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How a mom-and-pop cookie company turned a cardboard container into marketing magic

Thelma’s Treats delivers its baked goods fresh from the “oven”

How a mom-and-pop cookie company turned a cardboard container into marketing magic
Photo credit: Thelma’s Cookies

One of the paradoxes of our high-tech world is the humble cardboard box. Most end their life being dutifully placed in the recycling bin. But savvy mass-market brands (Apple, Target, Beats headphones) have turned the boxes that contain their products into objects of desire and fascination in their own right by investing in package design, thereby reinforcing their brands along the way.

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You don’t have to be a corporate behemoth to achieve this effect, however. Case in point: Thelma’s Treats, a bakery that delivers warm, fresh-baked cookies in Des Moines, Iowa. When Dereck Lewis founded the business in 2012, he didn’t have a big marketing budget. So he decided to invest in a memorable packaging experience. “We were brainstorming, and we said, ‘What would be the most logical shape for a box of warm cookies?’ ” Lewis recalls. “And it was obvious: Duh! An oven!”

That was the genesis of what became known as the oven box, a simple but clever oven-themed package that allows Lewis’s customers to slide two-dozen cookies out of the box, just like grandma removing them from an oven. It was an immediate hit and has become the key component of the Thelma’s Treats brand experience.

“When someone mentions us, people say, ‘Oh, right, the people with those oven boxes,’ ” Lewis says. “They might not even remember our name, but they know the box. The key thing is that it opens from the front, not the top, so you get that enjoyment of sliding out the tray of cookies.”

Lewis’s brainstorming partner was designer Brian Sauer, who at the time ran an advertising-and-branding agency called Saturday Mfg. “When you’re selling a product, the product’s got to be good, but the brand’s got to be great,” Sauer says. “We knew we could accomplish that with this package.”

Sauer gave the box some oven- and stove-themed graphics, devised a slot-and-tab design that provided the necessary functionality without the need for adhesives, and then worked with the packaging manufacturer xpedx (now part of Veritiv) to create prototypes. After he and Lewis hit upon a cardboard stock that was lightweight yet sturdy, the box was ready to go.

What would be the most logical shape for a box of warm cookies? Duh! An oven!

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Eight years later, the oven box is now trademarked, has been featured in packaging exhibitions around the world, and is still going strong. Lewis says he goes through about 4,000 of them per year, ordering about six months’ worth at a time from the Des Moines firm PDS Packaging. He estimates that the boxes cost 30 to 40 percent more than an off-the-shelf model, but the ROI more than makes up for that. “A lot of people tell us their kids use them in their toy kitchens, and some people even use them to serve their own cookies to friends, so that really reinforces our brand,” he says. “It’s pretty wild that this idea that seems so simple to us—that warm cookies should come out of an oven—had never been done before.”

One reason for the oven box’s success may be that it hits the sweet spot between the digital and analog worlds. “Packaging, even though it’s an old-school medium, is still really relevant, especially if it looks good on Instagram,” Lewis says. “It’s a great way of conveying your brand message.”

Sauer agrees. “Something lovingly made, that’s both tactile and photogenic, can still have great appeal,” he says. Still, even he’s surprised by how popular the oven box has been. “I was simply trying to solve a business problem. I never thought it would have such an impact. It’s definitely a highlight of my career—if not the highlight—and that’s very satisfying.”

Learn how these companies tapped the power of paper for great packaging design and unboxing experiences on How Life Unfolds.

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