Perfect packaging

Packaging innovation comes at a price. Although new designs may increase sales in the short term, fashions are often short-lived. The costs involved in rebuilding production lines may be prohibitive.

The iMac is a triumph of packaging. When it launched in 1998, its shape and colour were unheard of in the personal computer sector. Sales boomed and it had such a dramatic impact that it soon became hard to buy white or brown goods that did not incorporate translucent turquoise panels.

Although the iMac is not product packaging in the traditional sense, it demonstrates just how strong an impact a striking shape can have in clearly branding a product and making it stand out on the shelf.

This can be particularly vital for small companies with limited marketing budgets. A truly outstanding design will not only attract consumers’ attention, but also may garner press interest or even win awards. The clear plastic bottle created for Ty Nant mineral water, for instance, which was designed by Ross Lovegrove and looks like running water, recently won a silver nomination for the UK’s most prestigious design award, a D&AD pencil, earning it valuable PR without advertising.

TurnerDuckworth designer Bruce Duckworth says: “Pepsi could not do something like that, its production lines couldn’t cope.” Similarly, two years ago, TurnerDuckworth produced a squat, wide-necked bottle for beer brand Steel Reserve. “It stood out against all the other long-necked bottles on the shelf and looked strong,” he adds.

As Duckworth says, the multinationals with bottling plants across the globe will be extremely reluctant to undergo the enormous expense of altering their production lines.

Managing director of packaging designers Wren & Rowe Paul Foulkes-Arellano agrees. “Reconfiguring a filling line can cost £1m. The beer market is driven by volume and the big companies don’t think outside the box,” he says.

Foulkes suggests another factor that militates against change. He says: “Marketing people are petrified by production people.” A young marketing manager in the job for just a few months may be intimidated by an old hand in the production department sucking his teeth and saying that a suggested change of packaging will bring complicated upheaval and expensive downtime for the production lines.

Chicken and egg

Suppliers, too, may fight change, claims Nick Verebelyi, head of structural design at Design Bridge. He says: “There are instances where one gets into a chicken and egg situation with technical people. They won’t tell you what you can’t do (or how much it will cost) until you tell them what you want to do. We virtually have to design the thing before anyone is prepared to give feedback on cost and suitability for a production line.

He adds: “The key is that suppliers and technical people must not hold back information. Sometimes they remain tight-lipped because the business won’t give a straight answer about how much it is prepared to invest. Sometimes parameters are genuinely flexible. The business may say ‘it has to run down our existing lines’ yet an idea that doesn’t fulfil this may still get the green light if it looks like a stunning money spinner. Companies, like people, can change their minds based on new information.”

This was the experience of SeáFortune, director of structural design at SiebertHead, when Derwent Valley Foods approached him to come up with an idea for party packs of Phileas Fogg tortilla chips.

SiebertHead designed a pyramid-shaped pack that meant a second set of heat-sealing jaws had to be attached to the production line, which would slow things down. It would also require a degree of education to teach the factory packers and the stores how to deal with the packs, says Fortune. But the benefits – an arresting shape, easy to pack and display on shelf, better product protection, a self-standing pack once opened – persuaded Derwent Valley’s management to run with the idea. And rightly so: sales more than doubled against forecasts, with no advertising beyond trade promotion.

No more gimmicks

However, within a couple of years, circumstances had changed: the gimmick had started to wear off; Phileas Fogg marketing was now handled by a new parent, KP, whose priority was not tortilla chips; and chief rival Doritos had brought out a bigger bag that was outselling the pyramid. Retailers started to squeeze the shelf space allotted to Phileas Fogg and no longer wanted to stock a box that had three pyramids facing the aisle. Eventually, KP killed off the pyramid in favour of jumbo bags that would compete head on with tortilla chips’ rivals.

Fortune says: “The pyramid had great initial impact. KP should have tried to maintain that. You have to work at innovation and maintain a stream of innovative ideas.”

Apple does this. Over the past few years it has brought out laptop computers, office computers, even computer mice, that have consistently seen its designers invited onto the podium at the D&AD awards. In May 2002, Apple excelled itself: not only did it win two silvers for the iBook and the titanium PowerBook G4, it took another gold pencil, this time for its iPod MP3 player.

In terms of true product packaging, Nescafé has attempted to stay ahead of the copycats with its waisted jar, conceived by Design Bridge and launched last year.

SiebertHead’s Fortune says: “It offers a point of difference against its rivals and own label. Anyone can have similar photography, but the jar offers equity that Nescafé can use to defend its area.”

“You need future-ready packaging,” says Wren & Rowe’s Foulkes-Arellano. “There’s is a level of expectation from consumers, who think: ‘I’ve changed my Nokia three times in three years, but this can of Coke still looks the same’.”

Not only can gimmicks wear off and shapes be imitated by a brand’s direct rivals, fashions come and go across entire sectors. For instance, having been out of fashion for some time in the UK, embossed and indented glass is undergoing a resurgence and is increasingly being used for beer and other drinks. Wren & Rowe has just designed the bottle for a port brand called G, which aims to turn the old-fashioned gentleman’s drink into something funky and fun. The bottle incorporates a indented G. Rexam Glass has just produced the packaging for Bacardi brand Breezer Twist, complete with Bacardi’s logo, the bat, embossed on the bottle.

Embracing danger

The first few products to make use of a style may seem chic and original, but too many copycats will dilute an idea’s impact, making it all the more vital to stay ahead of the pack.

But there are dangers in embracing innovation for its own sake without considering why the packaging should be different. It is possible to make a product look so unusual that it leaves the confines of its category language and confuses consumers. For instance, many successful hair and bath products these days look more like food than cosmetics: Lush lays out its wares as if it was an upmarket deli counter and many shampoos and shower gels look good enough to eat. But, without the label, the orange bottle for Wella Vitality seems to fit more comfortably alongside condiments such as vinegar and salad cream than with other shampoos. And that is not a subconscious connection you would want consumers to make. Equally, a pack must function as it is supposed to. The Evian sports bottle incorporating a plastic handle sounds like a great idea, but becomes frustrating to use when the handle snaps.

An innovative pack must offer real benefits to the consumer as well as connecting with its target and reinforcing the brand.

Wall’s Calippo and Solero Shots are a good example of this. Wall’s wanted to attract teenagers with a product that had more street credibility than an ice-lolly. BrownKSDP came up with the pack, a wax carton with a moulded resealable closure. Pete Hollingsworth, managing director and head of structural design at BrownKSDP, explains that the idea was to have a pack that delivered the product without mess and allowed teenage consumers to look cool rather than childish by adopting the adult refreshment codes of soft drinks and beers. In other words, you drink it rather than lick it. The pack has gone down well and has now been launched globally.

Design company The Workroom recently designed the bottles for Nature’s Yard, a flavoured spring water range. The bright bottles are based on animal characters that appeal to children and encourage them to reuse the bottles, creating a set of animal friends.

Genuine innovation

Mini Jaffa Cakes have also been a great success. Design Bridge used yogurt pot technology to create individual lunchbox portions, justifying a premium price and creating a new category. The use of colour and McVitie’s branding on the bottom of the pots reinforced the original Jaffa Cakes brand values. The product’s £8m sales in the first year were achieved with virtually no cannibalisation of the parent brand, according to Design Bridge. Since then the lunchbox market has mushroomed.

As McVitie’s and Apple know, there are great rewards to be gleaned from having a product with a compelling shape. A genuinely innovative piece of packaging that is not simply gimmicky, but provides tangible benefits to consumers will make it worth incurring the wrath of a potentially hostile production department and shouldering the cost of upheaval to the filling line.

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