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What’s in a label? How brands engage with customers

It has been almost seven years since OPRL, the on-pack recycling label, was launched to give consumers greater clarity on whether items of packaging could be recycled and how.

In that time, more than 500 brands have become members, and in 2015 the not-for-profit scheme’s achievements were highly commended in the National Recycling Awards (NRAs).

Jane Bevis, chair of OPRL, who has been involved with the scheme since its inception, explains that, at the point OPRL had its fifth birthday, the decision was made to take stock, assess whether the scheme was working and what to do next. Until that point, Bevis explains that “everything had been done on the basis of the goodwill of the directors, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and people volunteering to do things for free”.

While the scheme knew it had made great progress in terms of the number of products and businesses using the label, it decided to find out what impact the label had on consumers. It commissioned research which found that around 60% of the public recognised the label, although they were not sure what it was about.

“We thought ‘well, to have achieved that in five years without a marketing budget – there’s something in this – we ought to be doing more with it’,” Bevis explains. “So we had a major rethink about the way the company was structured and how it operates. We brought onboard some new directors who had different skillsets, backgrounds and networks, who are still all working for us for free.”

OPRL now has board of 10, which includes representatives from Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Coca-Cola, while Bevis works as chair for five or six days a month.

  • Deadline for entries for the 2016 National Recycling Awards is 28 January. To enter visit: https://nra.mrw.co.uk/

Last year saw the scheme take a number of significant steps. First, it rebranded – unveiling the new look at the NRAs. It also started working more closely with other materials recycling organisations, and ACE UK and Recoup became joint owners. Previously the scheme had been owned solely by the BRC, operating as an arm’s length company limited by guarantee. The new owners have come on-board on the basis that they do not appoint directors to the board but they do hold the board to account: “It is about us all being organisations that share that same mission to get people to recycle more.”

Public money does not go into OPRL. It operates on the basis of growing its membership and using the fees generated to fund its work. Currently it has a simple membership structure, which has been in place since launch, although Bevis says this may need to change. A flat £700 a year fee is charged unless it is an independent small business or a charity, when there is a concessionary rate of £275 a year.

“In our view, cost is not the barrier to anyone joining the OPRL,” Bevis says. “It is more about us making the case to people and brands that finding space on the pack for the label helps them to reach out to their customers, and that is something customers increasingly expect.”

With 500 brands in its membership and members, on average, using the label on 75% of their packaging, Bevis says there are hundreds of thousands of product lines in the marketplace using the OPRL. “So that means the public is seeing it all the time. That is fantastic and it means we are now reinvesting in terms of the benefits that we offer members.”

This included work during 2015 to improve its website, create a newsletter and develop products that should become available this year – for example, help for members to work out what packaging they have and how they might design it so that it is more recyclable.

The scheme has attracted businesses of all sizes, from Ginsters to Sainsbury’s. One of the ways it previously recruited was through working with trade organisations such as the British Soft Drinks Association. But, increasingly, it is finding that members are joining after perhaps reading about it in the press or being recommended, for example retail members suggesting it to suppliers.

The company has been trying to boost its profile of late and uses social media, but it has virtually no marketing budget. So where it sees potential is in tapping into networks that share its ambitions, hence the move to bring other into its ownership fold.

OPRL is now aiming to grow the label and bring in more brands from its non-traditional areas. Bevis explains: “We started out in groceries and have grown from there. It is interesting that, of the last few members to have joined, two have been in homewares, including a US company now operating in the UK; Net-a-Porter, which is obviously about its home delivery packaging; and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which has realised it ought to do something about using the label for its merchandising.”

The scheme has also been making a concerted effort to work with local authorities. Larac chief executive Lee Marshall is now a board member, and Bevis explains that it has been useful having his insight on how OPRL can assist with communicating with the public, particularly in light of council budget cuts.

Similar schemes are now operating elsewhere in world, such as the US, Australia and South Africa, and it is thought these have arisen after seeing what was happening in the UK. “They use the same iconography as us – they don’t have the Recycle Now swoosh but they use the Mobius loop instead,” Bevis explains.

Is there an opportunity to sell its expertise? “There is an opportunity. The big challenge is in the multinational brands, which sell into more than one market. For them, it is ‘can we put something on about how to recycle in the UK when we are selling in other countries?’

“One of the things we want to explore is to see where essentially it is the same information being given. For example, if you are Procter & Gamble, can you basically use the same label in the US as you can in the UK, and are there ways we can work together on that? We know that some brands have looked at joining OPRL and then said, ‘we can’t see how we are going to make it work on our international brands’.”

OPRL has set itself targets to double its membership by 2018, see the label on 60% of UK packaging and raise consumer recognition levels – meaning there is a better chance of people acting on the advice on the labels. Does this mean the scheme has a finite life?

“When we appeared in front of the judges at the 2015 NRAs, they asked us what our ambition was. Ultimately, our ambition is to put ourselves out of business,” Bevis says.

“We not only support action by consumers but we also encourage innovation in recycling services. We have seen beverage cartons and aluminium foil, for example, go from being really difficult to recycle to having a lot of local facilities and a lot of kerbside collections.

“There is the work being done by Defra to England, there is a similar project in Scotland and it is what has been happening in Wales for some time now. So we will get to the point where there will be much greater commonality in what can be recycled and a much better understanding by consumers of what they can recycle. And at that point you won’t need a label any more.”

Of course it is hard to predict what the future holds. But Bevis explains that, in addition to environmental reasons, members join the OPRL scheme as part of efforts to engage with their customers – something brands are doing more and more of.

“This idea of being able to personalise a bit of packaging so that it has your name on it – that sort of trend may mean that the label continues to be useful as a mark of a responsible company which wants to have that relationship with its customers – even when people already pretty much know that an aluminium drinks can goes into a recycling bin,” she explains.

But Bevis is excited about the year ahead: “We feel that we are building a lot of new things: we made some announcements about changes in additions to the ownership at the end of 2015 and there might be some more to come this year. We are really expecting 2016 to be quite a big year for us.”

  • Deadline for entries for the 2016 National Recycling Awards is 28 January. To enter visit: https://nra.mrw.co.uk/ 

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