Marc Wittenberg’s line of work is about as niche as it gets. He shares his insights on why being unique is so important in business, and how to do it.
Marc Wittenberg is a packaging designer specialising in fragrance bottles. Originally from Germany, Marc runs his solo business, Iconomy, from his home in Bondi and has done so for the last 11 years. At its peak, Iconomy turned over $1.2 million annually, with around 80 per cent of that as pure profit. It’s the kind of success that has set him up in a way that he can afford to “be a bit lazy” now.
So how did he do it? He tells Jodie McLeod.
JODIE MCLEOD: How did you get into designing perfume bottles?
MARC WITTENBERG: It started when I was working in England for a packaging design company. I was asked by my former boss in Germany to come back to run all the international accounts. They had a lot of cosmetic and perfume clients like Joop, Jil Sander, Gucci and Dunhill.
I was only there for under two years and because of personal reasons I decided to go to Australia and leave it all behind – a massive salary included.
I never approached any of my former clients, but they suddenly contacted me out in Australia and said, “We would like continue working with you.” Initially, I ran the first job through the company I was working for out here, but after they came back again, I thought, this looks silly, they really just want me. Why don’t I go out by myself?
JM: Why did those clients want you?
MW: I got their attention because a lot of my jobs were achieving massive success. Me and my business partner at the time, Vanessa, were looking after the cheaper range of fragrances for Procter & Gamble, such as Christina Aguilera, Avril Lavigne and Anna Sui. They are not as prestigious as, say, Dolce&Gabbana, but in terms of design – probably much more fun. And ironically, these designs were making the money.
JM: Would you say you carved or fell into this niche?
MW: It is a combination of – it found me and I was probably right at the right place at the right time. And I’ve got certain talents in drawing and in expressing things and then visualising things. And it’s probably also a lot of luck involved. A lot of hard work and a lot of luck.
JM: How important has finding this niche been to your success?
MW: I’ve been lucky that I am in an industry which has got very few players.
Success [like this] happens because, firstly – you are one of very few. You are unique, which means you can charge a little bit more. Secondly, you are only as good as the last job you’ve done, so Iconomy had to work very hard to produce consistently good designs.
And then there’s something, especially in the creative industries, which you can’t really gauge. Because who is able to measure beauty? Who is able to measure what is fashionable? Who is able to know what is wanted at any given time by a 22-year-old Japanese consumer, for example?
I can’t even explain it. But somehow, somewhere, I seem to be good enough, and again and again, I was able to do the right thing.
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JM: How important is packaging in making people want to buy a product?
MW: When I was working for biscuits and detergents and other things, if you wanted to increase sales, you would not change the product at all. You would not advertise more. The formula stays the same. The only thing that you change is the wrapper. Maybe a different picture, different branding – you modernise it. And on occasions, we would have sales increases of 50 per cent without any other additional support.
This sounds completely nonsensical because people are buying the product – the muesli or the chocolate. Why are they suddenly rushing to buy it when you’ve only changed less than a millimetre of surface thickness of the wrapper? And no one can explain it, but that’s the way it is.
JM: So what makes a product stand out on a shelf?
MW: We named our business Iconomy because the idea was to create icons. For example the Coca-Cola bottle is an icon. An Absolut Vodka bottle is an icon. People recognise the silhouette without it having any colour on it or liquid inside. In the perfume world, Jean Paul Gaultier [‘Le Male’ bottle shaped like a torso] is an example of this.
Jean Paul Gaultier probably has launched another dozen fragrances but that bottle is the one everybody remembers. So this is the aim – to create something which is not run-of-the-mill. Something very different, but which is also the embodiment of the brand.
JM: What’s next for Iconomy?
MW: I’m happy to go with the flow. If my recent clients start asking for more, then I’m happy to explore those avenues. But if it discontinues, then that’s fine.
Years ago I started to get more into yoga and the philosophy of yoga. There are so many facets to it but one of the centre points is – you sort of go with the natural flow. You don’t fight or you don’t work against what is happening.
I used to have this glamour life but Yoga also taught me not to be attached to any of it. A person is not defined by their work. There is more to me and if this stops then something else will happen. I’ll be turning 50 soon, but I don’t plan on retiring. I would like to work until I fall over.
JM: What’s your advice to other business owners on how to find their own niche?
MW: I read an article recently in which the person being interviewed said: don’t try to be like someone else. If you try to be someone else, there is a high chance that that person does it better. I agree that you need to be yourself. Do what you think is right. Trust your instinct. Have your own ideas and work things out. Yes, pick up on good stuff you find in someone else. Learn from other things. But essentially, be real. Don’t be a copy. Don’t be a cheat. Don’t pretend. Be honest to yourself and create something true and valid and valuable – and then I think you are unbeatable.
JM: What’s the best thing about flying solo?
MW: Wow. Gazillions of things. If you work in any business, you have to deal often with, to put it kindly, silliness sometimes. So when someone tells you what to do and you know it could probably be done better but you still have to do it. You have to do this sometimes for clients too, but the main difference is if you work for yourself. If you work for a company you also have to struggle within the company you work for.
Has Marc’s experience made you think differently about finding a niche, or about the importance of product packaging? Please share your thoughts.