7 Steps for Getting Your Product Onto the Shelf

By: Chad Birenbaum

Chances are if you’re reading this article, you’re probably not the CEO of Nabisco or Kraft, (but if you are, please tell Tom Brady that he helped me win my Fantasy Football league two years in a row). You are more likely someone who might be a home baker, or maybe someone who came up with a life-changing product that will make my morning routine easier. But before you jump in head first, did you know that every year 95% of new products fail? That’s pretty scary to know that only 5% of hundreds-of-thousands of new products will make it to the retail shelf by this time next year. There are many factors that may contribute to a product’s failure, and often the packaging is one of them.

We’ve heard the old adage that “it’s what’s on the inside that counts,” and this may be true when it comes to things like online dating. But, when your product is sitting on the shelf, the design of the package is just as important as what’s inside. Think of the last time you stopped at the wine shop on your way to a dinner party. Did you select that bottle because the label stood out, or because the wine paired well with Chicken Cordon Bleu? Chances are it was the former. Studies have shown that when a consumer heads down the shopping aisle, they pick up a product, and on average read only seven words.

That fact is not surprising when you consider the scenario. Between juggling screaming kids in the shopping cart and social media notifications being pushed to their smartphones, shoppers often make purchases based on the ease of familiarity. This buying habit uses the reptilian brain which relies on instinct as opposed to logic. Shape, size, color, and brand recognition can all feed into this type of decision-making. This amplifies the need to make your packaging stand out on the shelf—you literally have seconds to tell a consumer what your brand stands for, and more importantly why they need your product.

Most of the big brands have spent millions of dollars and many years studying buyer behaviors. These brands use focus groups to determine toward what type of packaging their prospective customer gravitates. They’ve even enlisted technology such as retinal testing and MRI to discover what draws the consumer’s eye and triggers their buying impulse. So what can smaller brands and startups without millions of dollars to invest in consumer testing do to make their packaging standout among more established name brands?

Let’s talk strategy: if you’re ready to to delve into creating the personality of your brand or expand your product line, you’ve most likely already begun the process of procuring a manufacturing facility or co-packer, testing your product, facilitating nutritional analysis, securing any regulatory certifications, and have established a bit of a following through sales at farmer’s markets, small boutiques, e-commerce, or even privately-owned or specialty stores.

This is a pivotal, exciting, and sometimes scary position in the market. Making the leap into corporate or big-box retail locations is usually an indication that consumers want a product. Growth can be exhilarating, but this time can also come with challenging obstacles that can send a brand down the 95% path of failed products.

During this phase, planning, researching, and strategizing to differentiate your product and packaging from larger corporate competitors and household name brands will put your product on the path to standing out on the retail shelf. Understandably, we all want the instant product and brand recognition of industry icons such Coca-Cola, Apple, Tiffany, Nike, and Starbucks—in fact, many of these are included in the examples my clients show me when wanting to design and develop their packaging. While this type of instant recognition takes years to develop, the encouraging thing is that these companies all had to start somewhere—this somewhere surely included the packaging design phase.

So how can you set yourself apart from these industry giants, and even better, where should you start? Here are 7 steps to getting your product onto the shelf successfully.

1. KNOW YOUR DEMOGRAPHIC AND WHERE THEY SHOP

Regardless of whether they are a startup or heritage brand, this is always the first question I ask my clients. Yet so many times I hear “I don’t know,” “Whoever wants to buy it,” and “Whoever will put it in their stores.” Knowing your demographic is essential so that we can research their buying habits, what other brands and products appeal to them, and with whom you might be competing for their attention on the shelves. All of this information helps us create a consistent design language, as well as the look and feel that will help differentiate you from your competitors. Consistency is a key element, and if you ever pay attention to successful brands, they are very consistent in the way they communicate, as well as how they look.

2. ESTABLISH YOUR RETAIL PRICE POINT

Before you can put a retail price on your product, you have to know what your production costs are. You need to factor in your ingredient/material costs, the cost of your co-packaging or manufacturing costs, any broker or distributor fees, as well as any packaging, design, engineering, and freight costs. This will help you determine what your wholesale cost and retail cost should be. The retail price helps a packaging designer determine the overall feel of the package. If it’s an $8 jar of jam that will sell in Dean & DeLuca, it should look and feel like an $8 jar of jam to instantly have visual appeal to a Dean & DeLuca consumer.

Additionally, knowing a product’s retail cost allows your packaging designer to be more creative when selecting production techniques such as metallic inks, special printing techniques like varnishes, and specialty packaging materials. Likewise, if it’s a $2 jar of jelly, the manufacturing cost and profit margin will most likely not allow as much creative flexibility, so your designer may be restricted in printing process and materials. A smaller budget and lower retail price doesn’t mean your packaging can’t be well-designed and on-brand—but it’s very important to communicate and have an open dialogue with your packaging designer. Be upfront and let them know what your goals are and what look you want to achieve with a specific project budget.

3. LEARN FROM—AND EMBRACE—YOUR COMPETITION

Earlier in this article, I told you that you need to stand out from your competition, and this is true. However, you can also learn a lot from your competition. A good research assignment would be to see where your direct competition sells and how their product is positioned. Is your competition a retailer’s #1 seller in a particular category? Are there advertisements, point of purchase displays, or end-caps dedicated to your competitor’s product or brand? If so, chances are you aren’t going to out market them. But, does your product offer a different value proposition (an innovative feature, or ingredient), or does it attract a different niche all-together?

A good example of this would be Muscle Milk vs. Naked Juice, both of which offer ready-to-drink (RTD) protein beverages. Naked Juice is primarily knows for creating fruit juices and coconut water, but they also have a line of protein smoothies. Industry leader Muscle Milk does not offer juices. Their focus is primarily on powdered protein supplements, RTD protein beverages, as well as protein-based snack bars. At retail you might find these two RTD protein beverages side-by-side in the cold-case, but from their packaging design and marketing strategy there is a clear differentiation on which markets they are targeting. Muscle Milk’s use of professional athlete brand ambassadors such as Adrian Peterson and Stephen Curry helps define their strategy, which focuses more on gym-goers and athletes. Naked Juice, down to it’s namesake, has a design strategy, product, and ingredient story that appeals more to the natural food lover. Did Naked Juice allow Muscle Milk to define and create a market for RTD protein shakes? Did Muscle Milk leverage Naked Juice’s marketing to establish a niche category for plant-derived RTD protein beverages, and create a plant-based RTD product line of their own called Evolve? Either way, you can see where one brand learned from the other and developed a design and marketing strategy of their own. It’s key to know your demographic.

4. FIND A PACKAGING DESIGNER AND GET A PROPOSAL

You’ve identified your customer and learned from your competition, now it’s time to find your packaging designer. There are many resources that you could use. Most of my packaging design clients come as referrals from other happy clients, or from Google searches and online/social media reviews. When you find a few different designers that you are interested in, call or email them and create some form of dialogue. A good working relationship and creative chemistry between designer and client can go a long way.

Ask prospective designers for samples of their work, as well as any referrals or testimonials from other clients. Before selecting a car or new flat screen television, most of us would research blogs and articles to select the best their money can buy—so do your research when looking for a packaging designer. While there are thousands of excellent designers out there, I highly recommend selecting a designer who has experience with packaging. Packaging design requires technical knowledge other types of design may not, such as familiarity with regulatory and Federal Laws; and having someone with experience can save you time and money in the long run. Mistakes like improperly formatted nutrition facts, false organic and kosher certifications, as well as fonts and UPC codes that are too small could cause you to be fined, or seized from the product shelves. While finding a packaging designer with experience may cost you more money up front (versus your nephew Joey that just pirated the Adobe Creative Suite, and needs a summer design internship), having an experienced packaging design may alleviate future financial and legal headaches.

If you have a budget, communicate it up front. It’s understandable that you may not want to disclose your budget or may not know what to expect. Make sure that you know what you are getting from your designer for the proposed cost. How many design concepts are you getting? Will you or your printer receive production art? Who owns the rights to the artwork? If you receive a working contract and don’t understand what you are receiving don’t hesitate to ask your designer to explain your deliverables, as well as payment terms and conditions—don’t just assume that because you have 15 products, that your project will cover all 15 products. A credible business will want you to be comfortable and clear on the parameters of your design project to create a long, healthy, working relationship. Your value as a lifetime client far outweighs a one-time, price-gouged project. Additionally, most designers would much rather let a client know up front what can be achieved within their project budget—it allows for more creative freedom.

5. HAVE A CREATIVE KICK-OFF MEETING

If you have the luxury of selecting a local packaging designer or agency, meet with them in person. Discuss any ideas or visions that you may have for your brand and product, and show them examples of other package designs or brands that you like. Also, provide them with any market and competitive research that you have done. The more information and inspiration that you provide up front will help to ensure that you are both on the same page. Some clients are more hands-on than others during the design process, but it’s up to your designer to take all of your information and bring your vision to life. If you have very specific design elements, imagery, or call-outs that need to be incorporated tell them upfront. While designers have a lot of hidden talents, chances are mind reading isn’t one of them. At this stage you’ll also want to communicate any production schedules, trade shows, or product releases that you may have. This will help your designer formulate a project timeline, as well as schedule checkpoints along the way.

6. REVIEW YOUR PACKAGING DESIGN CONCEPTS

We recommend spending about a week to review the concepts. Let the excitement sink in for a day or two, and then sit down and really look at them. During this stage you’ll want to make sure that your designer included any touch points and key elements into their concepts. If your designer completely missed the concept, or did not communicate something correctly, now is the time to have an open discussion to see if anything was miscommunicated or misinterpreted. It’s always easier to recover now than it is down the road.

If everything was communicated correctly and you are having a hard time deciding between concepts, try and find someone in your product’s demographic and get feedback from them. While something might look great to you and your designer, it may not appeal to your demographic. In some instances it’s difficult to step away from your familiarity with your product to see it from a consumer’s perspective. Survey groups are a great way to get feedback. There are great free online resources such as surveymonkey.com that can help you extend your market research.

Consolidate all feedback and try and select one design to move forward with. It’s much more efficient and cost effective for you and your designer to make one great design concept perfect to serve as the “template” for the rest of your product line. Designers have thick skin and are used to criticism, so be open and honest with them if things didn’t come out as expected. Again, this is where chemistry and healthy open dialogue can really cut down on mistakes, schedule interruption, and production setbacks.

7. APPROVE FOR PRINT AND PRODUCTION

This is definitely where working with someone with industry experience can pay off. During this process you and your designer should have selected other vendors such as a printer, packaging supplier, co-packer, and distributor. Typically, once you’ve approved the design, it will head off to the printer and a set of printer’s proofs will be sent to you for review. Printed “hard proofs” are generally the best way to review printer’s proofs. They usually will not be printed on the actual packaging materials, but reviewing paper, or color-matched proofs — a more accurate representation than viewing a digital proof on a monitor. While digital proofs might be quicker, everyone reviewing them may have different monitor colors so not every digital proof will look the same. You, or your designer, should make any last-minute revisions or modifications at this time. Once the modifications are made and the proofs look perfect, whoever holds the account with the printer will sign off. The printer will then schedule the production run, and it’s always beneficial to do a press check. Press checks help to ensure color accuracy, as well as allow you to see how the design looks on the actual packaging substrate. If something isn’t working out here, there is room for color adjustment, or it could be pulled off press and addressed if need be. Pulling something off of the press at this point could cost you some money and time, but it’s certainly not as costly as having your unseen production run show up the day your product is to be packaged, and it’s entirely the wrong color—unfortunately, I have seen this happen.

During the design process don’t be afraid to be bold and unique. From my example of Muscle Milk versus Naked Juice, it’s very clear that products have a direct influence on our feelings, and that packaging designs can be strategically crafted towards a specific audience or niche. In the end, your packaging design needs to communicate the purpose of what’s inside the package, what your brand stands for, and what it means to you and your customers.


Chad Birenbaum
Co-Founder, Duckpin Design
Chad has been developing, managing and executing complex design solutions for 16 years. He especially enjoys the process of developing a brand from the ground up. Chad’s keen sense of style, and ability to understand and bring a client’s vision to life has made him an invaluable asset to Duckpin Design.

When not “fontscavating” for his collection, you might catch Chad exploring the backwoods of Baltimore County while on his bike or running a trail or two.