On its first try, local branding and marketing firm Pulp+Wire took the top spot in a national trade publication's annual design contest.
The Portland-based firm was one of four companies chosen from dozens of applicants to participate in Package Design magazine's ninth annual Makeover Challenge, where contestants redesign a particular brand.
"We often get approached by design publications for inclusion in design annuals, but this was our first time doing something like this," says Pulp+Wire founder and Creative Director Taja Dockendorf, who admits, "it was actually an accident."
The contest required the four finalists to overhaul the packaging of Klara's Gourmet Cookies, a small, Massachusetts-based company run by husband and wife team Klara Sotonova and Jefferson D. Diller.
Dockendorf says her company took an "intrinsic, client-centric" approach to the project, conferring heavily with Sotonova and Diller to tease out a historical narrative that could be woven into the project.
The result? A distinctive suite of boxes fusing the Czech-inspired patterns of Sotonova's heritage with modern design elements and packaging techniques.
"A large part of the discovery phase was looking at [Klara's] background. We wanted to look into her grandmother's [past] in pre-Communist Czechoslovakia and what that looked like; the colors, tones, fabrics, right down to the apron she was wearing," says Dockendorf. "We even asked for pictures of her grandmother cooking."
Enlisting the services of an intern from Maine College of Art, Pulp+Wire began to set aside a little time each week to work on the unpaid project, a first-of-its-kind effort for the business, which has been in Portland for three years following a six-year stint in Westbrook.
"I saw this call to action and thought it would be interesting. I realized shortly after that I had entered a makeover challenge and I immediately came out and apologized to the group, because I knew if we got chosen it was going to be a ton of unpaid work," she says.
Working with local printer J.S. McCarthy, the firm created an 8-ounce package alluding to the shape of the cooking apron worn by Sotonova's grandmother.
Pulp+Wire also created a 2-ounce "grab and go" container, using similar colors and patterns, that folds open into a self-contained serving dish.
"We take an approach where we help [clients] to bring their vision to life and bring out their own creativity because to do the best branding, it needs to come from them," says Dockendorf.
"I am impressed by Pulp+Wire's commitment to the process," says Package Design editor Linda Casey, who notes that the Portland firm beat out the runner-up by 20 votes through online and in-person voting at this year's Pack Expo International show in Chicago.
Casey praised the design's "extreme attention to detail," citing elements like the utensil-based lace pattern and unique structural design.
"I think they did a great job of putting in wonderful details. It's not just plain packaging with a printed label; structure was a big part of the design," Casey says.
The small firm's ability to dedicate time and resources to help improve on a growing brand was another element that impressed Casey.
"They had to work with a brand that is just discovering itself, and they did a great job of guiding the brand owner through that self-discovery," she says.
Indeed, Dockendorf says Pulp+Wire is particularly adept at helping to launch new brands. From conception to supermarket shelf, she says the firm is not content to turn over a design and walk away from a business relationship.
"It's not, 'hope to see you on the shelf someday'," says Dockendorf. "We shine in helping clients to envision who they are, where they want to be and how best to get them there through the whole chain. We do media, public relations and help them launch their [product]; it doesn't just end with creative."
In providing a sort of "creative therapy," Dockendorf and her team focus on nearly every aspect of a client's business, from tips on how to scale up products from small to large batches, and designing packaging at a price point that won't break the bank for fledgling businesses.
To that end, Dockendorf says the Klara's package has a "good cost point," at around 30 to 40 cents apiece.
"They are a small company, and we wanted to do crazy things, but we also needed to support this business, and their model is small," says Dockendorf.
Although Casey reports that both Sotonova and Diller found the winning concept "beautiful" and said it "resonates with the artists we know," she said they will ultimately forgo rebranding using the Pulp+Wire design.
"The problem is that there are aspects of all of the designs that we like and aspects that we don't," says Diller in an article on Package Design's website.
That isn't out of the ordinary for the magazine's Makeover Challenge, Casey says. Though hundreds of companies like Klara's vie to be the focus of the redesign contest, the selected company has no obligation to use the winning design concept.
One issue cited in Diller's decision to not use any of the four packages illustrates just how frustrating the branding industry can be.
Klara's had requested that all designs include a clear window for viewing the cookie, but as Casey says, "they eventually realized that a product with a high butter content does not look appetizing through clear cellophane."
For her part, Dockendorf is more sweet than bitter on the foiled cookie contract. "Our vision was for a brand-rich, eye-catching package that would compel people to buy Klara's. Given our win by popular vote among our peers and the public, we successfully realized that vision in the final product," she says.