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Brand Talk with Ken McGuire

  • November 12, 2019
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A Global Flexo Innovation Awards judge and Research Fellow in Procter & Gamble’s corporate R&D department, Ken McGuire has spent the last 23 years developing new products and innovative packages for discerning consumers around the world. So it’s safe to say he understands what brands – big and small – are looking for when it comes to their packaging print. Here, he discusses the start-up mentality he adopts at P&G, why product and package need to be thought of as one, and what the future holds for packaging print.

Can you tell us more about your role at P&G?
I work on packaging that's supposed to be able to work at any moment in time for any one of our brands. So most of my work is looking at those trends in consumer habits, in purchasing decisions, and a lot of that right now is geared around sustainability and e-commerce. 

My role really is to try to develop breakthrough packaging platforms that service the entire company. I work on flexible film packaging – that shows up in P&G in a lot of places: diaper wraps, skincare packaging, in smaller developing markets. More recently for me it's shown up in the Aeroflexx package. I'm trying to develop things that will change the landscape of the places we play in – stuff that you hopefully won’t see for three to five years.

Just how important is sustainability for consumers?
Consumers are demanding things that are more sustainable. Single-use plastics are a hot topic right now, among consumers buying our products. So we're doing a lot of work on making things from more post-consumer recycled content, ensuring the things we make go into recycling schemes. We're working on the infrastructures outside P&G, that collect and recycle materials, to try to have more of the things we make go into a recycling ecosystem. Obviously there’s a huge emphasis on reducing the amount of materials we put into our packages.

Is packaging print a challenging environment to be involved in at the moment?
There are always difficulties. Yes, we're definitely trying to make millions of these things like most big brands, but in the short-term our partners are wanting to make purchases in the thousands instead of the millions – to go and test markets. 

So that's almost more like a start-up mentality in the early phases of new projects. How can you get that to high-quality, production-viable print at relatively low quantity and cost? There are some breakthroughs now in digital, which are helping, but they're still not so cost-competitive as the old traditional print.

When I was a judge for the Global Flexo Innovation Awards we saw tons of entries for people who'd moved from rotogravure to flexo, using KODAK FLEXCEL Solutions plates. And they were able to maintain the high quality at much lower cost. Things like that obviously help us with breakthroughs, and they help with long-term structural economics as well.

P&G is a household name brand. Is there pressure to stand out to consumers?
One of the advantages P&G has is that when you become an iconic brand, people have bought it before. They know exactly what they're looking for and will walk right to it and put it in their cart. New brands have to somehow disrupt that automatic feature people have when they shop. So we do the same thing when we introduce new products, new brands. How do you stand out on the shelf? And how do you communicate why someone would want to buy this product, as opposed to something else?

You have to disrupt, but you also need a great vehicle for communicating very quickly why people would want this. Every time we're introducing something new, we have the same challenge. From the very beginning of the product design, the package has to be a holistic, seamless and delightful experience with the product. Because if it's not, we know people will look elsewhere. 

Do you think packaging print should be innovative?
My biggest exposure to print innovation was probably judging the Awards last January. How do you seamlessly combine print and other added effects – metallics, foil stamps, holographics – in ways that produce something beautiful you want to display in your home? It’s always a huge challenge. We want your Pantene bottle to be something you're proud to display in your shower, so guests are impressed by what they see. This is even more important for a brand that goes in your kitchen. 

Packaging also has to do a great job when you're shopping, communicating what it is about that brand that's special. Whether it's an upscale beauty brand and we want to have the premium connotation, or it's a more natural brand so you want an overt sustainability message, how do you bring all those things together – in ways that effectively and quickly communicate the essence of the brand and why you’d want to buy it?

We saw some wonderful flexo printed board cartons and cases for beer. And they did a great job of pulling all those things together in subtle but unique ways, combining matt and gloss finishes in a way that makes people say, “This is a premium experience and something I'd want to buy.” 

What’s been the biggest innovation in print for you so far?
The biggest innovation has been the advent of digital [and the impact it’s had on other sectors, with alternative printing processes innovating to deliver more cost-effective short runs]. We want costs to be driven down but quality to stay high, so it gets to a place where it can be ubiquitous. The reason? Our brands would frequently like to be able to do two things: 1. print on demand, so we'll be able to take advantage of promotions etc. 2. Change the outlook of a brand quickly so it has a fresh face when it needs one. Those are both challenging for the likes of P&G, which may have a number of different SKUs in one product line. 

There's been a tremendous move from rotogravure to flexo as the quality of flexo has gotten better. And the reasons are obvious: plate storage is a whole lot more efficient, plate manufacture is a whole lot cheaper, and set up time and turnaround time can be lower. 

What does the future hold for packaging and packaging print?
Connected packaging. What we're all looking for is the killer app. What's the one thing that the connected package allows you to do, that all of a sudden opens the door to “I’ve got to have this”. I've no doubt, with the way everything has gone with the Internet of Things, it'll be a huge deal in the coming years. Is it repurchase of a product that's running out? Is it communicating with your washing machine what the right dose is? There are all these things that it could be, and in many ways it is complicated with a lot of privacy issues. In one way or another it will impact the complete packaging supply chain, including the important step of printing. I’m not exactly sure what that next revolution will be, but I have no doubt that it's out there somewhere.

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