I’ve met Ilan Geva this year during one of his seminars on packaging design that was held here in Bucharest, Romania. The seminar helped me realize how much strategy goes into developing packaging design. Still, I was very surprised to hear that, in spite of all the strategic thinking that goes into it, packaging design companies don’t really work with strategic planners. In fact, what generally happens is that packaging design people usually have a very structured strategic thinking. This is how really great packaging comes out. Before reading the interview you should know that Ilan Geva started his career in the early 1980’s when he joined Ogilvy & Mather as Design Head and Creative Director in Johannesburg, Los Angeles, and Chicago, later he held senior creative positions with Leo Burnett and Frankel & Co. Some of his other positions were: VP Creative Director at Kragie/Newell Des Moines and Gage Marketing Minneapolis. As an advertising creative, he developed and created corporate identities, advertising campaigns, in-store displays, packaging, direct response, sales promotion, web sites and every imaginable strategic visual solution for many of the world’s largest corporations, as well as for many smaller enterprises. As a result, Ilan has won over 100 creative awards around the world including Clio, Addy, Telly, Caples, Echo and many others. Among his many clients were United Airlines, Korean Air, Alitalia, McDonald’s, Coca Cola, Visa, Ford Trucks, The Chicago Tribune, Nissan, Nestle, American Express, Unilever, Lenscrafters, VW-Audi, Kodak, HP, Seagram, Shell, Sears, Citibank, Firestone Farm Tires, and many more. He currently teaches Branding at the University of Chicago, Integrated Marketing Communications, interactive advertising and International Advertising at Columbia College Chicago, and Packaging Design at the School of The Art Institute of Chicago. Moreover, Ilan judges some of the most prestigious industry award competitions in the US and abroad. He conducts seminars, training sessions on branding, and other advertising issues for Advertising Agencies and their clients, Advertising Associations, and clubs. And these are just a couple of reasons that will make you love this interview.

Marketing or even advertising people don’t always assume that behind each good packaging there is strong strategic thinking. Can we talk about strategy when talking about packaging design?

Absolutely! Packaging is as strategic as anything else in the marketing business. Just think about this: what kind of product do you have? What strategy do you need to sell that product? Where will your products be on the shelf? Next to which of your competitors? Right there you have some very important strategic problems to solve! Most marketing people don’t make a connection between the soul of their brand and the way it is communicated on their packaging. Packaging design is a major touch point of any brand and is VERY strategic. As for advertising people, the truth is that many of them were not trained to think about packaging either in strategic or design terms, and they make some very serious mistakes…I would say that it isn’t anybody’s fault, it is what the market dictates, and it could be solved by simple training.

I don’t know if your assumptions are reflecting the realities in the Romanian market, but I can assure you that similar mistakes are made in the American market too!

What does a packaging strategy consists of?

Start with understanding where the product is in its life cycle. Is it a launch? Is it a declining product? Already you have two very distinct and different strategies to consider. Obviously, depending on the category, a strategy should be consistent with consumer likes and dislikes in that category, plus the deeper insights that go with that. As a rule, one can use the same creative brief that agencies use to create their brilliant TV commercials and adopt it for packaging design…all the relevant strategic points essential to create a successful ad campaign exist in packaging design strategy.

If good packaging also means strategy, how do you explain the fact that only a few packaging design companies work with strategic planners?

It’s a mystery to me. But I would propose that clients are afraid to spend money on absolutely necessary steps to further guarantee their brand’s success. You see, no one wants to be remembered as the guy who recommended to spend money and than be responsible for some failure… Many clients think that packaging design is a given fact when they go to talk to the ad agency. They consider it part of the “product development”, and they are wrong! It is 100% part of the brand soul and not part of the functional attribute of the product.

Is packaging design enough by itself or do brands still need advertising?

Again, it is very important to know which category you are in. There are some trendy products that adopt a strategy, which says that word of mouth will do the job of selling, and it does work. However, can you imagine any fast moving consumer goods product being launched without showing the package? Look at any magazine and see for yourself, all the toothpastes, crackers, perfumes, beers, soaps, cookies, and dishwasher liquids in the world show the packaging in their advertising. They never sit on the shelf waiting for consumers to make a choice without advertising first. Only niche products can try to do some selling without advertising, but almost always, they do something else like sales promotion or PR to promote the product.

To what extent can packaging influence the consumer’s choice?

By the time the consumer stands next to the shelf in a supermarket, she doesn’t think anymore about the brilliant TV commercial she saw last night… All she is consumed with is the frontal assault she is facing from the shelf, it could be 50 cereal brands, 50 coffee brands, 25 mustards …

Recommend us a great book on packaging design.

The most amazing thing is that there aren’t any great books on Packaging Design out there. Few books cover issues such as Beers of The World, showing the labels on many beer bottles and cans, but nothing enlightening about strategy or design reasons.
I have a very interesting book called: ”Limited Edition-To buy or not to buy, it’s all in the packaging design” published in 2005 by www.alrights-reserved.com Check it out! It has some very fresh ideas and executions of packaging design projects from Japan.