Pack Leader

A brand’s packaging is one of its best assets, given its ability to create stand-out and therefore sales. Yet marketers often neglect it because of upfront costs. Is this a wise trade-off?

Whitbread Beer Company’s Samlesbury site in Lancashire houses the UK’s fastest beer bottling line, capable of filling up to 100,000 bottles an hour. With line speeds this high, shaving minutes off product changeover times can be important. If you can minimise changeover altogether, so much the better.

This is exactly what Whitbread managed to do, while still running three different brands – Heineken Export, Stella Artois and Labatt’s Ice – down the same line. How did it pull it off? Simply by ensuring that the three quite different looking bottles had the same diameter, height and fill level.

Whitbread and its supplier Rockware Glass designed the bottles in house to meet the criteria essential for smooth running, while maintaining the distinct brand identities. “With glass, you not only have the colours – flint, green and amber – and embossing to play with, you can also manipulate the shape to a surprisingly high degree within those basic size parameters,” explains Rockware customer services manager John Parkes.

Companies do not take structural innovation in packaging lightly. For one thing, it can rarely be rushed; for another, it inevitably involves costs which will only, if ever, be absorbed by growth in sales over the longer term.

Some smaller brands see this as a risky trade-off since it may as easily push the company into the red as into the black. But as manufacturers consolidate their production and find ways to satisfy the voracious appetites of ever higher output lines, it is an increasingly worthwhile exercise.

FLB planning director Natalie Reed says: “More clients are coming to us with a brief asking for a smaller brand to use the same line as their main brand, but to look completely different.” For example, when Kraft Jacobs Suchard introduced the first spreadable version of its Cracker Barrel cheese, it was no coincidence that the tub could be filled on the same line as its leading Dairylea Spreadable product.

According to FLB, which worked on the design, Cracker Barrel is aimed at a discerning adult audience while Dairylea is a child-oriented brand. As with the Whitbread bottling line, two very different results are achieved using the same line, and with minimum changeover. This contrast is mainly achieved through graphics but, again, within the size parameters, FLB says it had the scope to produce a design which differs in structure and accommodates the different fill volumes of the two products.

Innovation in package design is rare, rather it is the transfer of technology from one category to another that is the major source of new ideas. For example, Procter & Gamble did not invent the cardboard tube, but it was the first to combine that type of packaging with a crisp/snack product. And New Covent Garden Soups may boast original recipes, but the gable-top carton was original only in its category. Because the format is not new, neither is the technology needed to produce it, and so this also helps to contain costs.

Importing pack design into unrelated product types can provide benefits other than simple stand-out. When FLB worked on chilled meals for Sun Valley under the Action Meal brand, the consultancy applied the language of fast-food outlets by combining the food with a toy in the cardboard packaging.

Similarly, Coley Porter Bell (CPB) designed the carton for Cadbury’s Wicked chocolates to echo the shape of popcorn containers, partly to give consumers a hint about the way the product should be eaten – hand to mouth, while watching a movie.

Good structural development brings with it consumer benefits, such as easier dispensing or more efficient storage. But a lot of packaging innovation is pushed through on tight timescales as brand managers react to short-term pressures. And because structural design can easily take a year to develop – on average, twice the time needed for the graphic equivalent – it is often neglected. CPB argues that planning for three-dimensional initiatives as part of an overall brand strategy is essential.

Line efficiency versus design

For all the subtle differentiation that can be built in to package design, the high-output focus illustrated in this feature may, on the face of it, suggest that pack structures are converging as line efficiency becomes the overriding concern. But luckily for marketing departments, pack design is not dictated by the criteria set by production.

“You have to balance the value of differentiation against cost,” says CPB product innovation director Nick Dormon. “Issues such as flexibility of manufacturing and retailer requirements have to be brought in at the earliest stages of the project. But, in fact, you can often do an awful lot within the parameters.”

Sean Fortune, head of the structural division at Siebert Head, takes issue with the idea of there being a “trade-off” at all between design and the practicalities. He says it implies there is a price to be paid for given benefits, which need not – or should not – be the case. “In the final analysis, what we create is landfill; it isn’t art,” he says. “The pack is a series of well thought-out attributes that provide answers to clearly defined questions.”

The people who invest in three-dimensional design are those who realise that it is the key to stand-out and brand identity, says Fortune. “If this is true for the in-store environment, it is just as important for the at-home environment.”

Fortune also points to the issue of category language. There are occasions when its rules can broken in the cause of differentiation and diversification, and times when it cannot. “You have to know whether consumer, not just the category, is ready to evolve,” he cautions.

Line language

When Siebert Head started work for the Phileas Fogg brand, its initial advice was that the manufacturer should innovate because it had lost the edge it once had from being the first into the tortillas-in-foil sector. What eventually came out of the brand development was a pyramid-shaped pack, its three-dimensional shape intended to be reminiscent of the tortillas inside. In practical terms, the bag also protects the product better than the conventional pillow pack does, says Fortune.

As a specialist industrial design company, Siebert Head is familiar with packing operations, and in Phileas Fogg’s case realised there was no reason why the two sets of sealing jaws on the bagging machine could not be set at 90 degrees to each other.

However, for the Carlsberg Export bottle, which Siebert Head recently redesigned, the pack is more in keeping with the category language, and at just 218g, it is one of the lightest available,” he says. Research indicates that the previous design was too feminine.

Two-thirds of the package redesign time is spent deciding whether radical category-busting structural innovation is required. This will depend on whether the market is fast-growing (as with the Carlsberg lager) or relatively stagnant (as with crisps and snacks) and so in need of a radical shake up, says Fortune.

Achieving differentiation

Another key issue for market leading brands is their ability to defend their identity against the branded and own-label competition. It may initially be flattering when the market leader is imitated and its own design language evolves into the category language. But when all differentiation is lost, it can be the “also-rans” which become the winners as they hitch a ride on the leader’s brand values.

This is what happened to Nestlé’s Nescafé range. Once the graphic language – its colours, forms and imagery – has been pilfered by the rest of the market, staking out a distinctive structural identity becomes a worthwhile investment.

Standardising all a brand’s sub-brands with a particular package shape, rather giving each one a different structure, does mean that the production line and stockholding are made more efficient. But some designers see such standardisation as dangerous in an age of brand extension.

Springpoint brand consultancy director Giles Lurie points to the way Oxo was tied into the cube shape for years, before it took the bold step into gravy granules. On the other hand, he says, Coca Cola felt it should move towards the shaped can because it had already linked its identity to the contour bottle. But it soon found that the can technology was too costly.

Graphic images

Of course, if it was left to the accountants, there would be no structural innovation at all. But even where the package design does nothing to differentiate the product, graphics can do the job. When Springpoint redesigned the cartons for the Birds Eye Frozen range it felt it had little choice but to stay with the box. But the graphics incorporate a “ribbon” panel which contrasts with the product photography underneath and so imitates the chilled meals category printed sleeve.

There are few product areas where structural innovation is not an option; in fact, the greater the lock-in to a category format, the greater the benefits are of investing in a design that breaks away from it. Up-front costs should not act as a deterrent to redesign. Otherwise, surely, by the same logic, the cost of raw materials could be cited as a sound reason for not manufacturing anything at all.

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