Designing Packaging Isn't Easy. Here's All The Innovation You Don't See

It takes years to design and produce a novel packaging idea. Here’s how your company can save time and money in the process.

How often do we hear with innovation that companies have to be nimble—able to turn on a dime and respond quickly to changes in the marketplace to take advantage of new opportunities? That all may be true for some products, but it doesn’t often apply in our field: consumer packaged goods (CPGs). These are all of the short-lived products we use every day: those jars, jugs, and cartons you see in your refrigerator, on your kitchen shelves, and in your medicine cabinet. All these packages might seem simple enough, but the truth is that for every small advancement you make in package design, there is an iceberg of innovation underneath.

Assembly lines must be retooled, expensive custom packaging machines built, packages tested, and inventory produced, all in an industry in which pennies can mean the difference in a profit margin. In fact, whether consumers realize it or not, it may be harder to innovate with CPGs than with any other product. Even changing a small perforation on a bag of chips from a straight line to a diagonal can take a year. Designing a new spout for a beverage container can take many years. Given all of the potential difficulties involved, companies making even small changes in product design are about as nimble as the Titanic.

So why bother? After all, it’s easy enough for companies to go with an off-the-shelf solution, slapping their graphics on an already existing design and avoiding a time-consuming redesign. Those of us working in the field of product package design, however, know that even small changes can make an incredible impact on customer experience—having a long-term impact both on customer satisfaction and sales. As product designers at the global design and innovation consultancy Continuum, we’ve found that keeping a few key points in mind can help companies successfully navigate the waters of change.

Charting the Territory

Take the Dream Cap, a new spout we created for Tetra Pak, which had asked us to create the “ideal drinking experience” for its line of on-the-go beverage containers around the world. In order to understand what that meant, we had to uncover how people drink, which is not as simple an act as you might think. Different people in different situations actually drink very differently. Sometimes people make a complete seal over the container, a mode we called “Suck.” Other times, they pour without making a seal, which we called “Pour.” Finally, there’s a hybrid mode where they make a seal only with their bottom lip, which we called “Pull.”

At the same time, we discovered that the rate at which people like to drink is the same: just around 25 milliliters per second. In order to create the ideal design, we worked to create a spout that could allow that rate of flow in each of the three modes. As we did, we were surprised to find that not only did the shape of the spout affect the ease of drinking, but people actually told us that the juice tasted better as well. Some swore it was a different juice entirely.

In the end, we created an opening in which the hole slightly overlapped the edge of the container—an expensive and time-consuming design to implement in production. But knowing from our research it would be a game-changer, Tetra Pak went ahead with it. In the end, the Dream Cap took seven years to produce, but within a year, it had become an instant success, launching in 51 different beverage lines in 42 packaging plants across the globe, including Gatorade’s signature new packaging.

Testing the Waters

Our experience with Tetra Pak shows just how important it is to test a product with real people. We found that even more so in another project with a major food manufacturer. This company wanted a new package for a condiment that could be used as a topping but also as a cooking ingredient. In order to see how people used it, we literally invited ourselves over for dinner with willing consumers, giving them any of a dozen packages and seeing how they responded to attributes such as material, opening size, and hand feel.

Finally, we narrowed the new condiment package down to two designs: a plastic tub and a foil squeeze tube. Consumers preferred the tub for cooking and the tube for topping. But in continued testing, we found that, surprisingly, the tube was quicker and easier to use for cooking as well—if consumers could be persuaded to use it.

With additional refinement and further testing, we found that they were more accepting when we flipped it upside-down and added a bigger cap similar to a squeeze bottle of ketchup. Finally, 22 out of 30 people tested said they preferred the tube to the current package, and 17 said they’d even pay more for it—a complete turnaround we never would have seen without so much refinement and testing.

Sailing Into Port

Finding what people prefer, of course, only succeeds if you are then able to create it at a cost they will pay. People expect packaged goods to be cheap, after all, and sometimes the increase of even a few pennies can dramatically drive down consumer demand. In order to avoid that potential pitfall, we have learned to involve manufacturing early in the process—in this case, finding several manufacturers with existing packaging technology that could meet our filling needs with minimal customization.

As a consumer, it may be comforting to know that the next great innovation in package design has already been created, even if it may be another two years before you see it in your refrigerator. As a company, however, it pays to understand just how much of the iceberg of innovation is under the surface, even for changes in package design that seem relatively small.

By doing as much of the work as possible beforehand—researching how customers actually use a product, testing prototypes early and often, and involving engineering along with strategy and design—companies can navigate uncharted waters to ensure that the changes they invest in will be the right ones. That in turn will mean they can get them out as quickly as possible, benefitting both their own bottom line and their customers, who can enjoy their products blissfully unaware of the icebergs of innovation that remain unseen.

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Written by Christine Horan and Jason Robertson

[Image: Can via Shutterstock]

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7 Comments

  • Cathlyn

    Packing does have a strong impact on people. It’s what they see first before they can even try the product, so it’s definitely important to have a good product design. The same is true in marketing. Your marketing materials have to look great to give you a strong first impression. I came across these great samples of product labels that’ll help give us inspiration on how to create a superb design. Check them out here: http://inspiration.printplace.....
     

  • Joanne_Hunter

    I wonder how many packaging designers are now using 3D printing for prototypes. It seems a brilliant solution for tweaking and crowd-testing caps and dispensers.

  • Robin

    Packaging engineers must be condemned to all eternity trying to open the packages they design.

  • David

    I wish they designed the packagings for easy recycling. perhaps  limit them to only 1 or 2 class of plastic (i.e. pet + pp). yes its more expensive but also encourages the ease of collection and recycling.

  • jingyeow

    With all this innovation, why is it then that the tetra pak cartons have some of the worse pouring action. Anything less than a dribble when pouring from a full bottle, leads to the liquid splashing everywhere. I've no idea how these caps got through testing. (e.g. Used for soya milk, cranberry juice etc)

    So if as much testing and innovation exists as is claimed, perhaps the goal was to get as much juice outside of the glass so I would run out of juice much sooner...

  • DickP

    They designed the DreamCap for their 'On The Go' line, so it can be perfect for pouring, pulling and sucking... And to be honest, on my 33cl CocoCafé or Gatorade, it really seems like a bottle. So I say bravo.

    As for a full 1L bottle, yes it's still a poor pouring if you look at the basic brick. But I know that they've designed a brick with and edgy top (available in europe - never seen it in the US) that claims to have a better pouring.

    I guess they realised - too late maybe - that pouring was important, but they're on the right path

  • Amy Dubin

    I'm curious if the process was all rapid physical prototyping or involved 3D animation?