either the brand owner, which is typically the case like a Procter & Gamble, they’re going to go and their brand team is going to essentially order this testing and bring it back.

The piece that’s missing is the integration of it, because my team, our team, is working hand-in-hand with our creative team, iterating over, through multiple rounds of creative, to actually find what’s working. So we’ve over the course of the last decade fine-tuned this process and built our specific process into essentially this kind of integrated, data-driven, design-creative process for physical products.



Lisa McTigue Pierce

It sounds fascinating. And in looking at some of the projects that you show on your website, quite successful.

The design part really is absolutely critical, because if it doesn’t work, there’s no product to sell.



Michael Keplinger (guest)

It’s a happenstance how we landed here, and I talked a little bit about that, my background from engineering and my business partner, who is more of the creative type. That is how we landed here.

Honestly, it really does work. I truly believe [that] within the next decade, this is how it will always be done, because it doesn’t make sense to not do it this way. It’s not easy. [It] took a lot of trial and error to figure out, really, the process that we use at SmashBrand.



Lisa McTigue Pierce

Yeah, I would imagine it’s just as much work to find that subset of consumer that you really want, to be able to have them do the consumer research on it.



Michael Keplinger (guest)

It probably was 10 years ago — we use paid panels, and they’re the same paid panels that a lot of large research agencies use. But consumers, they opt-in to do this work. And there’s been a lot of research behind why they would. You know, some for the money, because it is paid panels, but a lot of them, it’s because they find it so fascinating, interesting, and it doesn’t require a lot of brain power to just simply react with your opinion about things that are familiar to you. [We] definitely put some serious dollars behind getting those panels, but [in] this day and age, it actually makes it fairly easy.



Lisa McTigue Pierce

Michael, any last thoughts or any last points that you wanted to share with our audience before we wrap up?



“… there’s a reaction by the consumer, and the more you can work towards understanding that reaction, the more successful your brand and product will be on the shelf.”

Michael Keplinger (guest)

Just from long ago, early career, where we’ve owned many brands. I think even brands that are just starting out — I’d love to leave advice for that, because I know that’s a subset of your audience there. My advice really is to focus at the very beginning [on] find that position, find that right thing, and try to get that feedback, that consumer feedback. Never lose sight of everything that you’re doing, there’s a reaction by the consumer, and the more you can work towards understanding that reaction, the more successful your brand and product will be on the shelf.



Lisa McTigue Pierce

It sounds like a simple equation that maybe has a lot more behind it to inform decisions.

Michael, thank you so very much for your time and explaining all of this to us. We’ll continue to look at some of the success stories from SmashBrand.



Michael Keplinger (guest)

Thank you, Lisa. It’s been a pleasure to be here.

About the Author(s)

Kate Bertrand Connolly

Freelance Writer

Kate Bertrand Connolly has been covering innovations, trends, and technologies in packaging, branding, and business since 1981.

Lisa McTigue Pierce

Executive Editor, Packaging Digest

Lisa McTigue Pierce is Executive Editor of Packaging Digest. She’s been a packaging media journalist since 1982 and tracks emerging trends, new technologies, and best practices across a spectrum of markets for the publication’s global community. Reach her at [email protected] or 630-272-1774.

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