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The ‘Queen of the Pack’ is back

After an absence of more than two decades, Janice Ashby returns to Cape Town. Gill Loubser catches up with her life in the US and, in concert with any number of like-minded people, welcomes Janice back to South Africa’s packaging fold.

Hands up all those who recall the name Janice Ashby? Yes, I see a fair number of acknowledgements, admittedly among those of us who were involved in the packaging industry prior to 1990.

Back in the 1980s, Janice Ashby was the name on everybody’s lips when talk turned to packaging design. She was, quite simply, an icon. Packs she designed during that decade are still recognisable today.

Operating from an historic house in Wynberg’s ‘Chelsea’ neighbourhood, the Janice Ashby Design Partnership revolutionised package design, creating packaging for many of South Africa’s best-loved consumer brands – such as Liqui-Fruit, BP Oil, Appletizer, Blossom Margarine, Hansa Pilsner and many of the liquor industry’s most prestigious wines and alcoholic beverages.

Just one example among many was her design for Coco Rico that eventually – with a name change to Malibu – became a highly-successful global brand. Today, it remains one of the world’s top brands.

 

On her recent return to South Africa after a 20-plus-year stint in New York, Janice was surprised to discover that some iconic brands are almost identical to those she designed all those years ago.

But let’s fill in those missing years. Where has she been and what has she done?

Back in 1988  with multiple CLIO and Loerie awards under her belt, Janice received a job offer from New York’s corporate design firm Seigel & Gale, then owned by Saatchi & Saatchi. ‘They hired me to establish a new package design and branding division,’ Janice relates.

During the next five years she continued creating brands for major corporations in the US, both with Siegel & Gale and as an independent consultant.

‘But my big breakthrough,’ she continues, ‘came when I launched The Janice Ashby Paper Collection in 1995 – designing and marketing stationery and handmade paper gifts.’

This fresh business direction was triggered by her discovery of a thriving grassroots papermaking community in Zimbabwe where she stopped off on one of her many trips between New York to Cape Town.

‘While staying in a hotel close to the Victoria Falls, I was struck by the beautiful items in the hotel gift shop, especially those fashioned from handmade paper,’ she recounts.

As a result of this discovery, Janice created a new line of products packaged to target the two-billion-dollar-a-year ‘scrapbooking’ trend – widely practised in the US. The products were picked up by a Utah-based craft wholesaler and she received an initial $250 000 order.

‘Armed with a large down-payment, I left for Zimbabwe with US dollar bills wrapped around my waist to start a training programme for 400 desperately poor women,’ she continues the story. And so Eco Africa Papercraft, a job creation social enterprise was born.

Back in New York, between trips to Zimbabwe, she continued consulting in packaging and branding and also marketed her products worldwide to the crafts and gifts industry.

A new purpose

So, for Janice, designing took on a new purpose – helping to empower women living in poverty by endowing them with income-generating crafting skills. To raise funds for the artisans’ impoverished families eventually led to the birth of another venture, this time a non-profit corporation called Eco Africa Social Ventures formed in New York in 2007.

When the recession hit in the US, Janice decided it was time to relocate and return to Cape Town to be close to her family. By then, her daughter and son had moved back to Cape Town from their own travels.

When she arrived ‘home’, she now relates, she was struck by two things. Firstly, she noticed that many of her original brand designs from the 1980s were still going strong. Secondly, she observed the way the wine industry had expanded in the intervening decades.

‘The wine industry has been transformed from a small community of winegrowers to hundreds of estates with thousands of wines all competing for market share on-shelf and in-store, throughout the country and internationally,’ Janice notes.

‘But nothing has changed regarding the vital role that good design plays in the success of products,’ she adds. ‘With a few notable exceptions,’ she remarks, ‘many hundreds of South African wine labels are lagging behind their global competitors in their ability to stand out on-shelf and attract new consumers. As competition is fierce, especially when pitched against international products, an eye-catching label is the deciding factor in the success or failure of a wine,’ she insists.

So now she’s back and happy to share her award-winning packaging design expertise with wine producers and other brand owners.

‘My proven strategy is to evaluate needs and recommend a roadmap for the redesign of an existing product, or to advise on branding and packaging for a new product,’ she explains.

Undoubtedly, Janice has a history of creating powerful, effective designs. She has worked closely with brand owners in South Africa and internationally, overseeing their myriad journeys from conception to finished product.

South African marketers once again can enjoy the benefit of this success-driven creative resource, as the quintessential ‘Queen of the Pack’ returns to her roots.

Call her on 072 473 5596 or email janiceashbyconsultingsa@gmail.com

 

Super User