CBX’s Managing Director Satoru Wakeshima and Kara Buckler, Senior Director of Creative & Design at The J.M. Smucker Co., sat down to discuss the importance of package design and the design strategy behind their collaboration on the historic rebrand of Milk-Bone®. They talk about their tenures at their respective companies (nearly 40 years combined), how they were able to create a clear, consistent, and joyful portfolio architecture for Milk-Bone, and much more on Great Minds: The Podcast from Advertising Week.
A Bit of Background
In this world of mega-CPG conglomerates, The J.M. Smucker Co. is unique. While it’s a publicly traded company, there have been five generations of family leadership—today Mark Smucker is Chair of the Board, President and CEO—and many lifelong employees. Kara’s been with the company for 19 years, starting out as a package design coordinator in the early 2000s. And, while her career grew, the company went through epic growth as well. What started out as a jam and jelly company is now an $8 billion portfolio of brands like Folgers, Jif, Dunkin’, Milk-Bone, and so many more. Kara says, “The opportunity I’ve had to work on these iconic brands has been an absolute blast, but what’s really kept me inspired and here for so many years is the company itself and the people here.”
For his part, Satoru grew up in an artistic home in the 1970s and 1980s (his father is a contemporary artist), and this environment influenced how he looked at brands and design. Early in his career he benefited from working with some true visionaries. He was introduced to the idea of “emotional branding” before it was a thing and he later became well versed in how to tell a brand’s story. All of these skills are integral to his work today at CBX. He’s been with the branding agency for 14 years and credits his longevity to getting to wear many hats over the years and having the latitude to build meaningful partnerships, like the one with The J.M. Smucker Co.
The Importance of Design
Both Satoru and Kara are big believers in design. While some may argue that, traditionally, design wasn’t seen as equal to brand strategy and product innovation, Satoru feels that design has always played a crucial role in marketing. He says, “Design for products that people use in everyday lives—this is something we [at CBX] take very seriously because it’s really the impact the design can have on how people feel about brands. And the decisions they make and the choices they make in their everyday decisions.”
Kara agrees. She says that in her nearly two decades of working with brands, she has seen the field evolve. It’s less about decoration and more about delivering on strategy and solving a problem. She remarks, “Design can be one of the most important ways you can build long-term affinity and love for your brand.” She continues, “Milk-Bone is a shining example of how design can make a meaningful impact.”
Working with Heritage Brands
Milk-Bone is one of several heritage brands that comprise The J.M. Smucker Co. portfolio. Both Satoru and Kara agree that working with these heritage brands carries a great responsibility. As Satoru points out, Milk-Bone is a cultural icon. “Few brands that live in this category are noted in TV shows, mentioned by name in movies. Only Milk-Bone has that iconic status.”
It requires a delicate balance to make changes to brands that have lived in the hearts and minds of consumers for generations. On the one hand, you have to stay relevant, but on the other hand, it’s risky to make changes to a healthy brand. Because of this, you need to have a significant amount of data and research, but you also need courage and patience. And, perhaps most importantly, you must understand what’s important to your loyal customer base and to make sure you carry these beloved equities through when you undergo a refresh.
The Evolution of the Rebrand
Milk-Bone has long been America’s favorite dog biscuit brand and has continued to innovate over the years. The brand architecture has expanded to include a variety of treats, dental chews, and more. The packaging needed to reflect this growing portfolio of pet products and improve the shopability in-store. CBX and The J.M. Smucker Co. began working on the refresh in the fall of 2019. At that time, no one could predict the dramatic global events to come.
An interesting trend seen during the pandemic was a rise in pet adoptions. One in five households acquired a cat or dog, with 70% of U.S. households now fortunate enough to include a pet. The majority of pet adoptions were happening with Gen Z and millennials, and many were first-time pet owners. In doing the research for this rebrand, CBX learned that the purchase intent of many of these new pet owners is driven by being a nurturing, loving pet parent. Kara discovered an astonishing fact from Mintel: “More than 70% of consumers would cut back on spending in other areas of their lives before cutting back on spending on their pets.” They want the best for their pet and will spare no cost when it comes to their health and or bringing joy to their fur baby. Fortunately, “joy” has been central to the Milk-Bone brand identity for decades.
Kara and Satoru agree it was an exciting journey—bringing more joy, energy, and vibrancy to an already beloved brand. Kara says, “There’s great flow and great collaboration grounded in mutual respect. It’s a lot of fun and it never feels transactional.” She talks about how in the past clients would send an assignment over and the agency would work independently to create concepts. “Today it’s rolling up our sleeves and working together—everybody has a voice. There are no egos—that is what makes the partnership great.” Satoru agrees, saying a true collaboration is one of the great things about working with a company like The J.M. Smucker Co. This project benefited from commitment from a cross-functional team: everyone from production, creative, marketing, and insights to senior leadership contributed to the success of the rebrand.
Even with the best teamwork, COVID restrictions and complications required a lot of pivoting from the team and several starts and stops. In this uncertain time it was important to keep checking in with consumers, validating what was known, and discovering new insights. While the sense of urgency was there, refreshing a brand that was more than 100 years old required patience. All in all, it was approximately a two-year process that netted better photography and better design to depict the emotional connection with the brand and help organize the growing portfolio, leading to higher purchase interest and a more compelling shelf set. Together, through mutual respect, dedication, and loyalty to Milk-Bone, CBX, and The J.M. Smucker Co. created a foundation for continued success.
To learn more about the historic Milk-Bone rebrand, check out the podcast here.