Brian Mtongana was born and in Carletonville which is about forty kilometres from Johannesburg. He studied Graphic Design, graduated in 2001 at Durban University of Technology, and was awarded Designer of the Year with three distinctions for design. That same year Brian won a design competition which was curated by award-winning Australian Creative Director Vince Frost. That’s when Ravi Naidoo, founder of Design Indaba and Interactive Africa, spotted him and offered Brian a job where he worked for eight years. In 2008 he had an opportunity to work in Australia for Frost Design. In 2010 he was headhunted by Woolworths to come join the inhouse creative agency. The rest is history. Designtimes had the pleasure of speaking to Brian about the packaging design at Woolworths.


When did Woolworths make the move to set up its own in-house design studio?
It was in 2009 when Woolworths started the inhouse creative agency. Frost Design at the time assisted Woolworths with scouting talent to work on packaging design for the brand. In 2013 with the success of the packaging design studio we expanded to a full-service agency including digital, through-the-line and all aspects of production implementation.


How does it feel to be working on food packaging that’s considered some of the best in South Africa? How have you managed to keep the high standard that the public come to expect?
It is an exciting privilege indeed and we don’t take it lightly as the brand in its nature has very high standards for any project it produces. Style and quality, together with innovation are some of the key values we all live by. Together with my awesome team of designers and with support from our account managers, our role is to ensure that we maintain that standard. We keep raising the bar and keep evolving and pushing boundaries, never compromising the personality of the brand. The market is highly competitive and to us design is the DNA of the brand. It’s one of the tools we use to compete in the market. If you don’t innovate you will be consumed. It’s also been amazing how our customers can identify any piece of work from Woolworths because as a brand we have managed to create a strong and recognizable design personality.


How often do you redesign packaging for existing products? Does all packaging design have a lifespan at Woolworths?
Mainly every two to three years. There are different factors that influence refreshing of packaging. It could be a strategic change on the range itself or a repositioning influenced by customer or market behaviour. Also as we evolve the brand we watch for designs maybe needing a bit of a refresh.

Could you talk us through a packaging design project?
We take a brief from the business department, eg Food, Fashion, Home, review the brief to ensure clarity, brainstorm the solution and then review the proposed design direction. Once we are happy with the direction, confident it aligns with brand and strategy and delivers to customer and commercial expectations, we revert back to the business department. There may follow a period of revision and revert, before we land final sign-off and proceed into production implementation and roll-out.
What has been one of the most challenging packaging design projects you’ve worked on and why?
There isn’t any specific one that comes to mind but I think the most challenging ones are the ones where you have two different profiles of customer buying a product. It’s tricky to know between the two who you should design for, and find a solution which will appeal to both.

What has been the most successful packaging design that’s impacted sales at Woolworths?
There’s been many, but what comes to mind now is our Christmas 2014 packaging. It was the best Christmas we’ve ever had in terms of sales and design. We had a significant commercial uplift on the previous year and customers were extremely complimentary about our packaging design. We recently won the World’s Best Instore Campaign at the World Department Store Forum 2015 in Rome, and packaging was a critical pillar in our campaign success.

Packaging design is often influenced by brand representation, sustainability of materials used, reusability of packaging or competitor differentiation. Which of these do you feel is the most important?
I think in the context of the Woolworths brand it’s brand representation as the brand itself stands for quality, value, making a difference and delivering to sustainability.When customers buy something from Woolies they know its quality and the brand is recognised as being a responsible retailer locally and internationally.

How important is sustainable packaging to both the company and consumers?
Sustainability is one of our pillars as a business. When when we get briefed on a design job, sustainability is one of the key deliverables on the project, eg FSC approved substrates, recyclable materials, reusable packaging, or substrates made from recyclable materials and, wherever possible, printed with environmentally-friendly inks.


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