April 11, 2024

Spotlight Series: Robin Lauffer

A self-described “cultural voyeur” talks about what makes great package design, knowing what your brand stands for, and the concept of “ambitioning.”

In her 25 years as a strategist,  Robin Lauffer has helped brands, as she puts it, “reimagine what’s possible.” If that seems like a very bold promise, it’s by design—she’s not one for half measures. No matter the size of the organization or what space they’re in, she is focused on tackling branding and business challenges head on—the thornier and more complex, the better.  

Robin has worked in a variety of roles (not to mention in 15 different countries), and has helped companies in industries ranging from CPG to pharmaceuticals to unlock their brands’ potential. One secret to her success? She has a sharp eye for the confluence of commerce and culture—tapping into the zeitgeist to find synergies between what the world is craving and what businesses can provide.  

We caught up with Robin to talk about what consumers are looking for from brands these days, the value of experimenting in research, advice she has for CPG brands, and more. 

What are you seeing as current trends in design and branding? 

It starts with consumers. And overall, they just expect more from brands right now. I think they are looking for brands to be authentic and transparent. 

A recent study also found that consumers want purpose-driven brands, but they also want brands that can bring a little joy into our days. We all have much competing for your attention, and there's a lot of depressing news as soon as you wake up in the morning. If I can take something out of my cupboard or see something on the shelf that just puts a smile on my face, that's fantastic. 

You’ve said that it’s often important to tap into culture in order to help brands grow. Can you tell us about that? 

It’s pretty straightforward, really: Let’s look at people as people, not just as consumers of toilet paper or beer or beauty products. If we understand their broader world—what’s appealing to them, what’s exciting them, what’s worrying them—we can tap into those things and push a brand forward. 

Can you give an example?

I worked with the Italian beer brand Peroni years ago, when I was in London. At the time, beer as a category was very focused on beef, boys, babes—very conventional for the category. But we thought a bit deeper. We realized that the beer you order at a bar can say a lot about you…. In the same way that fashion does. So we asked: What would Armani do? 

So for Peroni, we had a fashion show, just like Armani would. We had a pop-up on a street where a brand like Armani would have a store. It wasn’t a big stretch–Italy and fashion go hand in hand—but it flouted category conventions in a way that differentiated the brand. 

It’s slightly different for packaging, but the idea is the same. There are so many choices for consumers, so how are you going to twist things a bit to claim your space in the category? 

How does research best contribute to great design, in your opinion?

I think great package design–and more broadly, great branding—pushes people to think differently. And so I think you need to use research with that in mind. When you’re getting consumer feedback, you should be pushing to find answers to questions like: Why are we making this change? 

That’s one of the reasons I love Designalytics’ Versus screening. It’s so simple—two designs, and consumers are forced to make a comparison. We recently did some Versus testing on a project, just experimenting. Asking ourselves: What happens if we do this to the design, or this? Reading the verbatims we received from consumers, we were able to see that we were pushing on some of the right things, some of the wrong things. It was really helpful. 

 A lot of brands are focused on “positioning,” but you have a different approach. Tell us about that.

Positioning is actually a military term—when you’re taking fire, you hunker down and maintain your position. And it can feel apt, because brands are under fire 365 days a year, whether it’s upstarts coming in to disrupt categories, or changing consumer needs and perceptions. 

But in today’s world, things move too fast. If you maintain your position, at best, you could miss opportunities. At worst, the world is going to pass you by and you’re going to be trampled. So at Little Big Brands, we prefer to focus on “ambitioning” rather than positioning.

It is a change of mindset—ambitioning is bold and future-facing. It's where the world is going, where the consumer will be. So everything we do with clients is in service of that ambition, that north star.

Are there brands out there that you feel are doing exceptionally well with branding and package design? 

There are so many, but one that comes to mind is Greater Than, which we worked on at Little Big Brands. It started as a better-for-you sports hydration drink targeting fitness buffs and CrossFit enthusiasts. 

It turned out the product was adopted by lactating moms, and it spread amongst this community like wildfire. In fact, Greater Than became the number one lactation aid on Amazon. So when the brand came to us, they were at a crossroads—sales were good, but this wasn’t the market they set out to appeal to. We said: You’ve been given a gift. And we convinced the brand to do a complete redesign, which was a brave move on their part. 

The new look was fresh, bright, colorful, and joyful. It’s something I’m very proud of, and the community of women who made this brand a success absolutely adore it and feel listened to. 

What’s one thing you would tell CPG brands about branding and design?

If you don't develop your brand and tell your story, others will do it for you. You don’t want competitors setting the market, and you don’t want consumers assigning you an identity. You need to know who you are and what you stand for, and it should be informed by an understanding of the culture, category, and consumers. And it all starts with strategy—that’s the most important thing, so don’t skimp on it.  

Imagine a younger version of yourself. What advice would you give her? 

Never stop learning and trying new things. I think people are afraid of change because they're afraid If you make the wrong decision, you’re stuck with it. But if an opportunity arises, you can take it—because it doesn’t have to last forever. 

So try something new. And don’t let yourself be bored. If you're bored, you have the power to change that.