Consumer packaging: start to finish

As the retail environment changes, so do the requirements for bringing a package to the shelves 

There are tens of thousands of new products on store shelves every year. Unfortunately, few new products survive, with statisticians quoting failure rates as optimistic as 70% and as pessimistic as 90%. New launches fail for many reasons, such as not understanding the target market, not identifying product benefits clearly, and focusing on manufacturing over market penetration, to name a few. All seem quite obvious in hindsight, but somehow get missed in the thick of it.  

In addition to growing numbers of new products, we have more platforms to launch them on than ever before. You no longer have to rely on big retail to give you a nod (though of course everyone still wants the nod). There are other options like Amazon, KickStarter and Indiegogo to name a few. You also talk to the consumer using multiple platforms. Instead of selling exclusively through retail or online, many brand owners are taking the omnichannel approach:  selling through as many channels as possible. This increased complexity has created a world of opportunity. 

Packaging constitutes an important portion of the process of launching something new into the market. Of course, the increased speed and complexity of product development has impacted packaging development. Let’s take a look at demystifying how a product travels from concept to retail—or virtual—shelf through the eyes of the package. 

How new products emerge: sky-high perspective

Product development follows an identifiable cycle which may vary slightly from one product category to another but essentially passes through some version of: initial idea and research, initial product development, market testing, further development (design iteration), manufacturing, distribution and—fingers crossed—sales. Within this framework there are driving questions that the brand owners must answer. For example, there must be an identifiable need for the product. In fact, a lack of demand is often a reason for product failure. Of course, when you’re working in an innovative category, consumers don’t always know what they need. I never knew I needed an iPhone, but the demand for on-the-go access to information was always there. 

The questions within the product development cycle continue to deepen your understanding of how your product fits in, from knowing the target market you will aim to satisfy, to how you will respond to your category’s legal requirements, etc. For brand-new products this process is arduous and can cost incredible amounts of money. It’s no easier in established categories. One could argue that it’s harder to penetrate the single-serving yogurt market than selling a formula from the fountain of youth. Competition in yogurt is something fierce!

We begin our discussion of packaging here because many of the decisions made during this process will shape the options available for packaging. Your decision to create on-the-go baby snacks for ‘organic-produce-loving moms’ will determine whether we’re looking at a banana purée in a jar or a pouch.  There is, of course, also a difference between starting from scratch or doing a line extension, or working somewhere in between—like a new product line within an existing brand. 

The product packaging cycle

Much like there is a process for developing new products, there is also a schema we generally follow to create the package for that product. You will notice that many of these steps conceptually overlap, as they should. The package is an important marketing vehicle today, and co-creating it to support the product will yield the best results. Most package development cycles generally follow:  research and concept development, design, testing and final approval. Within these steps, however, there are many contributing stakeholders. We will look at each step in turn. 

Research

When developing a package there are different stakeholders that the brand can engage at the outset. All of them, brand owner included, will begin by researching the options for a product package. The design process may begin by employing a design agency. In such a case there would be some research and an initial brief created by product developers on the brand side, and the agency would begin to build solutions from that brief. Working with an agency is a great way to achieve professional results that compete directly with others already in the market. It does require that a company has adequate budget to do so. At the other end of the spectrum, the brand owner may conclude that his package will use an industry standard container. For example, if I were a local small-batch coffee roaster, I would begin the process by sourcing foil-lined manufactured bags, and use a graphic designer to create a label. I can print the labels using a local printer.

Regardless of whether the product is being launched by a new brand owner or an established giant, there are some important questions that the research phase must address. Adequate research is critical to project success, but one also needs to understand that the market will not wait for you forever to gather answers. This is where  knowing where to stop is the gamble. Here are just a few of the elements that help identify the correct package choice during research. 

Product Protection A critical requirement of every package is that it must keep the product safe. The complexity of this is dependant largely on the product – it is harder to protect eggs than it is to protect a block of cheese, for example. Just as important as the package protecting the product itself, we must consider the entire distribution chain. Is climate control important, for example? What about how the product will likely travel during shipping? All of these questions will be answered clearly when the final structure is developed later in the cycle. However, thinking about this early will help narrow packaging options. 

Competition  Often we begin with a competitor and market analysis to see what is currently happening in the category. Designers often talk about the sweet spot of being different enough to be noticed, but not so different that you are not recognized in the category. There are exceptions – in particular these exist when a significant change to the package offers a product advantage. There are many examples of products that achieved brand success through packaging, from goose-necked toilet bowl cleaner bottles, to lip balm in a spherical jar, to liquid water enhancer. In addition, unique packaging is often patented and thus can protect the brand from competitors. 

Stability  Another important component is understanding whether or not the product has shelf stability requirements. This is very important in food. If you have ever wondered why produce is sometimes wrapped in plastic, it is precisely to address shelf stability. Here, materials suppliers offer the best understanding of what to use to package the product.

Legal requirements  We have legislation that is intended to protect the consumer. A product package is required to have various information and components. The complexity of this ranges greatly with the product category. Packaging for bedsheets will have far fewer requirements than packaging for medication, for example. Large brand owners will often employ a legal team who are able to communicate these requirements. It could also be the case that a company relies on other stakeholders, like quality control in a prepress company to provide these services. In Canada, we use the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act for many products. There is a great resource provided in plain language by the Competition Bureau that can be found at competitionbureau.gc.ca/eic/site/cb-bc.nsf/eng/h_02938.html.

It’s important to keep up with legislative changes. Perhaps you’ve heard about new legislation to update nutrition panels in the US, by 2021 for all producers.  This signals a redesign of all products containing such panels – no small undertaking. In Canada, we’re also updating legislation, though the new rules here are not completely in step with the US. A great visual summary can be found at canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/food-labelling-changes.html

 Lastly, most brands today operate internationally. While the above are the Canadian standards, each country has its own standards. Jay Park, assistant professor at Ryerson University, explains that when shipping products internationally you need to reconsider the package for different regions. Not only do the graphic requirements need to change accordingly, but some countries are very particular about the materials used in packaging. One can appreciate how anticipating this in advance of production would be critical. 

The above is not an exhaustive list of facts that need gathering to produce a successful package, but even from this small sampling one can see how the package concept begins to take shape early on. You start to make decisions here like: I want to stand out from the competition as being high quality and I want to ensure product freshness and quality therefore I will package my liquid product in glass. 

Design

Once you have enough information to select a package type, you proceed to the design stage. In packaging, this phase is two-pronged: you need to design the look of the package, as well as its structure. These are often carried out by two different stakeholders as they require different skillsets. It’s often the case that the two exist in different companies. Kyle McVey, director of client services at Jones Packaging in London, ON, shares that there is an opportunity to be more innovative and cost effective if graphic and structural development happen in parallel. Jones is ideally positioned to comment as their integrated services include graphic and structural design consultation and risk assessment, as well as full manufacturing and filling capabilities. “We always maintain the earlier the converter can be included in the project the better. Instead of having the design stages in individual silos, running them in parallel you can gain design synergies. We encourage structure and graphics rather than structure then graphics,” says McVey. 

Of course, there is no one way to approach package design, and there are several workflows that could be used. You could pick a standard package which will provide a graphics team with standard dielines—the structure—that they can then populate with information and graphics. You could create a custom package that would require that you design and test the structure before graphics are applied. The latter would be more expensive and time consuming. This phase is also where you have tremendous capacity to save money. “Saving an inch in package dimensions can have a significant impact on the total cost,” says Park. “You get the best results when you consider the entire distribution system. For example, you can use software to help forecast how products will palletize and ship as you design the package. Efficient designs thus have the ability to create competitive advantage for a brand and are often patented for this reason,” he adds. 

Retail requirements are another important factor when creating the design for the product. Large retailers, which are often desirable partners, have many demands for brand owners. They can determine the style and size of shipper for example. Even small brands need to ensure they understand the demands of retailers. This now also extends to online retailers as well. Amazon, for example, has the ability to handle warehousing, inventory control and shipping for brands, a service called Fulfillment by Amazon or FBA. However, in order to participate in FBA you need to adhere to its requirements. As an example, when working with many retailers you are required to use a GS1 barcode. Other requirements may have to do with the size and type of shipper you use and how you palletize your products. 

Graphics can also be a challenge when completing your package design. Consideration needs to be given to the shelf appeal, as well as be well co-ordinated with existing flavours, all the while standing out from competition. Each product category must respond to current trends. For example, in high-end cosmetics there is a return to minimalism, with an emphasis on excellent materials, often with specialty tactile coatings. Many food categories have focus on product decoration, constantly increasing the available real estate of the principal panel displays.  You may have noticed fully decorated shrink-wrapped bottles in beverage and salad dressing aisles replacing standard labels. Convenience is still important, and often the focus here is to work with the structure team on the package closure method. As an example, there are many types of resealable packages available on the market today which improve product freshness. These come at a cost and therefore should be perceived as premium by consumers. 

Arriving at a package that uses the right shapes and materials, and is designed to stand out on shelf, is the desired partnership. In addition, it’s important to understand the rest of the production steps involved as early as design. “If the print process, or even the printer, is not considered up front, you could be designing something that is not achievable,” warns Ken Rosa, SGS onsite project manager. “For example a design may look great if printed litho, but because of volumes, it is actually going to print flexo. It goes through the approval process and the client loves it, but when it gets to prepress we need to colour-correct the images and set traps to meet flexographic specifications. The dot gain in flexo is higher resulting in images and gradients that do not look as clean, as well as the new proof having visible trap lines. This proof is confusing for the client, because it can be quite different from the initial proof they approved. If flexo had been highlighted right from the get-go, the design could have been adapted ahead of time, making the proof not only look good, but also communicate achievable print results. Get the stakeholders together as early as possible. If you can get the design team, prepress team and client together during the initial pitch presentations, that is ideal. The prepress team can look at the designs and provide feedback on some of the print challenges that could arise from the presented concepts,” says Rosa. 

Market testing

Before a product rolls out nationally or even internationally, it’s best to test the market reaction. This can be done first by using marketing methods such as focus groups. Ideally, focus group testing happens in advance of production. We want to know if the response is negative prior to making any further investment. Once the product is ready to move forward, however, there are other options to make sure you have a successful launch. Many large brands will use small communities they have identified as representative of their target markets to sell the product and gauge the responses. In many consumer goods categories, the media costs of launching a new product are tremendous. Testing in a small market ensures that brand owners can troubleshoot any potential issues. 

A unique type of testing that can also be used in packaging is called A/B testing. This is where you launch a product into two communities, perhaps changing the package colour in each, in order to see which performed better. This type of testing is quite often used in focus groups before production occurs. Issues like images, colours, and phrasing can all easily be tested, with the most successful design selected. It’s important to understand that testing is important for national brands, but may not be available or necessary for smaller players. If Anna decided that in addition to the chocolate chip cookies she sells to her local grocers, she will also attempt pies, she would certainly not go to the trouble of shipping her pies to a similar grocer elsewhere for testing. Smaller brands then, simply take a chance in their smaller market. 

Approval and production

Once the product is designed and has tested positively in the market, various levels of stakeholders approve the package—from brand owners to lawyers—and the packaging can move into production. Of course, this approval process would exist for the packaging used in testing as well. Unlike in other printing methods, the printing of the package is often the beginning of the product cycle. This is very different from printing a book, for example. When you print a cereal box, it has very little value, until it is ready to be filled with actual product. Here the printer and filler must work together so that the printed package, or components thereof, are provided appropriately. Perhaps the filler will be receiving a roll of labels which they will apply to bottles as product is filled on the line. Maybe your product is placed in boxes and they may need to be glued in a particular way so that they can be properly erected and filled on the line. 

Packaging lines, especially for high-volume products, can be extremely complex and financially demanding to change. The filling line alone, can be the reason for the design maintaining a particular size or substrate. Rather than changing the lines themselves, we have seen products changing their package type altogether, and therefore using a different filling line. This decision can also be driven by volumes. Beer moving from bottles to cans is an example of this. Fillers often work with a single brand but are their own private company. For example, the Coca Cola Bottling Co. is a company that packages predominantly Coca Cola products. Interestingly these fillers will often also create space on their filling lines for private label products which are already formulated and stable for filling. 

You can also work with a contract packager or co-packer, which is a type of filler that can work with many brands and has a breadth of packaging options. Many products begin with standard packages and labels, which are a particular sweet spot for co-packers. Often these companies will focus in a particular product category or broader sector. One company may service cosmetics clients, while another has services for dry confectionary goods. Another important phenomenon in packaging is the arrival of digital printing and package manufacturing available today. If you are decorating your package using a label and the run is short, you may very well benefit from this option. 

Final (green) thoughts 

No packaging article would be complete without some thought on how to approach sustainability. In consumers’ eyes packaging is often perceived as creating waste. Increasing media pressure, better legislation and consumer awareness have finally made some room in the budget to account for how the product will move through its life cycle, and beyond. Companies are moving to understand packaging as part of the circular economy, which includes all facets of manufacturing as well as end-of-life. New products bring with them an opportunity to consider sustainability early on.  A thoughtful analysis may change package selection altogether. This topic is so dense that it deserves its own article. Thoughtful planning of the above process, with sustainability in mind, is a broad look at the roadmap of taking a package from concept to shelf. 

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