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The Sun rises: Bradford packaging agency targets double sales growth after “phenomenal” response to brand revamp

Having driven through the suburbs of Bradford on perhaps the wettest day of 2024 so far, it was tempting to reach for an obvious meteorological analogy as I pulled up to the converted mill that for the past 18 years has been the home of Sun Branding.

Certainly, what lay inside was considerably brighter and more warming than the incessant rain that had accompanied the trip over the tops from Manchester. 

But first impressions of Albion Mills go much beyond a pleasant refuge from the elements; this is an agency that, quietly, is coming into its own on a global stage. 

But more of that later.

To truly understand where Sun Branding is today, it’s necessary to go back to the beginning – a full 131 years ago.

The Leeds of 1893 was a booming, confident place. Freshly granted city status, it was enjoying the proceeds of its historic role in the textile industry.

With handsome civic buildings and grand Victorian shopping arcades springing up around the city, it would go on to effectively create the high street as we know it.

Inside Albion Mills, the modern-day home of Sun Branding in Bradford

The prosperity was spilling into other industries, such as engineering, which in turn built the machinery that helped Leeds and the wider Yorkshire region play a leading part in the printing revolution.

It was in this same year, a few minutes’ walk from the very first Marks and Spencer market stall at Kirkgate Market, that a man named Charles Gilchrist set up a printing business on Briggate in the heart of the city.

Launching with just one apprentice, the business quickly took off and for the next century, was at the forefront as mass media, advertising and design underwent a technological revolution.

A move into packaging followed in 1993, and 13 years later – after changing hands a couple of times – was acquired by New Jersey-based graphic arts giant Sun Chemical and soon relocated to Bradford.

Fast forward to 2024 and Sun Branding – essentially the brand and packaging arm of Sun Chemical and now led by Managing Director Martin Hawkins – is still here.

And with the global packaging market forecast to hit $1trillion by 2030 [Smithers], Sun Branding is once again riding the wave of a booming industry.

Sun Branding Managing Director Martin Hawkins

With revenues up 14% on the previous year, the company is now boldly projecting a doubling of that number over the next couple of years. 

According to Commercial Director Andy Johnson, it comes down to what he calls a fusion of “magic and logic”. 

“The magic comes from our creativity,” he says, “the logic is actually how to make it work.”

Unusually, Sun Branding is a genuine one-stop shop for client needs in the packaging space.

Walk around the vast open-plan workspace at Albion Mills and you pass various zones dedicated to each stage of the process: creative, graphics, tech, legal and sustainability.

“We cover off everything to do with packaging, and that makes us unique,” says Johnson.

“There are design agencies, artwork agencies, reprographics agencies and the like, but to our knowledge nobody offers all these services in quite the same way. 

“With an eclectic mix of people, from creatives to coders, we can really help our clients to grow. Whether it’s the packaging’s visual design, the brand consistency of the graphics, the integrity of the packaging copy that we can check through our legal team; we can do it all here and get it out to market as quickly as possible through our proprietary software.”

This seamless process has attracted some serious clients, including Walmart – the world’s biggest company by revenue – Aldi, Bacardi, Whole Foods, Upfield and Nomad foods.

“All of our client brands have a place in people’s lives,” says Andy.

“Whether you buy through a store or online, the packaging comes into your home and you make contact with it. A lot of it is subliminal, but you are interacting with it.

“Everything we do helps that piece of packaging give the brand a stronger value proposition to its customers. We call ourselves brand catalysts, as the sun is a catalyst for growth. We grow our clients’ brands through brilliant brand packaging.” 

A 2023 rebrand, which went live last May, has certainly helped to convey the Sun Branding proposition more effectively than ever.

“You never quite know how a rebrand will be received,” says Johnson, “but we’ve seen phenomenal organic growth off the back of it.”

Sun Branding’s size and ability to ramp up service levels on demand has been a key part of its appeal.

The total Sun Branding team stands at over 250 staff (and growing) across the UK, US and India. Johnson is keen to point out that the Indian operation is not some distant, outsourced satellite.

“I’ve been over myself recently – they’re a highly skilled and hugely talented team who follow  the same training, inductions and processes as our Bradford and US teams,” he says.

Andy Johnson (front right) on a visit to Sun Branding’s India studio

“This means we can offer a global service 24/6. We’re able to be really flexible, and because we have latent capacity built into our Indian team, we can quickly jump on a project to meet client demands. All our sites are crucial to the business and support our clients to achieve their packaging goals.”

Technology is evidently integral to the Sun Branding success story. One in-house product, e-volve, automates part of the packaging process when a client needs to quickly roll out a piece of packaging, perhaps into multiple territories.

“Clients tell us there isn’t anything else like it out there at the moment,” says Johnson, who is into his second spell at Sun Branding having originally joined in 2006 as retail account director before senior roles at Leeds agencies Hangar Seven, Cry Havoc and Ride Shotgun.

Sustainability, too, is a focus at Sun as clients and customers seek more environmentally friendly packaging solutions. In November 2022, the company launched a consultancy, called Aura, dedicated to helping brands manage their packaging sustainability in real time. 

“Innovation has always been a big thing”, says Johnson, and that holds true when you look back at some key milestones in the company’s history, from installing the first electronic retouching station in the 1970s to becoming the first business of its kind to open a digital artwork studio in 1984.

Even after 131 years, there’s a sense that Sun Branding has successfully kept under the radar. However, as Sun continues to rise, you’d think that will be changing very soon.

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