Agile and Flexible: How Smaller Brands Can Compete With And Beat The Big Boys

Packaging is an effective way for even the smallest of brands to challenge established players and, in many instances, outmanoeuvre corporate giants with innovative products.

The retail landscape is filled with a host of challenges for brands of all sizes. From topsy-turvy supply chains and skyrocketing raw material costs, to maintaining product consistency and evolving products to meet changing buyer preferences and tastes, there’s a long list of obstacles to getting a product into the hands of consumers.

Such challenges can be particularly pronounced for smaller brands, as they look to establish and secure their presence in an ever-more busy retail environment. A walk down any supermarket aisle shows you the range of products available for consumers to spend their hard-earned cash on. From FMCG and snack products, to health foods, fresh food, and even pet food. Then there’s the ubiquitous drink and beverage market, where craft beers, wines, gins, sodas, and so on, are now fully stocked and freely available to buy and imbibe. Or perhaps the brand in question is involved in an even more specialised market that has blown up, such as vaping and CBD? There’s an almost endless array.

Unique ingredient compositions and flavour profiles have often been a surefire way for smaller, start-up-type brands to set themselves apart. Perhaps they have taken inspiration from generational heritage and specific geographies, such as the Caribbean or Indian subcontinent, or built on a family legacy in farming or foraging? Such products have opened consumers up to new tastes and sensations that are now being explored and embraced in greater volumes.

That last point means this is no longer the sole preserve of craft and artisan producers, as big brands similarly seek to broaden their appeal to consumers with ‘speciality’ products.

Think outside the box (pouch, box, jar, can or bottle)

Working in their favour is that smaller brands are natively more innovative. They are more agile and flexible and can react quickly to new trends and changes in the market, often directly responding to customer feedback to hone and refine their product mix.

Packaging is another way they can differentiate themselves. As one of the key marketing mediums for any brand, having standout packaging is essential and a prerequisite to success. Whether labelling a jar or shipping via e-commerce channels directly to consumers’ homes, start-up and challenger brands can use bespoke packaging to better reflect the very essence of their products – uniquely special, often handmade and having provenance. The power of this should not be forgotten or underestimated, rather must be prioritised as a tool for such brands to not only compete with their bigger, more established counterparts, but even outmanoeuvre and beat them to a purchase decision. This can be achieved in a number of ways, such as incorporating design and decoration techniques that speak to the consumer directly and engage with them on an almost personal level; choosing a customised format – stand-up pouch, box, jar, can or bottle – that maximises shelf presence and usability; and/or making material selections and specifications that align with the drive toward and preference for environmentally-conscious products and packaging.

Take pouches as an example. On a practical level, they can prove to be a more resource efficient packaging medium when compared to rigid formats, whilst being lightweight yet strong. On the shelf, they provide extensive branding real estate by allowing 360-degree decoration and can be right-sized to the product to maximise shelf space. Once in the hands of consumers, the inclusion of spouts and resealable closures, designing in of gussets and use of recyclable materials mean products can be easily dispensed and preserved, the packaging readily stored and recovered at the end of its life, and consumers have a satisfying experience with a brand.

Levelling the playing field

Gone are the days when smaller brands were left to use sub-optimal packaging. Think unbranded bags, labelled with simple stickers, perhaps featuring a name and Clip Art inspired logo. Online design tools, often available for free, as well as AI’s rapid emergence, have made it easier than ever for all brands to have a highly polished and professional market presence. Couple that with advances in packaging decoration technologies and techniques, particularly digital, and now there’s almost no reason for consumers to expect anything less than the best from ALL the companies they’re buying from, whether that’s a 100-year-old cereal manufacturer or an artisanal producer of soap and shampoo.

With print quality a fairly universal constant these days and lead times getting shorter and shorter, other pre-existing barriers are being lowered too. Take ‘minimum order quantities’, which are now largely confined to the history books, as printers and converters add equipment that allow them to better serve the market with smaller, bespoke orders of labels and packaging. They can tailor solutions to budgets accordingly and willingly advise on the options available, acting as a consultant to those with even the smallest need/spend. This has often been focused on the use of digital labels and increasingly flexible packaging, but now cartons, boxes and even cans, decorated directly using inkjet- and toner-based technologies, are packaging formats available to all, customised and in appropriate volumes. This is furthering the ability of start-ups and challengers to disrupt the status quo, stand shoulder-to-shoulder with incumbent brands, and rightfully claim more market share.

Don’t forget to look beyond ‘print’. Finishing is where much value can be added today, in terms of creating truly innovative and engaging packaging. Foiling, embossing and die-cutting can all now be done using cost-efficient digital tools to effectively enhance the aesthetics and tactility of just about any type of label or pack. By leveraging the inherent flexibility and agility of digital manufacturing, such systems put luxurious finishes and striking structural masterpieces firmly within the reach of small and start-up brands.

Great print and packaging is available to all, meaning any brand’s products and packaging can stand out and shout loudly and proudly, “buy me, buy me, BUY ME!”. For smaller brands and start-ups, this might have seemed an impossibility not that long ago. Today, it’s a viable reality and presents an opportunity to compete with and innovate beyond the competition, right out of the gate.

For those start-ups and challenger brands not yet fully convinced of the potential for them to make waves and fulfil their potential, attending an event such as London Packaging Week 2024 provides the perfect opportunity to see and realise exactly what is possible.

With suppliers of the technologies facilitating such opportunities present alongside the print and packaging companies deploying them, it’s a potent mix of the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ that is sure to help elevate even the smallest brand onto the biggest stage.

Registration is now open for London Packaging Week 2024, which takes place 11 & 12 September, with brands of all size invited to attend and see for themselves the options available to them, particularly those start-ups and challenger brands looking for their perfect fit packaging solution.

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