From your experience working with brands, why do they place such importance on limited edition promotions?
I spent 14 years at Coca-Cola, and worked with the likes of Powerade, Schweppes and Coke itself. In FMCG, brands like these basically run promotions to drive relevance. Promotions offer consumers a reason to choose a certain brand over the competition because it’s more in tune to things that are important to them, today or in the moment. Then there’s the associated halo effect in leveraging the equity another brand has in an area in which you don’t have authority, but where you want to play. You’re in a joint venture where 2+2= 7 or 8, not 4.
That relevance may come through associating a campaign with a date in the calendar. The likes of Cadburys doing eggs at Easter, for example. Other limited editions are channel-specific. Lufthansa was talking about the importance of drinking water on its flights, and we produced a limited-edition water bottle for them. Some brands are very specific in their targeting. In Ibiza, for example, the opening week of the party season, Absolut makes 50 super-limited bottles of vodka to give to the top DJs.
Four years ago, you were in charge of Coke’s experimental Chill It & Win It campaign, a great example of using print to drive a promotion. What was the thinking behind that?
That was a six-week campaign running through the summer. We used thermochromic ink on Coke cans and bottles. If the product hit four degrees, the perfect serve, the inks changed colour. Consumers could then scan the label with an app, and if it was the right colour they went into a daily prize draw.
All the best activations link intrinsically back to your product, to your brand purpose and brand attributes, so you don’t have to burn marketing budget explaining why you’re doing something; people just get it. At that time, people loved the Coke brand but weren’t necessarily buying the product, so we were looking at how to get people to remember what a Coke tastes like. We chose thermochromic ink because a cold Coke tastes best. And this activation got people to drink a cold Coke.
Why is promotional print so well-suited to such experimentation?
Limited edition is normally a reason to experiment because you either want to get the positioning, the economics or the technology right to be able to scale. Because something that’s limited edition eventually becomes mainstream. When [Scottish craft beer company] Brewdog was just a microbrewery, its bottles used textured ink. That was limited edition at the start, but as the technology developed and the volume of its production grew, it became mainstream.
What are the risks of this kind of experimentation?
When you’ve got something new, you often have only one chance to get it right, or it kills it for a number of years. For Coke’s Chill It & Win It campaign, we were very aggressive in terms of targets. The project kicked off in October, and we needed to have all the print done, the wheels waiting on the lines, in May. We had around 14 different suppliers across Europe for different label and metal decoration; we had to fit in around the other activations the company already had in place; and we couldn’t afford for the quality to slip.
We’d gone through all the stress, testing with every single print partner, flexo or gravure, to make sure the ink was let down at the correct rate, that the thermochromic element activated, and that the clean-up and process conditions weren’t an issue. And we had about multiple markets lining up, ready to roll out huge numbers of pieces. But by the time we’d signed off the preliminary business case, one supplier came back saying it’d cost a significant amount more than the other suppliers had quoted, to print the label. We had teams in Japan, Thailand, India and North America waiting to go, but once the numbers went all over the place, the business case went under the bus and they all just pulled out.
The bottom fell out of the project and the final number of pieces printed was a nonsense compared to what it could have been. I would expect a partner in limited editions to have their eye on the bigger prize. There was a lot of money to be made by a lot of people across the supply chains, if everyone just played the game fairly. In the end, everyone lost.
How do you see the future of promotional packaging print?
I think the procurement functions in larger organisations are becoming much sharper. Fifteen years ago, big brands would dictate what they wanted, and threaten you with a stick if it wasn’t right. That doesn’t work as a partnership. What works is where you both understand how the technology works and what a fair value is.
In terms of promotional channels, everyone is talking about e-commerce as a massive opportunity, but even there that opportunity lies in creating an experience through better packaging design. That could be an activation at the point of purchase that create massive expectation when you open it. Customise it at the point of purchase, and deliver that at the point of consumption. I was astounded to learn about all the complexities of the print and why people choose flexo over gravure. It became obvious to me there that when it comes to the point of impact with consumers, they still want whatever’s inside to be special, especially when they’ve ordered it through a screen, even when it’s a little brown box arriving from Amazon.
Sanjay Patel is co-founder of Packaging Collective, a trade organisation set up to support the UK’s design and packaging industry.
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