Building Bulletproof Relationships

The interrelationship between brand strength and package design has been well documented in the pages and webpages of GCI. The package is a critical touch point, and should be the distilled expression of a beauty brand.

But the operative phrase here is “should be.” How often have you walked the aisles at major trade shows, or visited your favorite retail outpost on an industry recon mission, only to stop and gape at the misfires. The success of a package depends to a large extent upon the strength of the brand/customer-packaging supplier relationship. This is especially true in today’s business environment. Like mushrooms that follow the rain, the world’s retail shelves are crammed with new launches and flankers, all competing for consumer attention. And the competition will only intensify in the years ahead.

In the following, industry experts work to help shed light on various facets of the customer-packaging supplier bond. Hopefully, their insights can illuminate answers to questions you may be harboring on the topic, as well as help lead the way to innovative packaging solutions that protect your brand from the avalanche of new products that is sure to continue arriving on shelves every day.

Today’s Key Drivers

To frame the conversation, the packaging supplier experts were first asked to discuss the key supply chain-related drivers in today’s beauty product market. Overwhelmingly, the responses were about the quest for innovation and speed to market. Hervé Bichon, CEO and president of Le Papillon Bioplan, part of the Ileos Group, said, “Speed to market is at the top of the list—you have to be quick in this market. The supplier must be responsive and [offer] service [that is] completely there for the customer.”

Added Robert Brands, principal and founder of, “Along with speed comes the need for innovation. The personal care product market is an innovation-driven business. The consumer constantly searches for something new, and that newness must remain true to the core brand essence.”

The Ideal Customer-Supplier Match?

With the need for speed and innovation in mind, the next topic to explore is the definition of the optimal customer-supplier match.

“The metaphor I use is the restaurant sommelier,” says Costas Papaikonomou, founding partner of innovation agency “You first guide the sommelier with your food selections and what you like in a wine. A good sommelier will then be able to recommend choices you might never have considered if left to your own devices. By extension, the optimal supplier will understand your brand’s DNA and suggest packaging alternatives that will turn heads, sell product and remain true to the brand.”

Christopher Yows, business unit manager of R&D/Leverage, addressed the all-important issue of chemistry between customer and supplier. “The supplier must get you to market on budget and on time,” he acknowledges. “And technical proficiency is critical. That said, at the end of the day, relationships matter. You have to ask yourselves, ‘Are we comfortable working with this group?’”

“The right supplier can handle all aspects of the assignment seamlessly, with innovation and technical proficiency, and be able to work collaboratively—with trust,” says Nathalie Nowak, executive vice president of marketing, innovation and development with Albéa Group. “When customer and supplier are in sync, grand visions can become reality.”

Keeping an open mind is essential in defining who and what the ideal supplier is, according to Papaikonomou, who authored Thoughts from a Grumpy Innovator (Aikono Bv Book, 2013). “Some might say, the ideal supplier is a company that looks like us,” he notes. “I think a better way to look at it is: a company that has the technical chops and knows our business, sure, but that also pushes us to higher levels with fresh perspectives, and raises the bar. Of course, not every corporate culture is capable of that kind of thinking.”

Getting Involved

Timing, as usual, is everything. But specifically, when is the optimal time to bring the supplier into the new product development process for beauty brands? Without hesitation, Bichon, Brands, Papaikonomou, Yows and Nowak all offer: “The sooner, the better.”

Papaikonomou explains, “The boring answer is, early in the project. But ideally, you want the supplier in there before you even start.”

Bichon also notes, “Of course, with stock packs, the supplier can come in a bit later. But for the innovation many brands require, it is best to have the supplier onboard quickly, which frees the savvy supplier to initiate the truly breakthrough solution.”

Ins and Outs, Dos and Don’ts

Clearly, this is a topic that requires a fair degree of introspection on the part of the brand owner. “To get the most from your supplier—true, breakthrough packaging—[you need] to have a top-down innovation mindset,” says Brands, who also authored the book Robert’s Rules of Innovation (Wiley, 2010). “And part of that is a comfort level for some degree of failure and a culture that fosters and rewards risk-taking.”

Adding to that, Papaikonomou says, “On the customer side, the project has to have a passionate stakeholder, and in early discussions, you don’t want operational issues to get in the way of the discussion.”

So, then, do you provide only clear cut parameters for the assignment? “For the truly breakthrough solution, that’s the kiss of death,” Papaikonomou counters. “Rather than convey a specific ‘what,’ provide the supplier with an idea, in broad strokes, of the desired outcome. It’s far better to keep initial direction more open-ended.”

As for who should be in the room in the early stages of development, the general consensus was to maintain a smaller team at first. Gradually, bring in a wider group of department representatives once the project starts to take shape. “The key is clear communications,” says Yows. “Ninety percent of customer-supplier relationship issues can be traced back to faulty lines of communication. Be clear, be consistent and err on the side of communication overkill.”

“This goes back to the issue of trust,” Yows continues. “When you select the right supplier, there is a trust factor in play and critical information is not withheld.”

Selecting the Right Supplier

With staff cutbacks now noticeable, many brands are relying upon the expertise of suppliers more than ever. As a result, the care of the supplier relationship has taken on new levels of importance. But, how are savvy suppliers found, and, once identified, are there key steps brand owners can take to ensure that the relationship proceeds in lock-step?

“Industry conferences are a great place to listen to and meet with suppliers,” offers Brands. “With the rate of transition in our industry, everyone has their own alumni group. Work your network to identify possible suppliers and read trade publications to find packaging solutions you admire. But ultimately, for me, success boils down to a matter of trust and getting them in early.”

Quality work should be a given, according to both Bichon and Papaikonomou. “It’s a lot like dating,” Papaikonomou says. “There’s got to be something appealing, but ideally you share similar core values. Seek out firms with versatility, that share common goals with you. An ideal supplier should have skin in the game. You both should have something to gain—and to lose.”

To mitigate risk, he adds, first engage the supplier on a pilot project to assess the company’s speed and agility, as well as to assess that all-important chemistry issue.

Yows advises brand owners to select suppliers with experience that aligns with customer-specific needs. “Select an outfit that has done it all before,” he notes. “You may meet with groups that have tremendous technical expertise and wonderful examples of work they’ve done, but their work should coincide with your specific product realm. You don’t want them learning on the job when it’s your launch that’s at stake.”

Relationship Results

Building stronger brands through the creation of breakthrough packaging requires the ongoing care of brand-supplier relationships. There are just a few precious seconds to capture the consumer’s attention at the point of sale, and, as Papaikonomou says, “Packaging has an essential role in announcing that something new—something revolutionary—is going on.”

The package is indeed critical, Nowak concludes, “The package is the brand in its most tangible form. Does your supplier understand your brand? Are they capable of championing it? What is the quality of their work? Can they meet the needs of a global business? And, can they work effectively with you, in a true spirit of collaboration and partnership? When the answer is ‘yes,’ you have found the right supplier for you.”

Martin Kleinman is managing director and founder of Communications Strategies, LLC, a New York-based marketing communications firm. During his career, Kleinman has developed and implemented programs supporting both B2B and B2C clients, including those in beauty and personal care product packaging. In addition to his client work, he coauthored Robert’s Rules of Innovation, and is a blogger for The Huffington Post.

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