top of page

Consumer-Based, Research-Driven Packaging Design Strategy — Michael Keplinger

How do you develop an effective branding strategy? What role does package design play in regard to product marketing and eCommerce? While the internet makes entering the market easier and easier, what barriers still exist for brands? Michael Keplinger from SmashBrand answers these questions and many more.

Michael Keplinger is a partner at SmashBrand and an expert in consumer product marketing strategy. Smash Brand is an agile brand strategy agency for consumer packaged goods. They specialize in a complete approach to market research, product design, and testing. Keplinger currently leads SmashBrand’s research team, developing strategies for clients and optimizing various aspects of branding and packaging through testing.

In today’s episode of the Harvest Growth Podcast, we’ll cover:

  • How branding strategy can help your business grow quickly and profitably

  • The importance of a complete approach to market research by getting consumer feedback throughout the whole design process

  • How to optimize branding and packaging through testing

  • How “Tomato Love” by Red Gold grew their business with a few simple design changes

  • And so much more!


You can listen to the full interview on your Desktop or wherever you choose to listen to your podcasts.

Watch the full video interview below.


Work with SmashBrand

Check them out at! If you have any questions about a possible design project, email them at


Do you have a product that you’d like to launch or grow? Do you want help from a partner that has successfully launched hundreds of products that now total over $2 billion in revenues? Visit Harvest Growth to set up a free phone consultation. Along with that, head over to Infomercial Marketer for educational content on all things surrounding direct-response marketing.


Prefer reading instead of listening? Continue reading for the full podcast transcript.

Jon: Branding and packaging strategy can really help your business grow quickly and profitably. In today's interview, I speak with an expert in consumer product marketing strategy. I'm really excited today to interview Michael Keplinger. He's a partner at SmashBrand, which is they call themselves an agile brand strategy agency for consumer packaged goods that really specializes in a complete approach to market research, product design, and testing. We're going to go into a lot of questions in our interview today about those topics. He currently leads SmashBrand's research team to develop strategies for clients and to optimize various aspects of branding and packaging through testing.

We'll dive deep on some of those issues as we talk today. As many of you are aware that have been in our audience for a long time harvest growth, we're big believers in the value of market research. Michael and his team at SmashBrand do their research in unique ways, again, specifically on branding and on the packaging, but also for other things we'll dive into today. Well, Michael, welcome to the show.

Michael Keplinger: Thanks, Jon. It's great to be here and talk with you today.

Jon: If you could round out your bio, I gave you a couple of sentences, but you can probably describe it better than I did. Tell me a little bit more about, who you are as an agency and really what you do to help your clients.

Michael: Sure. SmashBrand, I think we're fairly unique in that through a number of ways, and I'm happy to talk through how we landed here, which is, I have a background in engineering, but really taking some of that data side, and consumer testing and integrating it right into our whole process. Along with the steps of developing strategy, validating that strategy with consumers.

Then when we go to design, where a lot of times it is the end of the road for a lot of brands along the way, we have multiple touchpoints where we can get in there and get that consumer feedback, find what's working, and ultimately, have a much more effective product that just resonates with consumers and it matches what they're looking for. That's our little secret recipe and really what we do differently. There's a lot of clients that get a lot of success from that.

Jon: I always like to jump into the end result, get our audience excited by the success that you've seen and what you deliver, and then let's rewind and talk about what that process is, really understand, peel back the onion as it were on your tactics or your techniques for market research. Let's start off. Do you have some examples of clients you've worked with and some of the success stories you've seen, rebranding efforts that have come through this research, et cetera?

Michael: I'll find one to talk about because I finally can. They're currently on the shelf as of the last month here, but grocery store, grocery product, canned tomatoes, talk about a boring category. You walk down there it's all the same. The packaging is hardly been changed. You've got, more or less, a co-op that all they do are tomatoes in the Midwest and hundreds and hundreds of acres. They just are getting killed. They're in grocery all over the place and can't be different.

They came to us and they wanted this incremental change. They said, "Well, we're going to show you some radical change and we're going to show you how we can approve more or less through testing and validating, how you can be successful."

We basically just launched a sub-brand of a big company called Red Gold and called Tomato Love. It's very fun. It's bright, it's vibrant. It's a mix of diced tomatoes and chili peppers, and the packaging is just so different. It's really attracting to a millennial audience, different moms that are now busy on the go, and that whole process could have never happened. It was so much radical change for a brand that's on the shelf without really proving it to them. I really think of the testing as is not only getting it right but de-risking it so they're not so worried about putting this on the shelf and be successful.

They're all over the country, but now they've got the commissary picking them up, Kroger, throwing it into every store. They were out of Kroger five years ago and they said, "Oh my God. We weren't even pitching them this product. They saw it and said, 'What is that? We want that on the shelf.' " It's on every store shelf in all Kroger stores now. That was a really fun project, very involved in an entire beginning-to-end process of everything that we do. It's definitely a fun one to talk about.

Jon: That it is. It's fun to create something from scratch or from the ground up like that when you're developing your strategy. Talk to us about your process. Whether it's that example or other clients that you've worked with, what is your process from start to finish? You've got the problem of, "We've got a product," it might be canned tomatoes, it might be whatever, how do you develop the story or the brand behind that?

Michael: Sure. It's going to always start with the strategy. The example I gave is a product that's already on the shelf but it applies just the same to a lot of brand new products that are coming out, challenger brands that have something new and different, and how do they stand out? Especially when you've got these existing brands that really have a large market share, you have to be different. You have to disrupt that. That strategy work, in the beginning, is really trying at a high level, just get inside the customer's head.

We talk about consumer products on the shelf and it's proverbial today because the shelf is multi-dimensional now. You've got Amazon still considered the shelf, but we can still frame it around something that's very relatable to us in that verbal shelf, like the grocery store or a drug store, Home Depot, it doesn't matter what it is. You walk down there and that consumer's got a lot of stuff going on in their head. They've got their whole life experiences, their expectations, their products and things. All these things are really happening inside their head. It's pretty difficult to un-map all that. You've got trends that change.

That's the strategy really at a high level. It's different for every category. Are you appealing to a new audience? What's different about that different generation or audience? How does it all fit in? Is it super crowded or are you actually a different subcategory that you're trying to make people change their paradigm to think about this in a different way? That's really where it starts at and trying to find that white space. What's different? You can take the same thing and say it differently. Somehow, something clicks in the consumer's mind and they conceptually think about it differently.

That's the strategy. We validate that, we test it, "Yes, it's going to work. It's differentiated enough." More or less, that would be our strategy and where we go into the design with a brief like, "This is who we're designing for. This is what's important to them. These are some ways to bring that to life." Our design team will really go through some concepts and find ways to bring that to the forefront, to really express that new positioning to that new audience.

We might go into one of our first types of testing that we do with something tangible, an art or concept test. We can bring, five, eight concepts in there and really measure what's working, what's not working, throw away a whole bunch of designs, and learn from that process to reiterate down the path.

Jon: Perfect. It is so important as you said, to start with a strategy. Once you've got that nailed down, the rest can really fall into place. If you don't think about your strategy, so many inventors and entrepreneurs especially will be tempted to sprint. You've got an idea, I've got to get it done and get it to market. Yes, you can move fast, absolutely, but you can actually move faster and better if you start with that strategy first. Slow down in the beginning, get it figured out, and then you've got fewer iterations because then your first design concepts are getting much closer in.

You're going to love it, the client's going to love it, more importantly, consumers or the customers are going to love it as well once you have that strategy piece figured out. I love that. It's a great point to bring up. That's really where you start, and it doesn't have to slow you down. If you do strategy the right way, it can actually speed up the entire process because you're avoiding mistakes and missteps along the way.

Michael: I haven't always been in just the CPG space, I've done tech startups and things like this. I've done a lot of stuff over the years. We're all trained, really, of, "Everything's agile. Minimum viable product. Put the thing out there as fast as possible, it doesn't matter if it's right. Learn from your mistakes." There's certainly something to that. If you put five things out there that are so far off the mark, then how do you know if you're really doing it?

I think that the right approach is to strike a balance between trying to-- and really putting that product out there is to learn as fast as you can, but you can learn a tremendous amount just by doing that upfront research and short circuit a lot of that stuff. When you've got software and you can change it really fast it's a bit different when you've got a product on the shelf, and it tends to be a bit static after that point.

Jon: Do you guys talk about research? You talk about doing it in a different way versus the traditional, call it old-fashioned or whatever, market research. Talk to us about what does that means to you? How do you do your research in this impactful way?

Michael: I would say, surprisingly, things are changing quickly, but a lot of the paradigms of researchers really come from the day when we had just a few products on the shelf. We had 13 channels on the television and we had mass market. Everyone knows the term "mass market". It implies that you can market your products, you can talk to the masses and they're going to make a selection between a small subset. All we have to do is look at the grocery store as an example of, what used to be maybe 10,000 products on the shelf and it's pushing 50,000 products. Niche, niche, niche, and everything gets more narrow. You've got Seth Godin, really smart marketers that talk about pride marketing because it's just has changed it so much. Where you look at personas, and all the time we get clients, and we say, "Who's your target customer?" "Moms, females, 18 to 45." That's not a target customer. That's a target customer in the '60s in mass market. When you said, "Oh, the majority of them are watching Channel 12," but that's not today.

We let go of demographics, and not only that, but people self-select into what their interests are. They're driving [unintelligible 00:10:43] going, the Facebook and the Google algorithms are geared towards tuning into that. We see it through remarketing. What's more important than focusing on the people is focusing on the psychology, the psychographics of what motivates them, what drives them.

If you get that right, you have people that, the traditional persona, they look nothing alike, but they both want the same product. That is one of the things that we turn a little bit upside down, we focus so much more on the psychology behind the motivations and the drivers and things like this. Certainly, those other pieces matter, but that's probably one of the first things.

Secondly, we really take ideas of strategy, things that we think are going to work and we bring it into testing. We begin with the end-of-mind, packaging at the end of the day of a retail product. As a job to do, it has to communicate, the brand has to communicate the core differentiators of the product and a motive in a functional level. If you have a good strategy, you begin with that end-in-mind, then you just tell consumers what it is that your end result is, and they help steer you through the right communication, the right visuals that help get you there. Then you flip it and go back and test them up against your competition to see if you're winning or not.

I think that whole process is probably why I call it aligned with agile of something that is still fairly rooted in some very, very traditional ways of doing things.

Jon: You talked earlier too about challenger brand, or think about it as a small brand, for a lot of our audience that may not know that terminology. You're coming up against big competition and you might be the small fish in the pond kind of thing. For the strategy work that you do with clients, how do they keep from getting lost in the market?

Michael: The challenger brands?

Jon: Yes.

Michael: It's interesting about these brands because a lot of them don't really-- some do, but don't really do this deep research. They don't really have, I would say, a very specific strategy that they know is going to win and they just hone in on it. Instead, what you see is you have a bunch of challenger brands, there's 10 or 20 of them, and 18 or 19 of them fail that none of us ever hear about, and then the one that guessed it right, what they can do though is they have nothing to lose. They have no risk and so they can experiment and we really tie into these things.

If that's what's working and you could be that brand that gets lucky on it, or you understand that actually being radical, being different is very effective, is very disruptive, it's really eating at those large brands like Proctor & Gamble, Conagra Foods, that's what keeps them up at night, you actually apply that research and you find a strategy, that's a winning strategy, and maybe you test that strategy, then I think that the ratio of success of those brands can really go up dramatically.

The problem with the big brands is that when they're in the market, like I talked earlier about Tomato Love and I have plenty of examples that we've done with SmashBrand, we've taken them so far radically different that without the testing, the brand there can't take that much risk. There's too much to lose, and so we de-risk it for them. That's the difference with the challenger brands. They have nothing to lose. They can be very risky and different. That's what makes it so exciting because that's what's working, that's what the effect is, that's what consumers, what's resonating with them is just radical change in difference and disruptive on the shelf, and the big brands just can't keep up by and large.

Jon: I know a lot of our listeners too are in the e-commerce world. They may either never want to go into retail, or it's certainly not on day one, where they're starting off in that space, and yet packaging design is still important. I think we understand when you walk down and you've got 50,000 competitors in a grocery store, really, you're competing for attention as shoppers go through the store. E-commerce is different. At least in their minds, the first thing that comes to mind is not necessarily the packaging. Why do you think that packaging is still very relevant in this e-commerce world?

Michael: I talked about earlier the proverbial shelf. SmashBrand is our primary business, but we started a health food company, 20 years ago about, and today we still have two brands we sell on Amazon. I'm very familiar with probably really what you're talking about, this audience and what they do. There's an interesting thing, if you're digital and you're talking about activation, you've got a product, or you've got a service, and this is working and this works better for this audience, "Let's AB test, and make tweaks and things like this," it's really easy to not think a whole lot about what works. You just wait to see how it all shuffles out.

The idea of something physical and printed and even on Amazon, if it's never on a shelf, ultimately at the end of the day, a physical product is showing up in their hands. That is a reinforcement of it. Also, I would say that being the nature of static, you think about it differently, it almost forces you to try to get it right. At the end of the day, you look at Amazon and the product images, and Amazon wants a picture of the product. If it's a really big box, they might show the product without packaging, but the packaging is still a very large part of your listing. It's the reflection of the product and the quality.

When it shows up in the box at your doorstep, it's the reinforcement of that. You dovetail that together of, if you do it and you realize, "if I print these, I'm printing thousands of them, I'm going to do it right." It almost is an exercise to force you could to think about it more than you will otherwise, and not be lazy about it.

I'm still a really, really big believer. We have clients that call like, "Oh, okay, you guys do on-the-shelf, but I'm an Amazon brand, can you still help me?" I'm like, "Absolutely," because at the end of the day Amazon-- and I'm picking on Amazon because they're the big beast out there, but it applies to whether you're selling on your own website, Shopify or Walmart.

There's a lot of competition. It's easier than ever to bring products to the market. What worked 10 years ago, you just stick anything on there and it sells, just isn't going to work anymore. You have to ultimately be a good product. It doesn't mean that the exact same product is made by the exact same Chinese manufacturer, that really strong branding and standing for more than repeating the same product features is what the product is about. It's there's an emotive side of it, the brand stands for something, and that comes through in design and visuals, and all those pieces come together. Really, really firm believer in that.

Jon: I totally agree. I think part of what makes packaging so important in the retail space is the ability to find it, standing out amongst the competitive set, but beyond that, what it shares, and that may be less relevant in e-commerce on websites and on Amazon, in terms of the packaging to make it stand out potentially. The part that I would say is more important and certainly permeates through e-commerce and retail alike is that trust factor.

When you feel confident in the quality of the packaging, the messaging that's on there, it's going to speak to you, you're going to trust that it's going to work well. You're solving the problem that the consumers are having in their own minds. It's part of the experience overall. Everyone goes back to Apple as one of the innovators in this space where you-- as I look around my office, my employees keep their mouse boxes or keyboard boxes for Apple. It's hard to throw away because the experience is so good.

There's a thousand ways to do that, where if you make that experience better, whether it's in retail or whether it's showing up on your doorstep, the experience breeds trust, it breeds excitement for the brand, it breeds storytelling, sharing your experience with others. You may or may not talk about the packaging itself, but you're going to talk about the experience of the product. That's just certainly a big part of it. I couldn't agree with you more in that aspect.

Michael: Yes, definitely.

Jon: Are there any questions Michael, that I didn't ask that you think would be relevant for our audience?

Michael: No, this is going to be an edit time. You put me on the spot. I think a good question that fits with your audience really is-- We talked about all this stuff, we are an agency, we do this for a living. A small brand that's just starting out, that's maybe not ready to hire SmashBrand, how do they tackle this? How do they break it apart? How do they think about this?

I'll try to give a couple of few pieces here that I think will help and put it there. Let's say, and I'll stick along the Amazon because they sell everything, if you don't sell on Amazon or you're going into a grocery store, or even a service, honestly, just spend a lot of time with your competitors, understand what they're saying. Almost be scientific about it, make a chart. Say, "I see a lot of blues and greens. They're all saying these things, but then there's a lot of people complaining about the same things in the reviews." Looking for these keywords, "I wish X, Y, Z."

Finding those gaps, you just spend a lot of time inside the customer's shoes. It's easier than ever to get inside their head. The Q&A and reviews and people talking about products through social media and online, you'll find some nuggets. It's not easy work, but anyone can do it if they commit the time to it. We have this saying, really this idea, that there are all these pieces and they just make no sense. They're all seemingly on unrelated. The longer you stare at them, eventually, they all just click into place. At really, really high level, that is where strategy is born. It just suddenly clicks all together and makes sense. If you're at it and it hasn't happened yet, just keep going at it. Someday, it all clicks together and you have that "aha" moment. That's the beginning of your strategy.

Jon: That's great advice. I think it's certainly a path you can walk down to start on your own, and then, at the right time, of course, bring in in experts like Michael and his agency SmashBrand to really take it to the next level, going forward. Michael, again, thank you so much for your time.

I do want to encourage our listeners, go to their website or look up Michael on LinkedIn. We'll post his full name, LinkedIn profile, et cetera, in the show notes. You can click on there to learn more, to get in contact with Michael, to see how they might be able to answer some questions for you on developing your own strategy, whether it's packaging or overall branding strategy to really help your consumer product business grow.

Also, be sure to check out to see other episodes we've recorded. If you like this episode, and you want to learn more about how you can profitably grow your consumer product business, please subscribe to our show and be sure to leave us a review on iTunes and Google play. Thanks again.


bottom of page