How to Succeed With Packaging Innovations at Your Company

Mars Wrigley Executive Gives Tips on Working Across Your Company Culture

How to Succeed With Packaging Innovations at Your Company
Digital Exclusive

The process of developing new packaging ideas in a large corporation—the road to innovation—never has been easy. But the journey still can be fun, suggests William A. Singleton III, global packaging director at Mars Wrigley Confectionary.

“It’s not always about the destination,” Singleton says in late October during Pack EXPO International in Chicago. “It’s also about pausing and having fun while you’re trying to get there.”

Singleton, who has nearly 20 years of experience in R&D and other roles, leads the packaging development team that continually seeks innovations that are marketable and promote sustainability. Family-owned Mars Wrigley is a global company and a signatory to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s sustainability pledge, which calls for packaging that is reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025 or 2030.

“Everybody’s going for the right thing, but how do we get there?” says Singleton, who works with teams of engineers, scientists, and designers to develop new packaging products. “And how do we enjoy this journey? Well, it’s not going to be easy.”

Obstacles Abound

Beyond the typical obstacles surrounding sustainability and R&D, the past several years have been punctuated by the COVID-19 pandemic, labor shortages, demand volatility, transportation problems, cyberattacks, and extreme weather.

“On top of that, you still have the typical issues for any business,” he says before outlining several key points that could help his counterparts in small or large companies who are trying to get new ideas to market. “Any time you have an innovation on sustainability, people will tell you the revenue is too small. They may say, ‘It’s too different’ or ‘It’s not something that we do here. It sounds expensive.’ You’ve heard it all before.”

But perseverance pays off, as well as being savvy about how your company operates. Here is a closer look at his presentation, “The Road to Packaging Innovation.”

Overcoming Internal Obstacles

Large companies, in particular, might not be inclined to take great risks. “A lot of companies in general are not out there to take risks. They’re out there to manage risks,” Singleton says. The people managing risks—whom Singleton calls “antibodies”—are necessary. “Antibodies aren’t a bad thing. Antibodies are meant to protect the system, protect the company.”

The key is to know who they are and how they think because you might need to persuade them that an innovation is the best course for the future. Don’t break the rules—bend them, he suggests. “But you can’t bend the rules unless you know them,” he says. And that requires knowing the internal processes better than anyone else. “The worst thing that you can do is show a sign that you’re something different because the antibodies will come directly after you. You have to disguise yourself as one of them. Know the rules.”

Be a Student

Singleton has an MBA from Vanderbilt University, Owen School of Business, in Nashville, Tennessee, and an undergraduate degree in packaging science from Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina. But he hasn’t stopped learning. “To be successful, always be a student of innovation—the methods, the processes, the value change, and new material designs,” he says. “Always learn. What are we doing in this company and how can we evolve?”  

Know the Language

Understand what words have power in your company and understand how the power is used, he also says. “You need to understand what makes sense in your organization. What sets off signals and what does not?” he says. “One thing that you think is great, exciting, seems like a lot of work for somebody else. So how can you connect with them—have that great understanding—so they feel like they’re part of the journey, and you’re not just throwing a lot of work their way.”

Choosing the right words can be critical, such as saying “pilot, not launch.” “Never say ‘launch’ around anyone in your organization. You’re piloting something. Whenever you’re piloting, they’ll give you a little more latitude,” Singleton says. “They’ll allow you the opportunity to play a little bit more. They will be more forgiving if it fails. Launch sets off a whole lot of other fireworks, so I typically say ‘pilot,’ even though I’m trying to launch this thing.”

When talking with finance people, he always uses ranges, not specifics. “Executives remember exacts,” he says. “When you talk ranges, you’re given a little bit more latitude.”

The Right Mindset

The right mindset starts with the individual. “Know your role. What are you doing here? What are you supposed to be doing here?” Singleton says. “And if you don’t know, go find out.”

It also means knowing your audience and understanding what they want to hear. “Understand what drives them, what connects them to what you’re doing,” he adds. “And understand exactly how you can get them to move forward as part of this narrative.”

Use LinkedIn to find people who think like you. “My greatest tool is LinkedIn. I look for people like me, who try to do things like me, and I call them up and ask, ‘What are you doing? How are you making this successful?’” he says. “And then I bring that back and say, ‘Hey, this is what I need to be doing, as well.’”

People like working on winning teams. “They want to be there, so you really need to understand how—beyond investment—you can keep them connected,” he says.

Metrics and Culture

Know your culture, Singleton says. “In most cultures, 70% of the culture is all about protecting the culture, and here you are coming along trying to change everything they know,” he says. “If you don’t understand your culture, that 70% is going to roll right over you. Make sure you understand the culture, understand the dynamics, how you can make connections, so you won’t get flattened by the 70%.”

That means knowing the metrics the company uses and why. “If you want to win the game, everyone needs to understand the rules upfront,” he says. If not, a credibility gap can emerge. “Be upfront with it.”

Set Milestones

People love to have a milestone where they can work to meet the challenge, he says. Team members will stay focused on the tasks and try to hit deadlines early. “When there is a milestone, there is a lot less debate because we know what we need to aim for,” Singleton says.

It also is important to reward progress over perfection, which means giving teams slack if they are a day or two behind, knowing that what they ultimately accomplished is great work. “That’s better than being six to eight months late or never getting it done.”

Find Hidden Supporters

Whenever he holds meetings to talk about a new idea, he opens it up to everyone and pays attention to who attends and who keeps coming back. Those people often become the project champions, and they might come from surprising departments, such as information technology (IT). “Look for that hidden talent that can support you along the way,” he says. “With sustainability or innovation, it might mean the lunch-and-learn. You see who shows up. Look for hidden figures.”

The hidden figures might also hold another resource —“OPM or other people’s money,” he says. An IT person who was interested in one of his projects brought about $500,000 to the effort, he points out. “These same individuals who love what you’re working on may have a lot to support you in your journey,” Singleton says.

That is where it can be important to open projects for input from anyone. “Had we not engaged and found that this person was a hidden figure, we would not have known that they had a hidden budget, as well. It’s always great to be inclusive as much as you possibly can and understand who is there, who is connected, who wants to be there, and maybe they will provide support with more than just their attendance in the meeting.”

That process has led to innovations in packaging sustainability that have included a paper-based flow wrap and improvements with the use of recycled content. “These are all great things, but we got these things done rather quickly with a team that was really engaged,” he says.

His team also looks at creating partnerships that might not have been considered before, such as working on a sustainability project that might lead to developments with an appliance maker or partnerships with spice companies, or more efforts with pharmaceuticals that might go beyond the traditional scope of what is done at Mars Wrigley. “What are some things that we can inspire, some partnerships that we can bring together?” he asks rhetorically. “How do you make those uncommon connections and bring them all together?”

Thomas A. Barstow is the senior editor of FlexPack VOICE®.