It’s a wrap

Green issues, new regulations and commercial factors are shaping the future of the packaging industry says Rodney Abbott. While Jane Lewis hears what clients expect from packaging groups. Rodney Abbott is editor of Packaging Today.

Legislation and commercial pressures have forced packaging designers to revise their thinking in a bid to satisfy the demands of the manufacturer, retailer and consumer. The Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulations, born in Brussels and adapted in the UK, have forced Britain’s packaging industry to keep waste strictly in check and promise to turn the principles of packaging design on their head.

But long before the new waste regulations were a gleam in Euro bureaucrats’ eyes, retail power was forcing down pack costs in a bid to gain customer loyalty. And the only way this could be done was to use less packaging and indulge in own-label branding. So commercial considerations have, to some extent, subtly been replaced by environmental issues. Today the consumer is king, not only calling the shots on price but also having an ever increasing say on environmental issues.

Secondary packaging has virtually been eliminated, and replaced by better-engineered primary packs. The rigid plastics industry has had to both reduce the thickness of packaging (known as downgauging) and meet ever stricter rules relating to the environment and recyclability. Even PVC has acquired an air of respect-ability – except, perhaps, to Greenpeace.

Bottle, jar and can manufacturers have been forced to downgauge to the limit. Flexibles such as paper, board and film are now being produced in minimal thicknesses.

From a structural point of view, packs can only be downgauged so far. Bottles are now engineered differently to enable “narrow necking” to take place. Even so, there are limits.

The same applies to cans, although ribbing can be used to add strength to any design. And the same principles apply to rigid plastics – PET bottles offer good clarity for the drinks industry and PET trays for the food sector are often ribbed for greater strength.

With film, the outlook is very different. Fresh polymers continue to be developed, providing greater strength from thinner gauge materials. Some stretch wrap, for example, will not “zipper” if punctured.

Where carton manufacture is concerned, engineering innovation is prolific and there are countless examples where packs have been designed to take greater weight with less material. No matter what material is used to package a product, it has a set life where recyclability is concerned. You can’t manufacture bottles from recycled glass alone and you can’t make cans totally from landfill scrap.

Paper and board products can only be recycled a given number of times before the fibre content breaks down. Again, virgin material is always needed. Certain plastics are not recyclable at all and those that are, have to be filtered into other industries. Laminates are particularly difficult to deal with.

All these pressures have forced packaging manufacturers and designers to look for new solutions to old problems. Consequently, swings from one material to another are not uncommon. Just look at the growth of plastic bottles in the drinks industry, all at the expense of glass.

Modern materials are often cheaper and, more importantly, they are unbreakable. Milk and soft drinks in plastic containers demand the consumer’s attention as they scan supermarket shelves – though it is doubtful whether wine and spirits will end up being served from plastic bottles. Or will they? Plastic has also scored well in the automotive industry – this time at the expense of steel. It doesn’t rust and is economically viable.

More recently, there has been a big swing away from shrink-film to larger paperboard open-ended multipacks. These allow the consumer to take home products in a greater variety of multiple formats and provide more space to promote the product, with coupons and special offers. The ability to trade and offer promotions on the pack, combined with innovation has made its mark. As ever, strong branding is key to any pack design’s success.

The value of design in rescuing a flagging brand is evident. Products have a life – they are born, peak and then die. Once a product has been firmly embedded in the public’s psyche, demand soars, only to decline after its pinnacle has been reached. The trick, say marketing philosophers, is to reinvent a product before the death knell is sounded and this is where the design team comes in.

Much brow-mopping and hand-wringing was evident at Unilever’s headquarters, just over a year ago, when sales of Radion washing powder took a dive. Research showed the pack design was too harsh. Design agency Graphique was asked to give the brand a more radiant and gentler look. When the new packs hit the shelves in January last year, Unilever saw a 60 per cent leap in its market share at its peak in late spring.

Promotional packaging is also playing an increasingly strong role in supermarkets. It’s a simple fact that consumers respond to money offers – most people are suckers for a pack offering an instant win or a chance of a holiday.

Promotional offers have led to some innovative packaging for some unlikely bedmates Рone Nestl̩ promotion had a Yorkie bar attached to a jar of Nescaf̩ which was supported at the back to protect the bar during transit.

Although market share of some of the best known and biggest brands has been eroded through copycat branding by large own-label companies, many own-brand products have little chance of competing unless they are able to offer a substantial price advantage. Brand owners are now registering their brands as a precaution against wholesale commercial plagiarism. It has become essential to register any patentable features of a pack.

Giving a brand a patentable equity also protects its future. Hand-lettered graphics, delivery systems or registered structural equities all make plagiarism much more difficult and provide a brand with a greater life span.

As packaging design has become more valued over the last decade, it is now the turn of structural design to create the added impact. This is particularly important in a society that is obliged to place increasing importance on labelling, child-resistant and tamper-resistant packs, and easy opening.

In order to achieve sales, packaging design should first and foremost be functional and achieve a sophisticated level of communication in an over-crowded marketplace.

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