Interview With PTIS Co-founder Brian Wagner

One of the things I enjoy about law blogging is my opportunity to interview thought leaders in the intellectual property arena. Recently I had the opportunity to be introduced to Brian Wagner who is a co-founder of a company called “Packaging & Technology Integrated Solutions“(PTIS).

PTIS is a group of “Global Management and Packaging Consultants.” I got a chance to discuss how packaging is relevant to intellectual property such as trademarks, trade dress and patents.

PTIS’ serves nearly 100 Fortune 500 companies from around the globe, and from all areas of industry, trade organizations, government, and academia. Packaging is also vital to the sustainability of our environment. PTIS consults corporate America with regard to new and innovative ways to preserve both the IP rights of their clients and the environment without sacrificing profitability.

Thank you, Brian Wagner for participating in the interview. Here are the Q&A’s:

What type of company is Packaging & Technology Integrated Solutions (PTIS)?

PTIS is a management consultancy providing strategic and tactical professional services.

Some areas of specialization include innovation, organization strategy and sustainability.

Can you tell me a little about your background and how you started in the packaging industry?

After graduating from Canisius High School, I left Buffalo in 1979 for Michigan State University to study business, intending to return some day to join my father’s Insurance Agency (R.A. Wagner Agency). A series of circumstances and dislike for accounting led to a program switch into the School of Packaging where I joined 1200 undergrads and a thriving program.

I interned with IBM in Rochester, MN learning I had made a great choice and learning a lot about a great corporation. When I graduated in 2004, the “rust belt” was earning its name and jobs in western NY and Michigan were scarce. IBM offered great opportunities, but an opportunity with consumer products and General Foods (now part of Kraft) was more enticing – so I moved to Cranbury, NJ to begin my career.

Since then, I have worked for great companies including Burger King, Multisorb Technologies (Buffalo, NY), Sara Lee and Kellogg’s. In December of 2000 I co-founded PTIS, and we have now led consulting efforts for over 200 leading companies and brands including many of the Fortune 500.

Why is the packaging of a product so important?

Packaging is estimated to be a $650bn global industry, though estimates range as high as $3tn. Depending on the industry and what is being packaged, packaging serves a number of functions – and quite often is “the product.”

When it works well, consistent with delivering the product and brand promise, we take it for granted. When something is wrong, we quickly recognize it and the product and brand value are damaged as well.

Some studies suggest that if all food could be packaged as it is in the western world, we would solve world hunger. The amount of waste, spoilage and disease that exists in much of the world’s food supply chain is due in large part to inferior or even no packaging.

E. Bryan Finison, Jr., in his monthly column on business concepts called the “Finison Corner” wrote a book review about Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink entitled “Finison Corner – Blink – The Power of Thinking without Thinking” (PDF) he highlighted the idea that “Package design will impact the consumers’ perception of how a product will perform, and even impact the way a product tastes.”

I found this description of packaging on Scrib– it is simple and not bad:

  • Packaging is the science, art and technology of enclosing or protecting products for distribution, storage, sale and use.
  • Packaging is a coordinated system of preparing goods for transport, warehousing, logistics, sale and use.
  • Packaging helps the consumer quickly understand what the product is all about
  • Packaging is a silent salesman

How have you been able to use your own expertise in the packaging field to help other companies better market their products?

I have been blessed with learnings and lessons from some of the best researchers, designers and packaging professionals in the world – starting with consumer insight and understanding. We regularly teach companies how to do research on packaging and how best to extract meaningful and relevant insights that can be translated into successful package designs.

Much consumer product research focuses on products, brands and advertising – packaging is taken for granted and can be the reason a product succeeds, or fails. Over 150,000 new products are launched globally every year, and over 80% fail in 6 months. I believe poor understanding of packaging is one of the key reasons.

How can a company protect the packaging and display of its products?

As you know, the world of packaging design patents is very crowded. However, patents (design, utility and process), trade secrets and trade dress are commonly used to protect inventions in the packaging space. Of course graphic elements are protected with copyrights and trademarks.

Note that Trade Dress is increasingly used by major national brands to defend their package size, shape, and overall design versus private label competitors attempting to copy them in the marketplace.

Why is it so important for a company to protect its Intellectual Property? How does this relate back to the packaging industry?

Packaging is similar to other industries in this regard. A significant amount of time, resources and money are expended to invent and innovate – and without IP protection, it would be simple for competitors to copy package (and packaging machinery) designs and processes. In the end, without IP protection, innovation would likely cease.

Have you filed for patents or trademarks in the past?

I only have my name on one patent (US Patent 6,641,854 PDF), but have been very involved in the process many times.

The kinds of companies we work with all value IP protection, with policies and processes, so being involved in these processes is unavoidable.

Why is it so important for a company to differentiate its product’s trade dress? How does this contribute to its overall success?

As mentioned previously, the use of Trade Dress protection has increased in recent years, in particular where large national brands such as Procter & Gamble have worked to fend off copycat private label competitors.

In many cases, design elements such as shape, texture and color are clearly associated by consumers with a specific brand (ex. Coke red and their contoured can) – so these can be leveraged to protect brands through package designs. The best companies recognize these opportunities when they go to market, but Trade Dress is still largely underleveraged.

On your webpage, you asked the question “Are you fully differentiating your product’s trade dress, and protecting its IP?” How does packaging differentiate trade dress of a company and how does that help in the overall profitability and marketing of the company?

My firm does a lot of work in “Experiential Packaging” recognizing that the more senses we engage, the more memorable a brand and product and the stronger the emotional connection. All consumers make purchase decisions with their emotional right brain and analytical left brain.

Shape, visual design elements, texture, aroma, taste and sound throughout the use experience are all critical – most companies focus only on graphics. Companies we work with have demonstrated sales increases and decreases when, for example, removing ridges and nubs on a bottle, intended to save cost. These elements became over time, part of the unconscious consumer experience.

As previously noted, national/global brands are under attack by companies with often inferior products, who simple develop copycat package designs and place them on the store shelf in close proximity but at discount prices. These copycat companies spend virtually no money on research and development, allowing them to charge less – an unfair advantage. So, identifying and proving trade dress protection is a valuable defense.

Sustainability is becoming a growing concern for many consumers and companies alike. How does PTIS help companies to balance both financial and sustainable goals? Have you come up with any new ideas regarding sustainability as it pertains to intellectual property law?

Sustainability is about considering unintended consequences on future generations. Responsible members of the packaging industry have always worked to minimize packaging relative to the use and distribution requirements of the product – and keeping the three Ps in balance.

The Sustainability “three Ps”:

  • People (Society, Equity),
  • Planet (Ecology) and
  • Profit (Economics)

It makes sense to minimize/optimize packaging and it is well known that packaging has a small ecological foot print, and in fact, more packaging can reduce product waste and spoilage, and most “products” have a far more significant environmental footprint.

Regardless, packaging is visible and receives significant negative press. The attention on packaging as well as on the world’s finite resources has led to new materials development (renewable resources, made from recycled materials, more recycleable, etc), new methods of automatically identifying materials for waste separation and recycling, etc. This is a great area for IP protection and innovation.

What is your position on Open Innovation?

Another topic worth mention and discussion is “Open Innovation.” For decades, companies have realized that regardless of how many dozens, hundreds or even thousands of smart people they have – there are millions more outside their four walls.

An MIT professor I have worked with, Eric Von Hipple, studied the source of inventions and innovations, and found that in many industries, less than 50% of the successes were actually invented by the company. Instead, they were acquired or discovered and commercialized.

In 2003, Henry Chesbrough published the first of three books (so far) on what he calls “Open Innovation.” P&G says “Connect and Develop” – and there are other names.

So now, at least hundreds of companies of all sizes are creating open innovation programs and web site portals that welcome new ideas and inventions. One of the biggest hurdles our benchmarking research has identified in innovation programs has to do with IP, and lack of willingness to share ownership.

My firm PTIS specializes in helping companies to build successful innovation and Open Innovation programs and processes – often starting with development of IP strategies and policies that lead to winning programs and efforts.