That’s a Wrap: Packaging the Reluctant Fed

Packaging. Why do government communicators, marketers and brand strategists do it? To find out, take a look at a gift wrap site. Honest. The parallels between wrapping a gift and packaging a person are striking.

A friend at work gave me a wry smile and said maybe he’d let me package him sometime. I reckoned that he was poking gentle fun at me and what he’d describe as my “so-called” job as a Brand Strategist and thus a professional packager. He probably thought I’d give him a logo or a jingle or something like that. “Yeah, package me. Just how would you do that?” Here’s what I told him.

“I think,” I said, stroking my chin for effect, “that I’d treat you like a giant present.” He arched an eyebrow. “The package is as important as the gift,” I said. “The package sets the tone and adds interest. You’re the gift inside the package that’s beautifully wrapped and lands at the top of the stack. And you’re at the top of the stack because you look like you’re worth opening and slightly better than the rest.”

But I cautioned my friend: “You must clearly define the gift you’re packaging and the person you’re giving it to.” In other words, be absolutely sure of who your customer is and what service you provide them. Or, if these words suit you better, know without a doubt who your audience is and what message you are delivering to them.

You wouldn’t believe how many gift-givers, service providers and communicators fail to take this essential and elementary first step. There is a tendency to jump right in and let the audience and the message emerge. Only misery will come from this approach.

When I told my friend that defining the package and its recipient was our first step, and an imperative one, I think we came close to a sweet spot. He is, after all, an engineer, one of that happy breed that likes their notepads gridded and their circuits integrated. It was then that I noticed what might be light from a narrow fissure between imagination and the closed door of his mind. Maybe he had begun to consider what would happen if he allowed packaging to happen to him. But first, he had to challenge the idea.

When he rolled his chair away from the table and crossed his arms, I said to myself, that’s not subtle. It’s classic closed-off body language. He’s protecting himself from further assault by these dangerous and sales-y ideas. “You’ll make me look like I’m some slick huckster,” he says, in a voice more assertive than his usual one, “you know that’s not me.”

The marketer in me, that devil on my epaulet, whispers in my ear, “Tell him he’ll be fantastic! By the time you’re done with him, his own mother won’t recognize him, and you will have worldly glory as a famous packager!” But I’d never injure my friend by giving him a package that isn’t his, one that doesn’t fit his personality.

It doesn’t matter how clever or visually appealing a package is—it has to be a natural fit for the person you’re packaging.

His package should be him, just more so.

Why package at all? If the content is good enough, can’t it stand on its own? Sure it can. But don’t dismiss packaging as unimportant or as a gimmick. My friend had warned me, “I don’t need a gimmick.” But a good package is a promise, not a gimmick. A promise that what’s inside is the genuine article. Whether we admit it or not, we all judge a book by its cover. Our intellectual and sensory wiring make it impossible not to.

Gentle academics like my friend are generally ambivalent about packaging, if they think about it at all. I was almost positive that my friend had brought up the subject as a joke. Many people in his world are averse to showing off, preferring to let their work speak for them. They don’t really want to stand out. In fact, these quiet communicators feel that wrapping themselves up in a package diminishes their perceived value, that packaging makes them look cheap.

But academics are no strangers to competition. They are mindful of any advantage employed to the benefit of their colleagues and not to them. Even without knowing it, this group values good design and would reject a package that did not enhance the way they were perceived. And they’d want to know about one that did.

The best packages add value to the gift inside by creating curiosity and anticipation. And a good package won’t cheapen the gift it encloses.

You can’t package a complex product overnight. I wanted to limit the scope of this still imaginary project so our goal would be well-defined, reasonable, and concrete. I asked, “Were you thinking that you’d use this package any time soon?” There is a conference, he told me, a festival for scientists, technologists, eccentrics and mathematicians, at which he has been asked to speak. My friend was asked to submit a one-page biography (bio) for inclusion in the conference program.

A bio is a great place to start. If we could create a package that my friend found satisfactory, we’d have a “core element” to guide the packaging of his future materials.

“Well, there you go, then,” I enthused, “Let’s package the bio and give it to the conference organizers. Just as a starting point. You’ll find that as your first package propagates itself, a family of collateral material follows.”

In addition to helping him shape the look of his text and photograph on the front of the bio, I asked him if he’d consider something extra on the back. Although he was doubtful at first, I persuaded him to add a short quote and a list of his publications. That was conservative enough for his comfort while making the fact sheet more interesting. We dubbed his bio handout a “bio fact sheet.”

As I hit my stride with my friend’s bio fact sheet, I was in enthusiastic coach mode. It’s satisfying to build a package that connects—that will create or improve a communication exchange between conference organizers, attendees and other speakers.

There’s another important audience—friends and family. “You should tell the family what a big shot you are these days,” I said to my friend as he furrowed his brow. He may have thought that calling him a big shot was sarcasm. But it wasn’t. “If this conference is important enough, or if it’s been a while since you’ve updated them, you should tell your friends and family what’s up with you. Send them a bio fact sheet.” There was no way to suggest that without cracking a smile, but my message was sincere—don’t forget the folks back home, personal, professional and LinkedIn.

By the way, once you decide you’re going to be packaged, you’re going to have to admit to showing off a bit. Your package can be discrete and modest, of course. But the very act of planning to put your best foot forward acknowledges that you have a best foot to begin with. So don’t be ashamed; package proudly.

Just a few days after our initial talk, my friend and I created a bio fact sheet that was tasteful and low-key, but possessed a certain something to make it stand apart. We liked the way it turned out.

So did those who attended the conference. My friend’s bio fact sheet was the best one there. There was no doubt about it when you saw his and the others side-by-side.

To those skeptics who doubt the value of good design, I like to tell them: You don’t need to know why you like a layout—but you are drawn to a good one. You may not know anything about design, but you know what you like.

The investment in time, planning, and attention to detail has and will continue to pay off. My friend’s package has a future. We’ll make sure that the look of the bio sheet is employed by any other communication tools my friend may produce, from his website to his PowerPoint. It’s nice to see the proud smile that he tries to conceal when he hands out his bio fact sheets at a presentation. It’s his first step at packaging. It should not have been a giant one, and it wasn’t. “Make haste slowly,” that’s my advice. Take some time to be thoughtful and let your packaging mature.

People tend to value advice in direct proportion to what they spend on it. For better or worse, “you get what you pay for” influences our decision-making process. Of these thoughts, adopt what you like and leave the rest, and take my remarks with a grain, if not a column, of NaCl. Finally, remember the words of David Brinkley, “Everyone is entitled to my opinion.”

J.T. Kerwin’s weekly blog for GovLoop is a somewhat whimsical look at language, design, branding and creativity in the Federal environment. He admits to meandering, but not to malingering. You can write him at [email protected].

J.T. Kerwin is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

Photo by Flickr user erica g.

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Matthew Garlipp

Some great advice! It’s often easy to look at “branding” or “packaging” as a cheap gimmick – but it’s not! As you say, it’s more of a promise, giving people an idea of your talent and what you have to offer. As an academic, like your work friend, I also tend to be subtle and try to let my work speak for me. I still think that’s a good approach but it’s not enough by itself. Standing out and more assertively packaging yourself as someone who gets the job done and does it well speaks volumes in an office environment.

Juana Williams

Loved this article! You’ve explained to me why I keep adjusting my resume in preparation for a soon to be interview. Thank you.