Buying dishwasher powder on my last trek to the supermarket, I was swayed into a purchase not by the price or performance of the product, but by the performance of the pack itself. Bold graphics, declaring a “new, easy-pouring pack”, persuaded me to switch from the cheaper own-brand to the more expensive one.
“Clients are very conscious about what the market is doing and often the only way they can compete is by adding value. Brands have to fight back because [consumers] know the own-brand is often just as good as the brand name,” says Sean Fortune, director of structural design at Siebert Head.
Making packaging more functional for consumers seems obvious, but it is not the main requirement for most packaging briefs. Although clients are aware of the benefits of value-added packaging, cost is a key constraint and clients are reluctant to invest the sums of money often needed to alter the production of packs. Gary Spencer, business development director at Coleman Planet, says: “Every brief we receive calls for improved quality, perception and added value for the brand, but we nearly always see that classic statement: ‘For minus cost or no cost at all’.”
Coleman Planet succeeded, though, in reducing costs for a Smarties family pack by introducing a new shape and material. “The old packs were spiral-wound and waxed, extremely expensive, with no added value. We used thermo forming technology, which is cheaper to produce because the tools are cheaper,” explains Spencer. The new packs feature a large cap shape which can also have an after use. “Now it’s a bespoke item with added value because the pack supports the brand, is cheaper to produce and can be used afterwards. The perception is that packaging is the lowest common denominator, but successful brands are those which invest in what after all is brand value.”
Steve Kelsey, creative director for structural packaging at PI Design, claims clients are now demanding more evidence about whether a structural change will work, before taking the risk of investing millions in new tooling. “Clients want quantitative qualification about whether it’s going to be effective – they no longer just want a designer’s opinion. There’s also a strong trend to combine cost savings with brand enhancement. You have to do research, but it has to be the right kind of research.”
PI has built up its own development centre, where it can create a limited amount of prototypes which are trialled in the market. “We can get excellent feedback without changing the production line.”
Clients will be willing to invest if they can be reassured that the investment will pay off, he adds. PI recently rebranded Q8’s European lubricants range which included “radically” overhauling bottle shapes. “The idea was that if you took the graphics off the packaging it could only be one brand. It was a brave approach by the client – the packaging costs more but they’ve got increased sales.” Bottles now pour better and have integral grip features, though Kelsey stresses the structure was only part of ensuring an “incredibly good brand communication”.
Shape is also being used by brand names to keep one step ahead of copycat packaging. David Goudge, director at The Brand Development Business, claims: “Structural changes can add emotional value. When NestlÃ© repacked its coffee into waisted jars it created differentiation – it’s one way of getting away from copy-catting,” he says, pointing out that it takes time and investment for other brands or own-labels to follow suit. Richard Murray, a partner at Williams Murray Banks, agrees, “There has never been a greater need to be noticed.” But he argues designers have become staid in their approach to packaging and claims a lot of clients seem to have “design industry fatigue”.
“Designers became good at brand evolution through the mid Eighties and early Nineties with lots of tweaks, but they didn’t have effect. Brand owners have been forced to re-appraise the way they approach packaging and we’re seeing some quite brave stuff. But we need to move away from logo tweaks to more active packaging. Structure will play an increasingly important role.”
Mike Branson, partner at Pearlfisher, believes clients are, “increasingly taking a broader view of what a design consultancy can offer in terms of packaging”, and want strategic input rather than just graphics or structural design in isolation. The company has repackaged Carte d’Or ice cream in oval tubs, moving away from traditional rectangular tubs. That was not part of the brief but has reached the freezer because it proved both functional, making it easier to scoop the ice cream out, and provided a “premium feel”. The packs have now been launched Europe-wide.
Structural changes to packs are far more driven by the potential to increase sales or cut costs in production and transportation than by environmental issues, despite regulations passed by Parliament last year in response to an EC directive on packaging and waste. The regulations include targets to recover and recycle packaging waste and state that companies involved in the packaging chain should take responsibility for their packaging. Yet there seems to be little pressure within packaging briefs to cut down on packaging.
“We’re not finding recycling is uppermost in the brief – it’s there in the lower levels in terms of overall pack efficiency,” says Branson.”Eight years ago it was a hot issue and companies were worried about over-packaging. Now it’s much less driven by environmental goodwill,” adds Goudge. “The UK grocery market is more about presentation and making it pretty, whereas in Germany it’s more functional.” German supermarket shoppers often discard boxes at the checkout, but UK consumers are far from ready to abandon what is often perceived as part of the product. “For some products, such as chocolates or cosmetics, the pack is part of the experience and there’s a ritual to it – it adds to the experience of the brand,” states Murray.
Cutting down on packaging waste is usually viewed as more to save costs than to help save the planet. Designing for after-use is not a primary concern for the big brands, despite the amount of margarine and ice cream tubs which end up as storage containers. But Fortune says refilling is a growing area for some categories. “Refilling is very difficult to get right. It’s a cultural thing – people here are less prone to use refills than in other European countries.” But it is becoming more widespread for categories such as washing liquids, and the key is ensuring packs can be refilled easily.
“Creating something where the pack is the integral part of the product is becoming more important. Creating a defendable or patented entity is what we should be doing for every single client, be it a 3D trademark or an actual patent,” concludes Fortune.