Your heart is beating a bit faster. It’s your first team
meeting of the new year, 2020 has arrived. Thoughts are racing through your
head and across the whiteboard. A new year brings new opportunities, but also
The packaging industry is evolving. Around the office you’ll hear artificial intelligence, polymeric nanofibers, machine learning, and more tossed around. Next, dollop on big concepts like global warming, the circular economy, and sustainability.
Suddenly, the packaging industry -long a steady ship- could
be tossed into a sea of change.
Yet where challenges exist, opportunities exist. How do you turn disruption into opportunity? Don’t worry, we have assembled thoughts from the packaging industry’s best and brightest.
Prepare For the Next Wave of Disruptive Technology
The ancient Greek Philosopher Heraclitus argued that “change
is the only constant.” That’s true in the packaging industry with disruptive
technologies set to spur innovation. Investment guru Tim Smith says:
“A disruptive technology sweeps away the systems or habits
it replaces because it has attributes that are recognizably superior.”
Already, artificial intelligence is enabling faster, better,
and more reliable automation. A new AI-empowered automated inspection system
for packaging hints at the future. In Packaging Digest, Rick Lingle notes:
“AI enables the CapQ system to ignore water droplets and
plastic fragment shedding that can skew measurement results, leading to false
rejects. This software advancement and the easy-to-use operator touch screen
interface make the CapQ system a pioneering quality inspection device.”
Another technology with immense disruption potential is
digital printing. Writing for LEAD Innovation Management, Angela Hengsberger
“Digital printing will therefore no longer be used only for
limited editions and individual products, but will also increasingly focus on
the economic and speed-to-market advantages for the design of mainstream
Even less bleeding edge technologies will continue to
disrupt the market. Speaking to Packaging Insights, Tetra Pak Marketing Services
Director Alexandre Carvalho claims:
“Thanks to smart packaging technology, every package sold
can now carry a unique digital identifier, creating the opportunity for direct
one-to-one conversations with consumers, as well as helping drive efficiencies
across the entire supply chain.”
Makes you wonder if we will soon talk about “genius”
packaging instead of smart packaging.
Soren Kaplan sums up the coming tech disruptions nicely:
“Opportunities for packaging
innovation will only grow as new technologies like blockchain, intelligent inks
and printable circuits and sensors evolve… These technology and design
innovations will fuel new “data-as-a-service” business models tied to
traceability across the supply chain, consumer product usage, and overall
These technological disruptions are arriving as society
itself experiences immense change. Sustainability is now one of the biggest
challenges -and opportunities- for the packaging industry.
Sustainability Can Be a Threat or Competitive Advantage
Sustainability is no longer an option, it’s inevitable.
Consumers will force the packaging industry’s hands. As Alex Jordan puts it:
“More people are readily refusing to use plastic straws and
single-use bags in favor of reusable items – owning their social responsibility
for seeking out greener products. Therefore, it’s essential for retailers and
manufacturers to keep up with public opinion…”
So are you the greener product that gets found or the
fossil-fueled dinosaur destined for extinction? Not that plastic has no future
in packaging, but that future must be sustainable. Trina Matta argues:
“A plastic bottle made of recycled content is an example of
sustainable sourcing of plastic. Would it really be better to shift this
particular package to aluminum or glass? Most likely not.”
For Matta, creating sustainable packaging means:
“…considering questions of sourcing, efficiency, recovery,
health and safety—all key pieces of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s
definition of sustainable packaging.”
And sometimes, the best answer to those concerns is plastic.
Materials are changing with the times. Biodegradable
biopolymers are more sustainable than traditional plastics and could be a hot
“According to a new report from Smithers Pira, bioplastics
for packaging currently represent a very small share of the global plastic
packaging market value. But, it estimates, the bioplastic market will more than
double in value from 2017 to 2022, growing at an average rate of 17% per year,
to a market value of $7.2 billion.”
Many companies are reducing the amount of packaging material used. Can you do that without cutting corners? Sophie Kieselbach and Flora D’Souza suggest:
“Keep working to reduce packaging material within the limits
allowed by its purpose. And if, as with some initiatives, you start a new
product line with reduced packaging and therefore reduced product shelf-life,
loudly communicate it to customers and continue to help them understand the
reasoning behind the changes to make sure that the net benefits outweigh the
drawbacks. Life cycle thinking, as always, helps.”
Better yet, less can be more. Global procurement powerhouse
GEP argues in their company blog that:
“Focusing only on the essential parts during packaging
enables designers to multiply the impact of the visual story they are trying to
narrate for the brand. Simplified packaging designs also help brands to pay
attention to small details and can improve overall quality.”
If we’re to preserve
this planet, the packaging industry and other industries will have to pivot to
become sustainable. In an open letter from the Governor of Bank of England Mark
Carney, Governor of Banque de France François Villeroy de Galhau and Chair of
the Network for Greening the Financial Services Frank Elderson argued:
“If some companies and industries fail to adjust to this new
world, they will fail to exist.”
So how about you? Are you going to adjust and not only
exist, but excel? Or are you going to fall to the wayside?
It’s Christmas, snow is falling outside, hot cocoa is steaming, and the kids are bubbling with excitement. Johnny pulls the wrapping off a box and is greeted by the Millennium Falcon racing across the stars. His grin explodes. Carefully, he undoes the box and inside, he finds an IOU!
Out of this universe experience? Back in 1977, toy company Kenner was so overwhelmed by the demand for Star Wars toys that they had to send out empty boxes with IOUs.
Kids strong with the Force ended up gifted with lumps of coal. Yoda wasn’t happy.
It’s hard to overestimate how much Star Wars has changed film, toys, and yes, the packaging industry. By examining how Star Wars made a huge impact, we can learn valuable lessons for packaging.
Star Wars is now one of the most valuable franchises in the world and netted George Lucas 4.5 billion dollars when he sold to Disney. Yet back in the 1970s, most industry experts figured Star Wars movies and toys would flop.
While negotiating with 20th Century Fox to produce Star Wars: A New Hope, George Lucas reportedly made Fox a deal they couldn’t refuse: he was willing to cut his director’s fee by $500,000 in exchange for retaining merchandising rights.
For Fox executives already looking at an expensive, technically complicated production, the deal must have seemed like a no-brainer. Movie merchandise at the time was an after thought.
Lucas turned around and sold the merchandising rights to the toy company Kenner, then a division of General Mills. While Kenner paid $100,000 for the exclusive rights to produce Star Wars toys, film merchandising was seen as a small seasonal affair.
Toys would move while the film was still in the theater, but once the theater run was done, Kenner expected demand to drop off. Instead, as Star Wars blasted off the charts, demand for toys surged well beyond Kenner’s capabilities.
This would have a profound impact on the toy and packaging industries. As Neil Archer, a lecturer at Keele University notes in his blog post:
“Since 1977, the StarWars films have been the benchmark – if not the catalyst – for modern Hollywood’s “synergy-driven strategies” – linking big-screen outings with“ancillary products” in the form of action figures and other commercial tie-ins.”
How The Film Business Has Changed The Packaging Industry
Once an after thought, merchandising is now a vital source of profits and revenues for film companies. Indeed, some movies are essentially gigantic ads for toys.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is perhaps the best-positioned franchise to challenge Star Wars’ merchandising throne. Yet MCU is, in many ways, Star Wars’ padawan (trainee Jedi). When Marvel Studios embarked on its adventure to bring the MCU to life, they decided to seek out some sage advice… from children.
Marvel Studios wanted to know which characters were most likely to move toys, so they brought kids in, showed them drawings of Marvel heroes, and asked which character they’d be most likely to play with at home? The answer? Iron Man. The first MCU movie ever made? Iron Man.
“It is truly fascinating that one of the key decisions in the genesis of a multi-billion dollar franchise was made in part based on a bunch of kids in a room picking out what hero they want to play with.”
Fascinating indeed. Now, movie franchises are pillars of modern culture. And big franchises allow brands to cut across demographics. For packaging experts, this presents an opportunity.
By tying up the right products with the right fictional worlds, packaging experts can appeal to abroad audience.
“There are a few behemoths that own huge mind-share with many consumer groups across social strata and around the globe. Among entertainment properties, Star Wars and the pantheons of Disney princesses and Marvel superheroes are great examples of this.”
Disney owns both Marvel and Star Wars, and these fictional worlds are deeply integrated into the company’s brand. Mininni’s packaging blog post put it this way:
“The brand seamlessly leverages the “magic” of its significant entertainment properties within its theme parks, movies, television, digital media, and its retail stores with visually compelling content and rich experiences that captivate kids and adults alike.”
These worlds are so rich, so engaging, that external brands can leverage them to tell their own brand story. However, you can’t simply slap a superhero or Jedi on your products and hope it sells. Storytelling goes much deeper than that.
Packaging Is Storytelling
Star Wars yogurts, mac and cheese, juices, and other themed foods have all graced tables at some point. You can find Star Wars themed camping equipment, suitcases, toothbrushes, and more. Before Star Wars, such direct tie-ins were not a thing.Now, when a blockbuster movie rolls around, companies will fight over merchandising rights.
“Brands need to know the fan base well to avoid insulting devotees by slapping licensing on simply anything. They also need to be able to share the story through great design when there is a good fit.”
In other words, there needs to be synergy between the packaging and the story itself. For the packaging industry, movies and fiction offer an opportunity to turn regular products into story-telling devices that can unlock your imagination.
“Stories are not just a buzz concept: They are one of the most strategic success drivers behind some of the most legendary brands.”
Meanwhile, packaging offers the perfect stage for stories and brands alike. At first glance, StarWars themed Mac & Cheese or Iced Tea might not seem like a natural tie in, and yet it works. Kids are a vital element of Star Wars universal target audience, kids love Mac & Cheese.
For a child with her parents in the grocery store, Mac & Cheese wrapped in Star Wars packaging is immediately recognizable and sparks the imagination. Rather than boring cheese noodles, kids can hang out with Darth Vader or Yoda during their lunchtime snack.
The synergy between mac and cheese and Yoda is obvious. Food is fun, so too are great stories. Kids love using their imagination, so why not turn lunch into an adventure? Take the right branded packaging and the right story, and you’ve crafted a heck of an experience.
What does packaging toys have to do with executive recruiting? Every packaging expert should ask how they can use packaging to tell a story. That story might not be Star Wars or fiction at all. The story you tell might be poolside luxury or a candlelit dinner for two. But no matter the story, make sure to tell it well.
In October of 2019, Chase & Associates’ long-time business consultant, Bob Olmstead, sat down with Alexis Chase to talk about life, business, and women in packaging. The result was a deep dive conversation filled with authoritative insights and wisdom.
BOB: When did you decide to jump into the family business? What were the moments that drove that decision?
ALEXIS: I graduated from Barnard College, Columbia University, in New York City in June of 2001. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I moved back to California. As an Art History major, I was interested in gallery or museum work.
I spent the summer working, and lo and behold, 9/11 struck. I think after 9/11, companies and the economy, in general, just went into a state of shock and were not necessarily hiring college grads.
I had always done summer work for my father’s company, whether it was bookkeeping or filing, office type of work. At the time, he needed some extra support answering phones, so I started working for him a couple of times a week, which led to me getting more responsibility.
As I started to have conversations with real people about their lives and their careers, executive recruiting became more interesting to me as a career path. I remember having a conversation with Michael (brother) about it, and basically, we simultaneously got into recruiting together.
BOB: And how long ago was that?
ALEXIS: 2001. I was doing online research, cold calling to get names of candidates to different places, which eventually meant taking over a desk as a Project Manager.
BOB: Tell me about the dynamic back then. You start out as a project manager. Michael is a recruiter. Are either of you thinking in terms of ownership at this point or are you just trying to learn the industry and your job?
ALEXIS: No, I was far from that. And Michael was not working in California. Neil, our father, had just had a liver transplant in 2000 in Florida and was not as active in the business for a good five years or so.
BOB: I’ve known you and Michael for more than a few years, and I had no idea that you got a degree in Art History! And I had no idea that 9/11 and your father’s liver transplant informed your decision to jump into recruiting. I’ve learned a lot in seven minutes flat!
And so, you spent, if I remember correctly, you spent five years in research and as a project manager?
ALEXIS: Yes, that’s about right. I had a lot of fears around getting on the phone and interviewing people. I was still learning the industry and the vernacular. It was tricky, but then, over time, I built my confidence and could have conversations with people that were very different from me.
I didn’t have kids at the time. I wasn’t into sports. I didn’t play golf or watch football. I had to really figure out ways to draw some connections to them. I was like, “What do I talk to these people about?” So I had to find my way into that.
And this is long before LinkedIn was created. I was doing a lot of cold calling. It was the old-fashioned way (now) of doing it, but that’s what I would spend my days doing.
I was finding people that were getting placed, the reward of that success, how that makes you feel when you do something well, it remains very rewarding.
BOB: Did that surprise you? I mean, you were an Art History grad!
ALEXIS: It did because I never grew up having an interest in my father’s business.
BOB: It’s very interesting to me that you went from New York City art to recruiting and packaging. That’s like Banksy joining an accounting firm!
How would you say that that time as a project manager prepared you to be a more effective recruiter?
ALEXIS: I was exploring going to graduate school and thinking about either going to a bigger recruiting firm or trying something different, so I put an exit strategy together for myself. But ultimately, I decided to embrace it instead of resisting it. As a result, I started focusing less on my project management and more on developing myself as a recruiter.
BOB: How did all that eventually pivot to you and Michael taking over as owners? How did all of that come to come about?
ALEXIS: It was just time for a lot of reasons. Neil (father) was moving towards retirement, and we were taking over and running the whole operation for the most part. And then, we started working with you (Bob), and we began to formalize the transition. I was about 32, still pretty young in my career, I was just beginning to get some successes under my belt as a recruiter. I was pregnant with my first child, so it was a lot at once.
BOB: I guess so!
ALEXIS: For me to figure out what my role was gonna be in all these different phases of my life was interesting. I think we coasted for a little while, and then we started working with you to get more of a handle of how to make this less of a mom and pop kind of operation, to professionalize ourselves, the company, and the brand.
BOB: But what I love is that through your story, I see a very resolved Alexis Chase that way back when had a lot of business savvy. I suspect far more so than you realized. And you were willing to double down on that path, sight unseen! Impressive. Few would be willing to take those risks.
BOB: What motivates you to be a strong recruiter?
ALEXIS: My clients and my reputation.
BOB: What motivates you to be a strong business owner?
ALEXIS: Stability in that, the more secure and well-run and functioning my company is, the more stable the company is, the more stable I am. I suspect the same is true with our team. People need stability.
BOB: What would you say is your superpower?
ALEXIS: I think I have the ability to make people feel special.
BOB: Nice! Tell me more.
ALEXIS: I can be a chameleon. I can always find something to talk about with someone. I can always find a way to relate to them in a way that I think helps them relate to me.
In my friendships, I put a lot of time into remembering things, remembering occasions, making people feel special when they need to be, being there when they need me. And I think from a work standpoint too, I try and do the same thing. It’s just who I am.
BOB: So let’s talk about women in packaging. Tell us how Cocktails & Conversations came to be. What’s the back story?
ALEXIS: I was raised by a very strong, professional, highly educated mother. My sister is also a high-achieving, graduate schools, and career-focused person. I have a lot of really good women friends, like a lot, and I invest a lot of myself in those friendships.
I think to measure what I go through on a day-to-day basis as a mother, as an owner, as a woman in a professional world, as a partner in a relationship, there are aspects to those experiences that only other women understand.
I’ve also gotten to a maturity level where I can really identify with the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated industry. It’s very clear to me now. Whereas when I was younger, I was just trying to fit into the industry. It’s not always easy to be the minority in an industry or setting.
BOB: I hear a couple of themes like community, empowerment, mentoring. How did this go from an idea to an event?
ALEXIS: I’ve tasked myself with building a network of friendships with other women in the industry so that when I am out there in the world, I’ve got friendly faces that I can call upon for support. And I think there is a lot of value to connecting with women that understand the industry.
When I was invited to a happy hour last year with women in the industry, some of which I had placed, it felt very like getting together with friends as opposed to colleagues. There was something very comforting about it. And it was women of all ages and all levels in their careers.
I thought to myself, “Why haven’t I been utilizing my ability to bring people together?” which is what I do in my personal life. In some cases, a woman might be the only female salesperson in the whole company. Sometimes, you don’t feel like being one of the guys!
Creating an opportunity for more women to get to know each other and connect, build friendships that create support instead of feeling isolated, is very attractive to me.
BOB: This is a great story, very inspiring.
ALEXIS: There’s women in positions of power in the industry, but there’s no company where women are the majority, you know? So you might not be able to find it at your own company.
It’s not about getting to know someone so one day I can place her, I want to get to know these women because I want to be able to pick up the phone and to give and get counsel. It’s like, “I have two kids and work full time; how do you do it?” I think these common threads of connection could really make a difference in our industry.”
BOB: So you had your first Cocktails & Conversations event at PackExpo, what’s next?
ALEXIS: I’m in research mode. There’s other events for women that I have not participated in that I want to explore. A part of me is really curious about what’s out there right now for women in the industry. There’s a conference in Nashville in November called Women Breaking the Mold in Plastics that I want to check out, for example.
I’m curious as to what already exists for women; then I’ll either identify where I could offer additional resources or options. The last thing I want to do is create something that creates competition with another female-driven organization. I’m in fact-finding mode.
BOB: You spotted a real need, right? And then you got to work to fill that need. I think you’re in it for the right reasons. I love where all this could go for you, the industry. What were your big takeaways from your first happy hour event?
ALEXIS: Women feel pulled in lots of different directions. Women that weren’t there wanted to be there but couldn’t! I experience this every day on some level. What should I be doing? I have a lot of options on how to spend my time doing. Professionally, it’s a similar type of thing, too.
I think another big takeaway was young women are coming into this industry. Probably 25% of the participants were women under 30. They’re looking for mentors. They’re looking for stories of how women have succeeded in this industry. But it’s harder for senior-level people to show up to these events.
We need to show up for the next generation. We need to invest in the future of our industry. Understanding women, their journey, their stories, and challenges, is critical to our success as a sector. Not doing so puts our industry at risk.
Creating connections that give women support, I want to help people and businesses prioritize that, because it’s important.
BOB: What do you see as the big opportunities for women in packaging?
ALEXIS: I think that companies want to hire more women and want to find more women that are promotable. I think they’re recognizing that their customers are more diverse than they used to be when it comes to age, ethnicity, and gender.
If you’re not connecting with your customers the same way, because your customers are changing, something needs to change. I think packaging companies know they need a more diverse workforce.
BOB: If your daughter were to build a career in the packaging industry, what advice would you give her?
ALEXIS: I would tell her to find a company that has women in leadership roles already, not a company that’s trying to change that necessarily, but a company that’s already successfully diverse.
BOB: Why would you give that specific advice?
ALEXIS: Because I think it’s a very hard ceiling to break through in this industry. I believe that men in leadership positions, in some cases, just are not there yet.
BOB: Sounds like you want her to stack the deck. If you’re going to go into this industry stack the deck in your favor, and the way you do that is by shopping company culture.
ALEXIS: Yeah, be strategic about it. Find a company that supports women that understands women, and therefore will support your career. If you (her daughter) decide to have a family and children, plug into a company that understands what that takes. Find the culture that will not hold having kids against you, and that will help you succeed.
BOB: I want you to remove yourself from packaging for a moment and pretend that you got invited to speak at a women’s only entrepreneurial conference. Let’s say, 200-300 female entrepreneurs in the audience, all different ages. What advice would you give a woman attempting to start her own business?
ALEXIS: I think some women can be self-critical and doubt themselves a lot. I think that’s not productive. Nobody’s perfect. And we’re all hard on ourselves, but don’t let that get you stuck or get into your mind too much. You’re not going to be perfect at all of it, focus on what you do really well. Make it the thing that people remember.
BOB: Thanks for hanging out with me today. Even though I’ve been working with you for almost a decade, I learned a ton about your life and beliefs. You have a great deal of wisdom to share.
ALEXIS: I think it’s always fun to tell my own story. I do talk about some things like this with friends, and they ask me about my work or my past and I get into it. I think they’re always surprised to hear a little bit about my perspective on my journey.
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