Package design firm William Fox Munroe turns 40

Posted: February 9, 2012 by
Linda Casey

To celebrate its 40th anniversary, William Fox Munroe rebrands itself as WFM. The design firm was founded in 1972 by sole proprietor William Fox Munroe, and it's currently led by partners Daniel Forster, Tom Newmaster, and Steve Smith, with the shortest tenure at WFM among them being 16 years. Both Forster and Smith earned Bachelors of Fine Arts in Communication Design from Kutztown University, while Newmaster graduated from Bradley Academy, now known as the Art Institute of York, Pennsylvania.

The rebranding to WFM was the culmination of several objectives, and one of them was to be more accessible. The previous, full three-name company moniker (William Fox Munroe) had some limitations, especially because the founder has not been active with the company since 1998. To many people unfamiliar with the firm, the name was confusing: Did it indicate a three-person partnership of Mr. William, Mr. Fox and Mr. Munroe? Why did a design firm sound like a law firm? The new name and logo of WFM creates a modern identity while acknowledging its ties to the past, retaining the company's fox "mascot."

WFM acknowledges that a core part of its success is the same today as it was in the early days. WFM's original namesake, William Fox Munroe, founded the company after forging a strong relationship with The Hershey Company, located just 50 miles away in Central Pennsylvania. That relationship is still strong today, and each side has benefitted from the 40-year relationship. As the account helped WFM add abilities and capabilities over the years, so have Hershey's processes been positively affected by WFM. "We were the go-to guys back then," says Newmaster. "I don't know who else could have done that." However, when WFM experienced a growth spurt from 1998 to 2002, the expansion was fueled by expanding both range of services and client mix. "We understand that we need to do other things to make our work better," Newmaster says.

"We must have been doing something right to be around this long," Newmaster adds. He admits that what worked in 1972 isn't necessarily going to work today, so part of the success of the firm has been continually updating a vision of the future marketplace that guides the firm. WFM notes that speed-to-market expectations of major consumer product goods companies have upped the ante for design firms, as the past 10 years have seen three-week production schedules compressed into one week.

Throughout the last 15 years, the firm has developed a reputation of production speed. "We're often our own worst enemy," Newmaster explains ruefully. When consumer goods companies realize the firm's internal capabilities, such as fast turnaround on packaging prototypes, they then begin to expect shorter and shorter turnaround times.

One timesaving research tool that WFM offers clients is called "Design Check." In 2005, Fast Company magazine recognized the innovative service by naming the firm to its "Fast 50" innovators of the year. The firm developed the tool to improve and streamline consumer research of package design. "We designed Design Check to fit in companies' design budgets, not their research budgets," says Newmaster. By foregoing focus groups for a thorough but quick online vetting process, companies can get a gut check on a specific design's market-readiness within a week for a reasonable fee (usually between $5,000 and $10,000). Of course, marketing Design Check has some challenges, because many companies have the opinion that if they're not spending 50K to 100K for a research project, the findings are not valid.

The Shillington Factor
The WFM partners half-jokingly refer to a phenomenon they call "The Shillington Factor"-but it's not entirely what you'd think. Some consumer goods companies look at the firm's off-the-beaten-track location outside of Reading, PA, as a liability. Ironically, though, it's the smaller, regional brands that sometimes cast a wary eye on WFM more than the well-established national brands. For instance, the Tom Sturgis pretzel company, literally right down the street in Shillington, shopped around for a design firm for quite a while before giving WFM a second, closer look. Last year, Tom Sturgis celebrated its 150th anniversary with completely redesigned packaging from WFM.

"I think The Shillington Factor is becoming less and less of an issue," says Smith. "It doesn't really matter where you are today. The product that you produce is all that really matters." The practical approach at WFM comes from the fact that the partners were employees first. They were trained in how things were done-and are still done-at WFM, but they each still have their own perspective. "Over the years, we've learned what we're each good at," says Smith. "There's mutual respect. We let each other do what they do best, but the consensus is definitely that slow, steady growth is preferable to sporadic, intermittent growth.”