OTS 173 | Strategic Packaging


Your brand may be important, but when it comes to real life, a lot of what gets your product off the shelf is your packaging. You can either be strategic about it or leave everything to chance. If you don’t want to do the latter, then you definitely have to start investing in packaging more than you’re probably doing now. As we have repeatedly stressed in this podcast, packaging is not a DIY process. You need to work with someone who really knows what they’re doing and will help you really stand out above the noise. Joining Timothy Bush for this episode is one such person, Michael Keplinger, Director of Strategy at SmashBrand, a brand consulting company that designs, tests and optimizes brands and products with real consumers in one integrated process. Listen in as Michael shares his unique perspective on the critical importance of branding versus and in relation to the brand.

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How To Stand Out On The Shelf Through Strategic Packaging With Michael Keplinger

I hope you’re doing well. I hope you’re doing great. It is early on election day. It is November 3rd. It is too early to see what’s happening, what’s going on, how the race is shaking out, but by the time you read this, the race will be over. The campaign will be over and we will be on to what comes next. It is an exciting day. I’m looking forward to how things are going to turn out, but I’m focused on a conversation I had with a gentleman named Michael Keplinger. He is the Co-owner of a company called SmashBrand. We had a great conversation. You guys are going to enjoy it. As always, we talk about a bunch of different things, but as much as you guys know, I am focused on and an advocate of packaging and ensuring that your packaging is right on point.

You’re going to enjoy the things that Michael has to say and what his company, SmashBrand, is doing in this space and how he’s helping companies like yours jump over some of the hurdles that exist for new companies trying to get into retail because they can create strategic packaging and then test it and make sure that it works before you get it into retail. I’m sure you guys remember, and you’ve heard me talking about a million times about different companies that I’ve worked with that design their packaging on their own. They didn’t get any input from anybody else. They DIYed it. They then went and they had thousands of products made and then they found out that they don’t sell. Packaging is not a DIY process. You guys are going to enjoy what Michael has to say. Without any further waiting, I know you guys are anxious, let’s get right into it.

Michael, welcome to the program.

Thank you, Tim. It’s good to be on the show. Our entire agency thinks about on the shelf. We live there, pretty niche and narrow there. I do think it is customers first. Over time, it has changed how people think about it. You have to think about it differently if you’re on the shelf.

I’ve been in this business for a long time and it certainly has changed a lot in my tenure. I think that getting on the shelf means a lot of things to a lot of different people. A lot of times, I tell my clients, “Getting the retailer to say that they’ll buy your product, even though that’s incredibly difficult is one of the easiest parts of getting on the shelf.” Would you agree or disagree with that?

I do agree. We’ve had clients that have been able to get on the shelf to fail miserably and get thrown out at Walmart, wherever they’ve gotten on the shelf. Ultimately, what the buyer at the big top retail cares about is the same thing that the consumer cares about. Are you going to perform in the market? Are you going to resonate with consumers and cause that purchasing behavior?

You’re with SmashBrand. Tell us a little bit about you, yourself, SmashBrand, and what that’s all about. Let’s do the basics and start there.

I run research and strategy at SmashBrand. My business partner, Kevin and I have been business partners for years. We started an early career in a technical role but moved out and started our own consumer brands and where the inception of SmashBrand came from. He leads the creative team. I focus more on our strategy and what unique to SmashBrand to testing everything that we bring to the market. With my background in Computer Engineering and leveraging that data insights, it’s a good matchup for where we’ve got a unique approach to how we do design and how we do strategic packaging design at SmashBrand.

I’ve talked to a lot of people and maybe it’s just me, but I can’t always get a one-line answer on what a specific company does. There are many different facets and even in my own company, it would be hard to say, “I do this,” because I do a bunch of different things. At my core, I’m a Costco expert. At SmashBrand’s core, you help companies do what?

We help them put products on the shelf that perform well with consumers.

OTS 173 | Strategic Packaging
Strategic Packaging: Brand is still super powerful. Sometimes it’s going to be the only thing that’s going to allow you to get above the noise.


Do you help them prepare for it and have the best opportunity? Do you introduce them to retailers? When you say you help them do that, what part is your niche in that?

Our niche is specifically on the strategy. We are not brand activation, we’re brand creation. From the brand to the product positioning and how to best manifest that, whether it’s a combination of helping our clients choose a substrate packaging that might have some preference to consumers, to the brand, what it stands for and the messaging and visuals to come together on the packaging. From that point, primarily, our work is done and they move into probably someone like you, Tim that will help them activate that and get into retail. The best foot forward approach is where we are, a strategic level so that when all those other steps moving forward are successful and amplified.

I’m glad to hear you say that. That’s incredibly important because of what I have been finding and if you read all my episodes, there’s no secret that I say this, but a lot of people believe because they’re selling a product on Amazon that they one, have a company and two, have a brand. When I take products to retail to meet retail now, they want to partner with brands. They can go get products on their own. They have sourcing agents all over the world these days. It’s not like when I first entered this business. People loved it when I showed up with products because they couldn’t get them anywhere else. Now, they can get whatever they want. What they want is to partner with companies. Do you find that same thing?

I do, but I think that your perceptions are founded by changes in the marketplace. I have a great example. I was looking to replace my Logitech camera for my webcam. There are many brands I’ve never heard of and they’re ranking super well. They’ve got 4.8 stars, 1,000 reviews, and it’s a great product. I bought one and it works fantastic. I couldn’t ask for anything better. There’s a natural tendency to think that a brand doesn’t matter when you live in the world of Amazon and you’ll find a lot of brands because of the barriers to getting there, the hardest part is getting that customer and activating that brand.

If you’ve got a differentiated product, you can essentially throw it on Amazon and something will happen. Some of that marketing may focus more on trying to optimize towards conversion metrics. What’s lost though is the power of the brand. The message that I want to say and aligns with what you were asking is that that brand is still super powerful. Sometimes, it’s going to be the only thing that’s going to allow you to get above the noise of all these brands. I can’t even tell you the name of that brand that I bought. I bought it and there was no brand engagement there, but it’s still important.

You proved my point when you were explaining that it’s not that brands don’t matter. I think a lot of people have the perception because I bought a product in China, for instance. I slapped a brand that I created onto ABC products and now I’m selling it on Amazon and that’s all I’ve done. Now, I have a company and a brand. When they try to take that brand off or diversify off Amazon and go to retail, they haven’t done all the other stuff to develop their brand. The retailer looks at it and says, “All you have is some decent sales on Amazon, but that’s not going to help your product sell on the shelf of a retailer.” Retailers need more. They want to partner with a company instead of buying a product.

I see what you mean about how I inadvertently proved your point. To this day, I couldn’t tell you the name of this webcam. That brand has an amazing sales track on Amazon, if they go talk to Walmart or Costco, they are going to go nowhere. It gets down to what is a brand. You can do your best to influence where it goes, but a brand is not what you say it is. It’s what your customers and the market says it is. The brand of webcam that I’m talking about is a weak brand because I can’t even remember the name of it. That’s where the strategy work comes into guiding consumers to form that perception. A brand and even a logo, we have these people sometimes get hung up on a brand name and a logo, but is it one pillar and a bunch of building blocks because the brand is built, not when that logo is published, but over time, because it’s a perception in the consumer minds. It’s formed by not only the product but your actions as a company.

Let’s use your webcam as the whipping post here. A brand like that could take years to be Sony or Panasonic or something like that. What do you think are the key pillars that they need to do to become a brand that could have a shot at a Target, Walmart, or Costco, knowing that it could take them years in the marketplace to have the stature of a Sony or Panasonic? What can they do?

It always comes down to at a starting point, the pieces that you can control, a memorable name, something that’s distinct, having a good identity, something that is relatable that people can remember are these brand pillars that would help. As you relate back to our whipping boy here, there’s a lot of brands that are similar in name so they’re not memorable. They fail on this metric.

What are the pillars that a no-name brand can do to compete? Not that they’re going to be a Sony for another 50 years.

Beyond that, they should focus on the things that are within their control. The next thing I would work on is differentiation. It’s clearly lacking within the webcam space and when you’ve got competitors like that, consumers are trained. When you see something that you’ve never heard of and don’t care doing well, you’re like, “These are all the same. The product is commoditized.” That is going to be a pressure that continues to push up against products. Innovation and differentiation don’t have to always come from a product feature or benefit, although it’s amazing when it does and it’s defensible with IP or something. We’ve worked on products that are essentially commodity products. You have to move that differentiation to the brand.

Your brand is not what you say it is. It's what your customers and the market says it is. Click To Tweet

In the brand, what resonates well with Millennials is they want to get behind a brand that stands for something. You can have the same product and at the brand, you’re making a promise to them that you won’t do XYZ. You believe in treating the planet fairly or whatever your thing is. These are pillars that are defensible because it becomes part of your identity you build over time. Toms Shoes is a perfect example. There’s nothing special about the shoes. It’s all about that story and what they do with the extra shoes going to someone in need across the planet. Those are defensible brand pillars that you should think about. They’re within your control and you execute on them over time to build that brand.

That makes perfect sense. First of all, let’s jump back a little bit. Where did you grow up?

I grew up in San Diego.

I live in Florida, but I grew up in Fallbrook, not too far away. My sister still lives in Oceanside.

I have a sister that lives in Bonita where I grew up in San Diego.

Bonita is close to the border down there, right?

It’s about ten miles. We moved there when I was in first grade and it was completely open space all the way to the Mexican border. Now, it is completely developed with homes and radical transformation, but way back then, San Diego was not even on the map.

When I was a district manager down in San Diego, I had a store in the Bonita Mall back in the day, Plaza Bonita. I went to Cal State Long Beach. When I was in college and high school, going down to Tijuana was such an easy thing. It wasn’t dangerous. There was no big thing about going down there. Nowadays, I’m not sure if the college crew runs down to Tijuana anymore with some of the violence that’s going on there. Things have certainly changed. I remember, as you said, the only thing between a certain part of San Diego and the border was that one place where you could stop off to get insurance. That was it between that. When you were growing up, what did you want to do? Did you think to yourself, “I’m going to be an entrepreneur and help brands get into retail?”

From about the age of 12 or 13, all the way until my first semester in college, I wanted to be a stockbroker.

From thirteen, what movie did you see that made you want to be a stockbroker?

OTS 173 | Strategic Packaging
Strategic Packaging: Starting with the brand can be done successfully, but is not the only path. You need to get over the hurdle of first impression.


I was one of those weird guys that would go look at the random sections of the newspaper. I would follow all the San Diego stocks. This is a true story. When I was about fourteen years old, I asked to borrow $500 from my parents because I wanted to invest in the San Diego Bank. I had been following it. They didn’t lend me the money, unfortunately. I think it went up about 10X within twelve months. As a side thing, I spent some of my time reading. It’s complex stuff, but I am interested in trying to understand all the drivers and pullers of macroeconomics, like how the money floats around the planet and how it drives what’s happening to the economy.

What happened when you were a first year in college? Did the trajectory change? Where did you go to college?

I joined the Army. I am 1 of 5 kids. My parents didn’t have a lot of money. It was known early on that you had to pay for college yourself. I joined the Army Reserve to pay for college and I went to the community college across the street from my high school to work on all kinds of that undergrad work. I got deployed to Haiti. I spent almost two years on active duty as a reservist. I would have been better off just going that route, but I transferred and worked on all that core engineering work and transferred to the University of California Irvine, not too far from Fullerton.

Was it about that year that changed your trajectory and what did you decide that you wanted to do when you made that switch?

It was a natural transition. My brain is wired for the way that engineers think. I’m a problem solver. I like the strategy. I like little pieces and putting them together and solving the problem. I think the stock market thing came from that little bit of passion for following stocks, but it went away quickly. The engineering side of studies was a good fit for me and my personality.

Is engineering what you did in the Army?

No. My vocation in the Army was something that they call Psychological Operations, where it focuses more on in peacetime. It would be winning the hearts and minds of Haiti, where I was deployed. In a more wartime environment training, you might be focused on learning deception missions and things like this. It was more psychological.

When did you decide you wanted to be your own boss? The reason I asked this question is that entrepreneurship is not for everybody. I’ve had my own company for years. I think a lot of people are envious of people that do it but running your own company and striking out on your own is risky and difficult. It does not create a sense all the time of complete stability. It takes a certain person to be like, “I’m good with all that. I’m going to go that route.” What was it about it that was interesting to you?

You’re going to find other entrepreneurs that have similar stories, but there’s something early on that resonates with you. I wish they still let kids do paperwork. I was fourteen years old then and as I look back at what that was, The San Diego Union-Tribune, they sold me newspapers wholesale. If it was going to rain, I had to buy bags. I needed to buy my rubber bands. I had to go knock on doors and collect my money. Sometimes, they didn’t pay me. I’m doing collections myself and I got stiffed from time to time. The San Diego Union-Tribune cared nothing about helping you do that because they were a wholesale business. I looked back and I was the retailer. They were the wholesale provider.

I had that going forward instilled very young. Those same newspapers I was talking about and digging in there. I always like to dig in, find deals, buy and sell. I always had that in me of trying to be entrepreneurial and enterprise of money at a young age. Fast-forwarding to engineering, I worked for Raytheon for a while. I felt anxious and unfulfilled. It is a great career. I got a degree in Computer Engineering in 1999. You almost pick your job before the dot-com bust. It is a great trajectory, but it was not fulfilling to me. I had it in the back of my head that I was going to go back to business school, which I did.

Kevin, my business partner, I met him at Raytheon. He came on the Marines and he with his dad had owned some retail and some franchise stores for nutritional supplements in the State of Arizona. He was doing well. He wanted to start his own brand and brought me into that. A little back and forth and revising what the plan was but that is where we jumped in full-heartedly to the real business that we’re talking about. Taking that leap of faith and having enough success there to decide that we had to quit Raytheon. We moved to Arizona and Phoenix and did this full-time. That was that big leap of faith. Beyond all of that too, there are innately some things that you might find in other entrepreneurs with their tolerance for risk and the ability to do that. I was always good at saving so I had a little bit to fall back on, but there’s that recipe. Everybody has a different one, but that one was mine.

Packaging is your front door to the consumer. Click To Tweet

How long ago was it that you quit your jobs and decided to jump in full-time?

Many years ago.

Have things changed? What you originally started out to do and what you’re doing has changed.

To connect between that, naturally, with my background, I was running operations and finance. Kevin was running sales and marketing. We make a great team to this day, which is rare. Getting there, we had a lot of success, but I wasn’t super passionate about the industry we’re in. As I said before, I had this goal in the back of my mind to go back to business school. I said, “I’m doing this. I’m going back to business school.” We marketed and found a good partner who took over my role and bought in 20% of the company. I left the company and went back to school full-time.

In that process, I found marketing and the inception of what we’re doing, the SmashBrand now with the strategy and the consumer testing. I dug into that deeply, and took some of that back after business school. We did have a big rebranding effort where I was working more side-by-side with Kevin on marketing him more from that visual side. I’m more of the data-driven side and did a big repositioning of our brand in the supplement space. From there, it was the inception of SmashBrand and what’s led to where we are now and why we have these roles in our agency.

It’s not uncommon to create something to help yourself and then realize that other people need that thing that you created. Software people figure that out. That makes a lot of sense to me. Let’s get to some questions that my audience wants to know. There’s a question, “Why is the traditional approach to market research no longer relevant?” I want to ask you that question, but before you answer it, I want to know, what’s your definition of the traditional approach?

Brand first. I know we talked a lot about the brand and when I say my explanation, I don’t want to diminish the value and power of a brand. Traditionally, you have those brand pillars. Everything you want to stand for, your vision, your objectives, your brand differentiators, what feeling and emotions are tied to the brand and the piece that I would say, this is specific and relevant to your audience. When you’re on the shelf, we’re trained to look past the ads, whether they’re there or not. I always say this, if you go to the grocery store and you put 100 items in that shopping cart, I would be hard-pressed to bet that you’ve been to the websites or seen advertisements for more than ten of them. What it gets at is that the packaging itself has to carry all of that weight. We have this idea of turning this traditional way of branding upside down is to think about the packaging first. You can’t let go of the brand. It is super important. That packaging is your front door to the consumer.

Are you saying that the traditional approach was brand first and you’re turning what needs to be is the packaging first?

Not always, but especially in highly competitive industries. I’ll give you an anecdotal example of something that I’ve read of how RXBAR got started. A couple of guys had this idea like, “I don’t even know what’s in this bar. I want to make a bar that’s transparent so I’m going to put the ingredients on the front.” It’s tough to launch that product and get some traction going. If you go to RXBAR website, they’ve got this huge story about everything that they came from. I know that a lot of challenger brands, they started brands, whether they got started at Kickstarter or they made it on Amazon and got a Costco distribution or Walmart buyer saw something in it. By the time you get to that phase and you’re talking to Walmart and Costco, that brand store is important, but it wasn’t an absolute requirement to get that traction going in the marketplace.

It certainly isn’t known or learned by consumers from the packaging alone from that first impression. If you start there and you diminished the role of the packaging, then you might never make it to that success level. You might be one of those other ten brands that tried to do something different in the bar space that didn’t make it, that none of us know about and RXBAR did it right. Sometimes they do it purposefully. OLLY vitamins is a great example of someone that started at that brand level. It can be done successfully, but it is not the only path. You’ve got that hurdle of that first impression that you have to get over. By focusing there and making sure you get that right, you can build your brand from what comes from that space. I’m not saying that we start there, I’m just saying that conceptually, you think about it like that. You don’t have to always lead with that brand.

Believe me, you’re preaching to the choir when it comes to packaging. We talk extensively about packaging. A lot of times, especially for solopreneurs, people that have a couple of products, their company is them. They put a lot of money into developing their product, getting the product here, getting their product on Amazon and so on, but what they want to do is they want to short themselves in the packaging area. That’s where they want to spend the least amount of money. I’m always telling my clients, “That’s where you have to pull out all the stops.” It’s always the wow, the how and the now. Those are the three things that I talk about regarding to packaging. The wow being what’s going to make somebody stop and look. The how, what’s in it for me? What’s it going to do? The now, which is what’s a call to action on the packaging that’s going to get them to put it in there in their cart? I find people that they leave that to the end. That’s the thing. They don’t have any money to spend on that so it gets short-changed and it is not where you want to shortchange them.

OTS 173 | Strategic Packaging
Strategic Packaging: A mediocre design with a well-positioned and well-communicated product is going to greatly outperform the best design you’ve ever seen in your life with a mediocre positioning and communication.


With the wow, the now, and the how, the piece that isn’t there that you didn’t even mention in your talking about the packaging was the why. The brand is the why and it is important, but it’s not even leading as you’re talking through this buying experience of what you’re doing, whether it’s on Amazon or on that retail shelf. Those three pillars are the job of the packaging. I would translate that to brands and touching on what you said about how they don’t go far enough on the packaging. The piece has to be there. As I talk about these pillars, a great name, a memorable name and a good identity are pillars that you could even modify later. On the identity side, what can I maybe build from this later? Have this high level, maybe not super flushed out a feeling of what this brand will stand for? Back to the webcam example, they’re going to be tough. They need a complete rebrand to even stand for anything because it’s not memorable and it has no identity. At a basic level, do that and spend a lot of time on that first impression. The first impression of a retail CPG product is the packaging. How can you be different? How can you stand out? How you can communicate your differentiation to draw towards purchase intent or that call to action?

This is a good example. One of my first clients was a New York guy. He was from Brooklyn. He was in search of his whole life for the perfect onion sauce to put on his dogs in Brooklyn. He never was able to satisfy that so he made his own. He made it in his kitchen. It got to the point where he was delivering big vats of it to the fire department in Brooklyn. People were constantly asking him for it. He lost his son on 9/11. He ended up moving to Florida with his wife and he decided he’s going to jar this in. He called it New York Joe’s Onions. His brand was NYJO looking like New York Police Department lettering. His jar was cool. His product was unbelievable, but even when we got it on the shelf, it still was one jar in a sea of jars of other condiments. His little cool NYJO looks, although it was cool and his product was exceptional, it still wasn’t enough.

Maybe you guys would have looked at this thing and say, “We need to do this.” I think what you were saying is to standing out and having an identity. That’s where he probably was the weakest is having an identity, how he got there and something to make him pop off the shelf. He is a good example of a great guy with a good story, an exceptional product, taste-wise and still struggled. We got them on the shelf of multiple retailers or even got him into Unify as a distributor, but it never caught on. He was even on The View. Unbeknownst to us, we didn’t know that was even happening until it did. Packaging and branding are not a DIY project. You got to find people that know what they’re doing.

There’s no one size fits all. You have to weigh the market. To your example too, he was selling a different sauce. Was it a sauce?

It was called an onion sauce.

To your example, he was selling an onion sauce that he knew was better and superior. That was his differentiator. It sounds like the packaging was not doing a good job of communicating that. Let’s say that he’s got a competitor and there are probably plenty in the sea of jars on the shelf that they worked similarly. Their differentiator may not be a product attribute, but it’s a brand thing. Insert our example of Toms Shoes. When you say, “I’m giving one jar of onion sauce overseas to someone who needs it.” You’re no longer buying the ingredients. You’re buying this promise that the brand is making to you. That’s what comes down to the strategy of do not move forward without a deep dive into auditing what’s out there.

You have to put that through the lens. Most people are bringing this product to the market because they’re scratching their own itch of trying to run that. They tend to be close to the market because that’s why they made the product and try to match a gap in that market. If you’re weak on product differentiation, look for a way to have a stronger brand differentiation. If you’ve got amazingly strong product differentiation and it’s defensible, lead with that. Put that in their face and make sure that that is the first impression that you’re making. The strategy comes down to mapping the capabilities of what you can do and what you can promise. It’s great if it’s defensible and working on your packaging strategy to communicate that first and foremost.

Let me ask you a question because I constantly discuss it with my clients. When I introduce them to my person that does consumer goods packaging and they’ll say, “I’m going to run a contest on Upwork or Fiverr design.” I try to explain to them that here’s a difference between a design and consumer goods packaging. His New York Joe’s Onions design looked cool, but to your point, it wasn’t showing the differentiator. It wasn’t calling out why somebody would want this over the next onion sauce that is right next to it. Can you talk a little bit about great design against superior consumer packaged goods design?

We want them both and that’s what we strive for at SmashBrand. If you’re weighing in your mind, like, “Where do I put the focus?” I would say and convincingly believe that a mediocre design with a well-positioned and well-communicated product is going to greatly outperform the best design you’ve ever seen in your life with a mediocre positioning and communication. At the end of the day, consumers are going to buy that product because it fits with some needs that they have. While they might have a preference and they might like the aesthetics of what you’re presenting to them, those don’t solve their problems. They don’t resonate with them. They don’t translate to tangible benefits. They certainly don’t translate to making their life better. They’re fleeting feelings of appreciation and desire. All things equal. If you’ve got a purely commoditized product, it’s probably enough to grab that attention and get above, but the bar is not very high for a competitor to come in and reach above that.

I call it the pretty. There’s a lot of people out there on the internet. You can hire them for a couple of hundred bucks that can create a pretty package designed for you, but it’s not necessarily built in any type of systematic consumer goods strategy. How does SmashBrand mold the pretty with the strategy?

Our designers are great. We can’t even get the talent we need for our agency within Boise, where we’re headquartered. We have designers in Toronto, Chicago and Los Angeles. They are good designers, but a typical project at SmashBrand is going to spend anywhere from 2 to 4 weeks in strategy and varying levels of research before our design team even knows what they’re doing. They’ve heard of this project coming. It’s in the queue someday, but all that work upfront sometimes takes months. We deep dive into the marketplace, understanding the competitive landscape, understanding where there’s white space and getting inside the customer’s head. Sometimes there might be having these theories that come from that and going out through direct consumer study and getting feedback, testing these at a hypothesis level, does this resonate, messaging and also weighing. There are ten things that we look at and do an audit. There are ten things that people talk about in this particular product category.

Packaging is not a DIY process. Click To Tweet

Where are you strong at? How could you even rank what consumers care about? Not only that but the differences between those defined and mapping an audience like a subset into that. All of that is your strategy and what you want to stand for. Everything that we talked about before. If you have something that’s super differentiated and want to convey that first and foremost, that first impression. All of this is your strategy and that translates to a design brief. All of that work is what good designers can take and make an amazing and effective product.

I think what’s lost is when you go out to the design world, in 99designs, particularly that platform, which I am not a fan of all that. It’s the same reason we do not do any spec work at our agency is because the commitment level is not there. You’re picking the best of mediocracy. Even if you have a well-written draft, they’re barely going to read it because they know what wins is this flashy stuff that looks good, but that does not translate to performance in the marketplace.

Big boxers, I want you to pay close attention to what Michael is saying because this is one of those areas where you stop and think for a minute. When you use an online design agency, you show them your product and they make something pretty. What Michael was saying is that before you can create a design for packaging, you have to know what the strategy is, who your customer is, who you’re going after, what your uniques are, what you’re trying to tell them and what you’re selling. Consumer packaging design experts take all that information and they create the design. Maybe they’re going to use certain colors depending on the demographic of the people. What are the Pantones that are hot now? They base it on the strategy, not on what looks good.

I think it’s interesting, Michael, that you said they don’t even get to play in the sandbox until the strategy is done and that’s a super key thing. If you create a cool packaging design that’s based nothing on strategy, it will always jade you later as you’re trying to add the strategy to it. You’d be like, “I liked the way that it looks, now it doesn’t look the same.” You’ve jaded yourself based on pretty, not based on what’s going to help you sell a product.

We’ve only been focusing on strategy and not talking about the tailend of our process at SmashBrand of taking everything that we talked about now, and then simulating a buying experience against consumers and your competitive products and measuring the performance of these designs. There’s a lot of guesswork there, but at a minimum, if you’re reduced down to that and you’ve got five designs, the vast majority of decisions are made on a completely subjective basis. To be able to even take that, which may not be founded by strategy, but at least putting it in front of consumers and figuring out a way to kind of mimic this buying experience and getting to is easy to execute in the digital world with AB designs and automatically showing one page. It is very difficult to do in a tangible world of CPG or product on the shelf. That’s a lot of what our work is on the tailend of taking these designs into testing and measuring performance and trying to get the pieces right. You’re communicating in the hierarchy and visual and colors to be the most effective product you can have on the shelf.

Big boxers, talking to a buyer, for instance, we role-play. We talk about role-playing because you never want to practice your pitch on an actual buyer. It’s hard to get there. You don’t want to practice like you don’t want to practice the salability of packaging on the shelf of a retailer that you’ve sold ten containers to. What Michael is saying is they do that testing so that when you go to the retailer, you can say, “Based on this testing, we know that this package will sell.” It’s part of your sales story. Am I understanding that right?

That’s right. This is what the big boys do, the Procter & Gambles. They do strategy work and a lot of it is done internally over long periods of time. They’ll bring agencies in for specific research agencies to focus on certain aspects, to enrich their knowledge. It’s not uncommon for them to go and take their design brief and say, “This is what we’re looking for,” and go to multiple agencies to get that creative from good agencies and then say, “Thank you very much.” They’ll then go to a testing agency and put it into testing and they’ll spend $1 million. Your readers can’t do that. There’s the RXBAR. It’s easy to look at companies like this. They challenge the brands that are successful and think that they can do it too but what they’re missing is you can get lucky. I’m not saying that RXBAR did it all out of luck.

I’m saying that they’re an example of many products like this, that you make it to the shelf. What happened was the testing was more organically and it didn’t happen purposefully. It happened because the other nine companies that failed did it wrong and you did it right. That is not the type of testing you want to do, where you find out later. You want to get ahead of it and work on this strategy because if you do it right, it’s going to always have a sense of authority and provability to it. It makes all those discussions when you go into the big top retailers and those buyers and show them what you’ve done and why you’re reducing their risk. They don’t have as much risk because you’re showing them why. If they buy your product over the other competitor, who’s trying to pitch something similar, yours is going to do better than theirs.

There’s a bunch of other questions that I have, but we’re getting a little short on time. There’s a lot of people to choose from in the space of branding and packaging. In a nutshell, what do your clients feel is the exceptional part of working with SmashBrand?

There’s a lot of good agencies out there. Some of our peer agencies, they do great work and it gets back to what I said that not many agencies can execute on this and that testing piece that you don’t find in other integrated processes of doing it. I can’t even tell you how much all this work that you do that at the end of the day, I can show you four designs. They’re probably all going to perform decently, but that final mile, that final step is a subjective process inside of an organization. We’ll present designs to a client and the CEO’s got one opinion about what he likes and the marketing manager’s got some other opinion. Ultimately, none of those opinions matter. It’s the consumer’s opinion because it translates to the performance that matters.

What we resonate with our clients is they want that consumer piece. They want that consumer feedback because it helps them make decisions. It helps them guide. It’s not just a final thing that we do at the end. It guides our process, too. We can throw three designs out there and see how they perform. Directly ask and also infer what’s performing and what’s not. That will go into round 2 or 3 of our process to optimize the packaging for performance because that’s what everybody wants. They want what the customer wants and that’s a great product. To be able to put the data behind it is what makes SmashBrand.

OTS 173 | Strategic Packaging
Strategic Packaging: The consumer’s opinion is the only one that matters because it translates to performance.


I’m not going to ask you to put pricing out there or anything, but if you would rate your company on a scale of one being the very bargain opportunity and ten being the most expensive packaging and consumer goods company, where would you guys fall in that scale?

We’d like to present clients and prospects with options. Those different options that are going to land somewhere probably between 5 and 10 because everybody needs all that research. Sometimes, with a given budget, we can still come up with a project strategy and a project plan so they can get the most out of that best foot forward approach.

Michael, thanks for coming on. I have many other things to ask you, but perhaps we’ll have to push those and have you back and do a different episode. I want to talk a little bit more about data and sitting in front of buyers and talking to buyers and what you guys feel is important things to talk to them about. Maybe we’ll throw that out and we’ll talk about that next time.

That sounds great, Tim.

Thank you for taking the time. I appreciate it. I hope you’re staying safe and your family is healthy.

Michael is on to whatever comes next on his schedule. I know that he is a busy guy. I appreciate Michael spending time with us and sharing your insights, your wisdom and some stories with the big boxers. I’ve found it super valuable and I’m sure that you guys did too. I can’t impress upon you how important it is that when you’re creating your budgets and your company strategy that you put in enough money to do your packaging right. I don’t know about you, but this has been a busy time at TLB Consulting. Our VIP group is growing exponentially. If you haven’t checked that out, go to TLBConsulting.com, look at the top navbar, hit VIP and check out the things that are going on. It has become a great group of people interested in learning and understanding the process of taking products to retail.

One night, we were in the middle of a session and an email came through from an overseas retailer. It came through in real-time that I was able to share with my group, “This is what this buyer or this retailer is saying. This is how they’re answering my question.” I posted a response from a buyer that I received in Australia on a different product. That’s what we’re talking about. This is not theoretical guys. We’re not talking about what might be happening, could be happening, think about happening, and what’s happened in the past. We’re talking about things that are going on now. How is that helping the group? We had a group member that had received a rejection from a retailer. Through some suggestions from me and from the group, he reapproached that retailer and he has an actual phone meeting with that retailer. He was able to revive that. How are we helping him to prepare? In our session, he and I are going to roleplay that encounters the day before he has it.

Not only are we talking real-time buyer interactions and buyer communications, but we’re roleplaying potential meetings to prepare. If you’re interested, if you want to know what it’s like to be part of this group, all you have to do is send me an email, a DM through our Facebook group, On The Shelf “Now”. You can come to one of these sessions for free. Be our guest. That’s how confident I am that once you’re in there, once you see what we’re doing, you’re going to sign up. It’ll be the best investment you’ve ever made because if you’re on the journey of talking to buyers, communicating with buyers, emailing buyers, sending buyer’s information, getting into retail, then you need to be in the TLB VIP experience. That’s all the promotion I’m going to say about that. It’s a great group and I hope to see you there.

As always, we appreciate your comments and questions. Keep those coming. If you haven’t been to TLBConsulting.com, please go. That is the hub. That’s where everything’s going on. You can get to everything from there. You can find out what’s going on. It is the main part of the show, the VIP group and TLB Consulting. If you need some information, if you need some help getting from where you are to that next step and you want some coaching, go to TLB Consulting, hit on Consulting in the tab, go down and schedule right there a one-hour coaching session. Let’s get to the bottom of what’s going on and help you get over that hurdle. I hope to see you in that area. I appreciate everything that you’re doing. I know how hard it is to launch products into retail. I have confidence and faith in you. Thanks for being here and letting us help guide you. Until next time, I look forward to seeing your products on the shelf.


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About Michael Keplinger

OTS 173 | Strategic PackagingSmashBrand is the only agency in the world that designs, tests and optimizes brands and products with real consumers in one integrated process. Our expertise, data-driven process, and award-winning designers use consumer testing to typically bring 40X return on investment for branding and packaging design. Brand owners know the increase in preference and sales impact—before their products hit the shelves.

An idea company, SmashBrand designs packaging with strategy, style and substance, integrating statistically validated consumer testing into the design process. Product managers and CMOs come to us for product innovation, packaging design, brand strategy, branding and consumer testing.

I lead strategy and research, working with clients like Kraft Heinz, Duracell, 7-Eleven, and PayPal to determine through analytical rigor and testing how to best optimize the art and message on the physical product. Our unique process of iterative testing integrated into our design process reduces a ton of risk and allows brands to make the bold moves necessary to win in the market.

My decade of engineering, entrepreneurism, and business ownership led to a very unique viewpoint and reinforced a problem-solving approach to everything we do. After earning a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering, I launched and grew several globally distributed multi-million-dollar CPG brands. In 2007, I earned a master’s in business administration, which gave me the insight to discern my consumer product experience through the broader lens of consumer research and marketing.

Packaging must connect deeply with consumers and still convey the strategic vision of the brand. I’ve honed an ability to see ideas through the eyes of the consumer and anticipate how they’re going to react to the product or its message. I piece together seemingly unrelated pieces—it’s the place where real innovation and opportunity collide.


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