Published - 6 Dec, 2023
Forest Insights 4, 2023
This year Opticom celebrates 35 years of helping the industry see the wood for the trees.
When I co-founded the business back in the 1980s, it was after working with the launch of Iggesund’s Invercote brand. They were arguably the first to recognise that commodity producers needed to add value through branding and differentiation, targeting designers and brand owners rather than limiting themselves to converters and printers, and they were the first cartonboard producer to exhibit at Luxe Pack in Monaco. Meeting other links in the value chain is common practice today but 30 plus years ago, it was unusual and inspirational.
I found lots to like about forest products – big machines, global relationships, but also an inherently sustainable foundation – the forest. I saw huge opportunity because the industry was rather introspective and lacked market and customer focus. Customer research was an afterthought if it existed at all, not an integral part of business strategy.
However, bigger players were keen to differentiate and willing to test the value of market research in a bid to improve their performance (little surprise that market leaders and the innovators are usually one and the same). Where the leaders went, others followed, and we began to grow our expertise.
Business intelligence departments were more prevalent than marketing in the 90s, often focused on volume and price above value creation. Perhaps this approach could have continued had it not been for the entry of the highly cost-efficient South Americans to the pulp market and the phenomenal transformation of China’s P&B industry. As low-cost competition and globalisation intensified, many thought integration was the answer, hoping to add value through printings/writings, even newsprint. It was a hard lesson to learn when bottom lines didn’t match expectations.
So too was underestimating the extent of digital disruption. The industry woke up far too late, possibly because it was a message few wanted to hear with fewer still prepared to invest in understanding the bigger picture. They were not alone: Eriksson and Nokia failed to anticipate the impact Apple would have on their markets, to their peril.
There have been many unforeseens, as there always are in life, not least a global pandemic, which brought both challenge and opportunity for forest products. It certainly made consumers appreciate the products from this wonderful business that they may have taken for granted until they had flown off the shelves.
Perhaps the greatest ongoing challenge over the last three decades has been the environment. For the first half of my career, the sector was weighed down with negative images as polluter and a target for NGO action. Even major players moved to a defensive rather than proactive mode in the face of criticism, but thankfully there has been a shift to realising how much the sector has to offer on sustainability and its potential to make a real difference to a more circular future.
Today everyone understands there’s an inherently good story to tell, but the sector is playing catch-up while fighting increasing competition for wood fibre, and a strong army of storytellers in the oil and plastics industries. Far-reaching legislation is coming from Brussels in the form of the EUDR which will affect the entire value chain. We discuss the issue here.
If we’ve learned anything from the last 35 years, it is that in a world of constant change, preparation for the unknown is key. Those who understand the facts, those who really listen to their value chain, are usually those who weather a storm best because they can plan for realistic scenarios, as the examples in our list of listening success and failure stories shows. This is where we have tried to help and, I am pleased to say, made a difference.
In short, we still have plenty of work to do to ensure the business I felt so inspired by 35 years ago arms itself with useful intelligence and gets the recognition it deserves! I’ve shared a snapshot of just some of the issues we need to think about in 2024 and beyond here – challenging times and exciting opportunities. I’m looking forward to it.
CEO & Partner
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