Packaging is the capper

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Revolution is afoot in consumer-product packaging, as marketers see it as having a growing influence on purchase decisions amid ongoing media fragmentation.

"Not long ago, the package was merely the product's receptacle, and the brand message was elsewhere-usually on TV," says Marc Baum, exec VP at the Grocery Manufacturers of America. "But changes in media and consumer lifestyles are now forcing a dramatic shift, making the package itself an increasingly important selling medium."

Being first with attention-getting new packaging materials, colors and shapes, and new dispensing solutions has become an intensely competitive game for marketers because of the free buzz these shelf-borne tactics generate, say marketing experts.

Examples such as Unilever's Skippy Squeez' It peanut butter, dispensed in tubes for on-the-go ease, or H. J. Heinz Co.'s ketchups in colors ranging from green to blue to tempt kids have scored millions of dollars worth of free publicity by being first of a kind.

But beyond short-term buzz, innovative new packaging has become the crucial "tiebreaker" for profits and market share gains in most consumer-product categories where war is increasingly waged on the shelf instead of merely through price and advertising, says Chris Maher, a managing partner at Convergence Marketing, Norwalk, Conn., whose clients include Sara Lee Corp.'s Chock full o'Nuts. For that coffee, Mr. Maher's agency created a "talking can" promotion this spring in which 1,000 winning cans would "sing" the brand's ad jingle when opened.


"Harnessing new technology and something unusual in packaging not only gets consumers involved, but it mobilizes retailers to push more volume through, which is the ultimate goal," he says. The promotion, which includes a sweepstakes to win $10,000, is backed by local radio and PR efforts.

Technophiles are buzzing at the Food Marketing Institute's annual FMI Show, now under way in Chicago. Among topics of discussion are embedding microchips in product packaging. The smart packaging, still a ways off for the masses, could eventually allow marketers to track individual items from the factory to the supermarket checkout counter via electronic product codes linked to radio frequency identification technology (see story below).

"Right now the technology is too costly ... but when developed, EPC coding could help manage food security, tampering and freshness issues," says FMI Senior VP Michael Sansolo. "It could allow consumers to `check out' of a supermarket by simply pushing a cart through a big scanner that would read all the products and prices instantly, and it could tell a microwave to cook a certain food item for 2 minutes at 90% power, for instance."

Marketers are also using new packaging tactics to reinforce brand awareness and loyalty through oversize signage and logos on consumer packages.

New technology now allows 360-degree shrink-wrapped labels to surround containers with bright graphics that accommodate more on-pack product and promotion information, replacing paper labels glued onto cans and bottles, says Ben Miyares, VP-industry relations for the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute.

Food containers are also becoming lighter and easier to stack on store shelves and in refrigerators, and marketers are pouring billions of dollars into research and development to win consumer loyalty with package designs that make life easier.

Notable examples include Coca-Cola Co.'s beverage packs designed to fit neatly onto refrigerator shelves, and Ocean Spray Cranberries' rectangular juice bottles, introduced last year, that allow 10 units per store shelf vs. eight of its former round bottles.

ripe for change

Following the movement toward selling lettuce in bags, the produce aisle is ripe for more packaging changes, says the GMA's Mr. Baum, with clamshell containers appearing for all types of fruit, and ingenious new methods of cushioning eggs against breakage.

But packaging's biggest change may be its migration away from off-site engineering departments to the front lines of marketing.

Recognition is slowly dawning on marketers that packaging is a key element in the totally integrated marketing theory, says Marc Shinall, president-CEO of Havas' Euro RSCG Meridian, a Westport, Conn.-based marketing consultancy.

Packaging's place in product development "is moving up the food chain fast, and more agencies are getting package design involved at the very beginning, which is a major change," he says.

Some observers, however, say packaging is still a long way from receiving the attention it deserves from ad agencies. "There's a lot of talk ... but examples of attention to packaging are few and far between," says Ed Rice, executive director of client service at Interbrand, part of Omnicom Group.

Leading-edge consumer package-goods marketers are applying social, behavioral and anthropological science to product packaging, and bringing those discoveries through to the final ad concept, says Davis Masten, a principal with packaging researcher Cheskin.

"As ad agencies have used market research to develop advertising, we're providing that same kind of knowledge to packaging design," he says. "You can't have great advertising these days without great packaging."

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