Carrying the can

The drinks can is suffering. The sales figures tell a sorry tale – 8 billion cans were sold in the UK in 1998, compared with 9 billion in 1995.

The can – particularly the soft drinks can – is losing out to plastic and glass bottles, which are arguably more practical because they have resealable lids. According to the Metal Packaging Manufacturers Association, bottles are increasingly being bought on impulse from sandwich shops and garages. Their varied shapes and flashy graphics attract buyers and they are easier to drink from on the move.

Sales of canned beer and lager are also slipping – partly because of an increase in women drinkers, who prefer the new “stubby” bottles, according to Mintel Market Intelligence, and also because of the growth in bulk-buying of bottled beer on the Continent.

The fall-off in can sales has alarmed the MPMA, which is on a mission to find a resealable can to combat the bottle’s growth. But will brave new structural packaging ever be sufficiently cost-effective to make it into manufacture? More fundamentally, designers are asking whether the ubiquitous can is suffering from a basic image problem that even a redesign couldn’t fix.

MPMA director Robin Davies admits the onslaught of bottle sales is “a severe commercial problem for us”. And it cannot be solved by cutting costs – at 5p or 6p a unit, it would be difficult to make cans any more cheaply. In fact, a redesign could well require machine modifications, adding to the cost.

“We would have to have a different end-shape. The body and the base is one piece, then we seam on the top closure with the hole,” Davies explains. The MPMA has given the problem as a brief in student competitions, but no-one has yet cracked it.

One idea Davies suggests is a plastic reclosure, similar to the cap on a washing-up liquid bottle. Design Bridge Structure director Nick Verebelyi suggests making the ring-pull part of the closure device by filling it with plastic and punching it back into the hole.

Wickens Tutt Southgate packaging director Jonathan Couper says: “Developments in plastic and composite materials may also produce more effective closures or opening devices.”

He cites the two-litre Asahi Draft beer can as an example of a closure system that works, even though it hiked up the retail price.

German manufacturer Rasselstein Hoesch presented a resealable concept can at the Interpack trade fair in Dusseldorf last month.

“Various companies, including cosmetics and juice producers, are interested in such a can,” says general marketing manager Andreas Lankenfeld. The company is looking for a project partner for the venture but, Lankenfeld adds: “We must avoid increasing the cost too much.” One advantage of the design is that it can be manufactured at a traditional plant.

However, designers who have researched the can’s status and potential believe the real problem lies with its image. “The can is looking rather sad in comparison to the variety of exclusive bottle forms [such as Oasis and Lucozade],” says Verebelyi. “They need to reposition the can, rather than fight on the same territory as bottles. It will never have the utilitarian benefits of the bottle. The can should be sexy.”

Coleman Planet technical director Chris Couch agrees: “Cans have an image issue to do with heritage and low cost. You wouldn’t buy a premium product in a can.”

While bottle manufacturers have pushed on with structural innovations and shrink sleeving, can design has stayed relatively still. “Efforts to shape the can have not been well exploited,” says Verebelyi. “The tendency has been towards embossing – for example, Budweiser Premier and Stella Artois – which exudes quality but doesn’t sing on the supermarket shelf.”

In contrast to cans, the new wide-mouthed Lucozade bottles and the moulded Oasis form are full of personality. But successful repositioning of the can would have to combine a new structural shape with improved graphics.

“The relationship between shape and print has not been well understood,” says Verebelyi. “Exciting things could be done with luminous inks, to give the can a clubby positioning. It would sustain cost increases in manufacture if it could be made sexier.”

“Steel should be part of the shine and sparkle,” says Couch. “They haven’t done much with print technology – offset litho is fairly crude compared to shrink wrap.”

But Davies at MPMA doesn’t believe the can has an image problem. “The can is the way it is because that’s the best way to make it,” he says. “It’s up to [drinks] manufacturers and designers to push us until we say ‘stop’.”

In terms of practicality, Davies believes the can is unbeatable. It is cheaper to make, faster to fill, easier to chill, has a longer shelf life and is easier to recycle.

He argues that cans would not fit in an on-trade club environment. “We would see that [market] as irrelevant because the can can’t compete with holding a bottle by the neck. Our container is definitely for the off-trade market.”

In fact, as an impulse, one-shot market, soft drinks cans still rule, according to Mintel Market Intelligence. “Resealable 500ml PET (plastic) bottles are proving increasingly popular… with sales of this pack type up 35 per cent through convenience outlets during 1997. Cans, however, still have some 70 per cent of the impulse, one-shot market,” it says.

Structural and drinks packaging designers have devoted much thought to the can’s future. PI Design’s innovations unit, PI3, is doing more can development than ever before, says PI managing director Chris Griffin.

But in terms of repositioning, a drinks manufacturer is going to have to invest in some serious innovation to move the can’s image forward. “Structural changes have been led so far by the can makers themselves,” says Griffin.

Scientific Generics in Cambridge has developed a “cardboard can”, yet to go into production, which can withstand the pressure of carbonated drinks. Such a container “would start as a niche market, for open-air concerts and sports events”, says Scientific Generics head of packaging Richard Freeman. The benefits are that it is not a hazardous missile, it is biodegradable, can be burned and will take good quality printed graphics. Joseph Manufacturing in South Carolina, meanwhile, has come up with a self-chilling can.

The high-volume soft drinks companies are most ready to lead the way in structural packaging innovation, while the lower volume beer companies crib any good ideas, argues Couper.

With all this activity in the drinks market, no container – metal, glass, plastic or paper – is likely to look the same in a few years’ time.

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