A taste for success: staying ahead in chocolate packaging

26 April 2013

With more than 70 stores in the UK and a growing presence across Europe and the US, multimillion-pound-turnover British cocoa grower and chocolatier Hotel Chocolat puts a high premium on brand identity and consistency. Andy Simpson, chief designer and a key player in the firm’s packaging production process, explains how a reliable and efficient prepress operation is essential for maintaining a strong presence in the competitive retail environment.

The past few weeks have been particularly busy for the packaging team at Hotel Chocolat. As the firm enters its range sign-off period, numerous decisions are made on which product lines will be rebranded or relaunched, and the art direction these will take. The group's core box line, one of its biggest sellers, has just undertaken a significant redesign and is due back on shop shelves with a creative, exciting new look at the end of April. But no sooner has this been finalised than the packaging design and procurement division is firmly setting its sights on the Halloween and Christmas ranges.

Subtlety is key

"The key is to be creative and individual and never gimmicky because when you move into that territory you are far removed from the luxurious brand message we want to promote," says Andy Simpson, the group's chief designer. Part of a team of 12, he is a major advocate of using the best print and prepress technology available to produce packaging that the team, and brand, can be proud of. "You run the risk of undermining your brand integrity if you cut corners and put out a package that not only looks or feels unattractive but also does no justice to the actual product inside it," he says.

The seasonal nature of retail plays a major part in the branding of Hotel Chocolat products. "We always add detail and intricacy into the design and really add something extra so the product package keeps giving, even after it is open - we exist to make our guests happy. For our Christmas campaign last year, we used minimal colour on Rudolph, adding just a detail of red to his nose. It was subtle and understated, and added visual humour, and the feedback was incredibly positive."

"We are not looking at smothering the product but encouraging the consumer to 'expect the unexpected'."

As part of a group that places a strong emphasis on design, Simpson is also key to the group's packaging sourcing strategy, which actively sources new suppliers that range from those offering self-adhesive labels to those handling materials, substrates, prepress and printing services. "We are always trying to push the boundaries, especially when it comes to effects such as foiling and embossing, intricate designs and playing off two different finishes.

So not only are we occasionally printing on the reverse of the board, we are offsetting it with a crisp, sharp foil that contrasts or a small part of gloss UV varnish against a soft touch. We are not looking at smothering the product but more at promoting the texture and encouraging the consumer to 'expect the unexpected'."

Prepress production

The majority of the group's prepress operation takes place across its supplier base, but Hotel Chocolat gives a good deal of thought to how its new product designs will appear and react to factors such as store lighting. To this end, the company has its own mock-up store and wet proof operation, which enables it to pre-empt how its new design will look in the shop environment.

"We tend to design in 2D and then mock up a 3D product in our mock store," says Simpson. "In retail, you really need the store-like environment. We will also take new products to the genuine stores to ensure everything is up to scratch."

"We are the brand-owners and we physically make our product, but this does not make deadlines any less of an issue."

This hands-on approach to prepress means that the company will work closely with suppliers when a mock-up is required and certain processes aren't possible in-house. "We are advocates of seeing and feeling how the end-product will look on store shelves," says Simpson. "If you are spending months designing and producing a new or refreshed line, it makes no sense to fall at the final hurdle and give the go-ahead on something that fails to meet expectations.

I think that software such as 3D visualisation tools are fantastic and are coming of age but more suited to the client-facing, front-end businesses where the supplier is working on behalf of the client," he adds. "For a business such as ours, we go straight to mock-up stage after the design elements are finalised."

Joined-up process

Hotel Chocolat has worked with many of its suppliers over the long term, a factor Simpson pinpoints as key in developing the group's product offering in recent years. "Our supplier base means we work with various folding box and rigid box suppliers as well as label suppliers and tray producers. We are loyal to our suppliers and they are loyal to us but, make no mistake, we do demand high standards from them. I believe this only strengthens the relationships in the long run. "We run the complete Adobe suite and, by designing in-house and outsourcing print production, we can keep a stronger handle on many elements of the process. The prepress market is a fascinating area, but one we leave much of to the experts - as long as the artwork is press-ready, that is!"

Simpson adds: "We are somewhat different to a normal design agency in the sense that we are the brand-owners and we physically make our product, but this does not make deadlines any less of an issue. That is why we need to use the best design hardware and software and our suppliers need to work with best printing and prepress technology they can.

"If artwork is late then that will impact on the supplier's lead time and on the delivery, which will impact on the planning and production," he says. "We need to be designing 'on brand', with the correct artwork on cue and on time, and working to agreed print specifications. It really is a case of combining the processes to put together the best end-product you possibly can.

"A luxurious product requires creative packaging from concept to manufacture," he concludes. "That's how we deliver our edible luxury at Hotel Chocolat."

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