June 3, 2024

Spotlight Series: Marat Fleytlikh

An experienced Insights leader shares his thoughts on research, how some brands are winning with design, and the importance of not alienating core consumers.

When describing his role as a Director of Insights, Marat Fleytlikh uses a specific phrase: “unlocking significant growth for the brand.” Implied in this description is that growth is there for the taking; he and his team simply have to release it. 

For years now, that’s exactly what Marat has been doing for major CPG brands—unleashing latent growth potential within brand portfolios. He draws from experience as a research manager and consultant earlier in his career. Like any good researcher, he focuses on asking the right questions (and at the right time) in order to drive the decision-making process in package design. Questions like: What are we trying to learn? Are we having issues with breakthrough? Are we impacting our growth consumers in a way that's not alienating our core?

With experience building brands ranging from Jimmy Dean and Hillshire Farm to Heinz, Kraft, and now Perdue Farms, Marat has developed clarity about what makes package design effective, but he clearly lets curiosity guide his process. His command of the subject matter seems scholarly at times, as if he could teach a class on developing a winning design. If he did, his sartorial style—he showed up to our Zoom interview in a crisp suit, with a floral lapel pin that matched his tie—would likely make him the best dressed professor on campus. 

We talked with Marat about his appreciation for rule breakers in design, the value of pre-design research, a hot sauce brand that he thinks is crushing it, and more. 

What are you seeing in package design these days? 

I’m seeing some good and bad. On the bad side, there’s a lot of sameness. I often have trouble telling products in my fridge apart, thinking “Is this mayo, or something else?” 

Form has evolved in a cool way, but it's so ubiquitous in some categories that it’s being used interchangeably. And that creates some confusion, even at home after you’ve made the purchase.

On the flip side, there are the rule breakers out there I’m really appreciating. Momofuku soy sauce, for example: it looks like there’s a piece of tape on the pack that someone has drawn on with a sharpie. It feels like it’s a special bottle made just for you. 

How do you find the sweet spot between getting your package noticed and maintaining your brand equity?

It’s definitely a balancing act. Obviously, we’re in the attention business, and if we're not getting eyes on our products, we’re not doing our job. So we need to make sure the design is distinctive, especially if we can convey flavor or quality in a unique way. That can be a win for brands. 

Of course, we also have to ask: Are there aspects of this design that we cannot change?  Breakthrough is something we as brands always want, but we can’t do it at the cost of creating a problem for consumers at the shelf. 

What have you learned about that balance in your Insights roles over the years? 

You can evolve, but that evolution can’t alienate your core, because people generally come into a store aisle, grab what they recognize and trust, and move on. So doing it right warrants making sure that a design doesn't offend or affect people in a way that creates alienation. 

Often, brands make the mistake of redesigning to “look better.” That's not doing it for the right reasons—not only as a brand steward, but for consumers. They’re used to seeing certain things on the shelf.

Sometimes brands go too far. You’ve really got to play to your strengths. If people know who you are, keep coming at them in a way they recognize, but with small touches over time.

Isn’t there a temptation, even as a mainstay on store shelves, to follow trends? 

One hundred percent, which is why it’s key not to overreact. A new fad will come into the category and people in the industry will say, “Whoa, you don't have that cool new thing?”  

And most of the time, you have to say, “No, because that’s not who we are.” On the flip side, you can ask: Are there slight touches we could make to look more modern among the latest designs? Sometimes, the answer is yes. 

I think of Oscar Mayer. That brand has been in a yellow package with the distinct shape around the logo for so long now. It has had facelifts over the years, but not to the degree that you can't recognize it. 

They went from being bologna in a cylindrical “puck” package all the way to the cartons we see today. That's an evolution of form, but not an evolution of brand. No one will be asking “Wait… is that Oscar Mayer?” They’ll recognize it right away.  

What role has research played in projects you’ve been a part of? 

One thing we work to figure out early on is whether we can impact potential growth consumers in a way that doesn’t drive away our core customer base. 

So we use pre-design assessments, which help to answer questions like: What's happening in the category? What are the purchase drivers when consumers are at the shelf? Which brands are killing it out there, and which are falling short? 

Early research is great for validating or disproving assumptions. Because if you spend two years on a design project operating on an assumption, and then test the final design and you were wrong, you end up thinking: I've just burned how much of my budget and resources to get here? That’s why I think pre-design research makes such a big impact. It helps you test assumptions early enough that you can pivot if needed. 

Do you utilize research during the design phase as well? 

Yes. Once we have designs, quick-turn testing helps us answer questions like “Which design is better? And why?” For example, Designalytics’ key metrics of success in the Versus product is where it's at, I think—that plus or minus four points in committed purchase preference is a benchmark that allows us to see if we’re moving the needle. And then, if we missed the mark with a certain design, consumers are telling us in those verbatims where we may have missed the mark. That’s pretty helpful. 

Is there a brand that’s impressed you with their design? 

I really like the design for Truff, the hot sauce. That brand had a following originally, and they really just doubled down on design in a great way. 

The pack seems basic when you first look at it, and all the bottles are very similar. But they really nailed the geometric top and the fonts, and the color profile just screams premiumness. And they created the design in such a way that it's repeatable. It felt like they designed a Lamborghini on their first try. You don't see that often, so when it happens, you've got to tip your hat.

What advice would you give to a version of yourself from earlier in your career?

I'd say don't be afraid to fail. Lean in, try new stuff. If it doesn’t work, just roll up your sleeves, try it again with some tweaks and see how you can make it work. Because you learn at every step, and it just makes you a better version of yourself.