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Speed-to-Market in the Wake of COVID-19

A full-speed-ahead approach should include a well-defined destination and the avoidance of speed bumps.

Sterling Anthony, CPP, Packaging World Contributing Editor
Sterling Anthony, CPP, Packaging World Contributing Editor

At the time of this writing, vaccinations are in high gear. Still, what passed as normal before COVID-19 will not return entirely. Companies need to envision the enduring effects of the pandemic and to strategize for the associated challenges and opportunities. What will remain constant, however, is the importance of speed-to-market, along with the pivotal role played by packaging.

Speed-to-market is self-explanatory, but a few truths are worth mentioning. The sooner a product goes from concept to commercialization, the sooner revenues are received. Speed-to-market also is a boon when responding to an initiative of a competitor. Taken together, speed-to-market is a cornerstone of any strategy aimed at achieving and sustaining a competitive advantage.

COVID-19 vaccinations are prime examples of speed-to-market. So too are the flood of protective products, such as masks and face shields. In the U.S., vaccine developers—Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson—had a federal escort down the expressway and share in common with protective products the luxury of having everyone as a potential target consumer. Other companies, alas, must be more focused in their targeting, post-pandemic.

The pandemic has foisted changes on major aspects of consumer life, including home, work, recreation, travel, shopping, education, communication, socializing, and health. The changes overlap in a variety of combinations. The changes, furthermore, vary along demographic and psychographic strata.

It’s impractical to believe that, post-pandemic, there will be no residual effects on consumer thinking and behavior. Companies need to identify the changes to which they can best assign their resources and capabilities. Then, the task becomes converting ideas into products and getting them to market, fast.

It’s important to know one’s history, in terms of the average time taken for various types of projects, e.g. new product launches, package redesigns, brand extensions, and product-line extensions. From there, companies need to decide what changes to make, aimed at increasing speed-to-market. Ambition can range from streamlining to revamping.

Gone are the days when it was common for product development and package development to proceed sequentially. Gone, too, are the more recent times in which the two proceeded mostly along parallel tracks. The greater the integration, the better, given that packaging carries an inherent potential to impede speed-to-market.

That’s because packaging is interdisciplinary, subject to competing inputs from other disciplines. Managing trade-offs and compromises can be a protracted process. Packaging’s position on the organization chart and its sway vis-à-vis other disciplines (product development, marketing & sales, manufacturing, logistics, legal, etc.) impact how efficiently communications are conducted, conflicts are resolved, and approvals are reached. Packaging, managed competently, can increase speed-to-market, and the methods used can serve as models for other disciplines.

Speed-to-market needs to be research-driven, supported with systems and software that facilitate information-gathering, arrangement, analysis, and decision-making. Specific to packaging, time is sacrificed when research and testing only are used to decide among pre-developed alternatives. Knowing upfront consumers’ demands, wants, and expectations is better than trying to determine whether they’ve been met after the fact.

Research helps companies exercise discipline regarding the features designed into the packaged product. The objective should be to match the offering to the targeted consumer, without superfluous bells and whistles which can extend development time and decrease speed-to-market. Another possible effect of an over-designed packaged product is a non-competitive price.

The total time that constitutes speed-to-market is not evenly distributed across its components. Prioritizing on the basis of time-consumption makes sense. Packaging demonstrates that concept. For one company, supplier lead times might head the list. For another, it might be regulatory clearance. For yet another, it might be coordinating with design agencies. Such examples underscore that speed-to-market is the result of in-house activities and those of external partners. A company’s entire supply-chain offers opportunities to increase speed-to-market.

No matter how exacting, plans seldom, if ever, play out without a hitch. The faster the speed, the shorter the reaction time; therefore, flexibility and agility are invaluable. The best-suited project managers are nimble thinkers who give new meaning to “traveling at the speed of thought.” An enabling culture has to be endorsed by top management, emphasizing speed, but never at the expense of quality. Cut time, not corners. And, yes, due to the interdisciplinary nature of their function, packaging professionals should excel within such an environment.

Normal is relative, and any so-called new normal won’t remain new indefinitely. Companies must define today’s and tomorrow’s consumers in order to satisfy them better and faster than the competition. Given the certainty of post-pandemic impacts, companies need to take time out to strategize about how to take time out.

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