It's No longer Your Mom's Food Can

New shapes, labels and convenience features help bring canned foods into today's world of market-driven packaging.

By William Makely
Most of us grew up thinking of canned food as a fallback resource for those days just before payday, those times when you needed something quickly to keep the troops happy, or those gloomy days when nothing but a can of tomato soup seemed appealing.
That attitude is changing.
Though it's happening more slowly in the United States than in Europe and Asia, the perception of canned food as strictly a commodity is giving way. As a result, many brand managers are revisiting the role of the can.
Marketers are becoming believers that it can be, like the stand-up pouch, an attention-grabbing, jump-off-the-shelf marketing tool to capture more notice from today's convenience-hungry consumers.
The way it was
Canned foods have been viewed as a resource: something reliable, something always on the shelf. Thus, some marketers have dismissed them as an unlikely candidate for exciting new packaging ideas or branding initiatives.
Why this attitude? We live in a country with enormous resources of fresh food available year-round and a lively, market-savvy frozen food industry.
As players in those market segments became more brand-conscious and packaging became more market-driven, they grabbed consumer attention and more prime store space, while the canned foods segment lagged, confirming its commodity status.
Europe experienced a different focus as a result of different influences. The smaller refrigerators and freezers in European homes meant a smaller window for fresh and frozen foods and a bigger opportunity for easier-to-store cans.
Because canned foods were popular, competition for consumer attention increased and convenient and eye-catching packaging became a marketing tool.
In European supermarkets, consumers can see shaped cans, square cans, embossed cans, brilliantly lithographed cans as well as eye-catching labels. The Can Manufacturers Institute (CMI) reports that 65 percent of cans in Europe feature the convenience of easy-open ends. In Germany, it can be as high as 80 percent.
Why change now?
Today, as with many packaging innovations, Europe's can designs are coming our way.
Should canned foods marketers care? Many have resisted adopting innovative can features like the easy-open end for years because of the perception that consumers would not bear the cost. As a result, only about 35 percent of canned foods (including pet food) use easy-open ends. But focus groups have shown repeatedly (according to CMI) that 80 percent of consumers would pay a premium for the added convenience.
Canned food marketers should care, and many are beginning to, because the same influences that brought flexible packaging to the packaged and frozen sections of stores, and more recently into meat departments, are going to draw consumers to those packages that first make the change to better shelf presence and greater convenience.
The "special" treatments of cans that are already beginning to appear in stores involve changes in both appearance and functionality.
Targeting regional markets
Vietti Foods Inc., Nashville, Tenn., reorganized its product lines in early 2002 to meet the specific preferences of targeted consumers. In operation since 1898, Vietti until recently produced canned chili, beef stew and condensed soups for the mainstream marketplace.
Now, bilingual labels are used to reach Spanish-speaking consumers, low-fat and low-salt recipes are geared to reach individuals on restricted diets and some recipes, such as Louisiana Hot Sauce Chili with Beans or Southwestern-Style Chicken Chili, are sold exclusively in specific geographic regions, targeting regional taste preferences.
"By stratifying our products across market segments, we are creating a platform for leadership within each category," says Vietti President Philip Connelly. "This better positions us for success."
Vietti also added Crown Holdings' Eole III easy-open ends to its cans, which feature optimized tab access, pop force, tear force and peel force to remove the panel—a convenience consumers had asked for in focus groups.
Changing its cans and its marketing plan has paid off for Vietti: Sales of its products have increased 70 percent over numbers recorded five years ago.
Shaping the future
Last year, German canned foods maker Stockmeyer AG made a bold entry into the UK marketplace with an innovative, kettle-shaped easy-open metal package for its soups.
Dozens of other soup brands were already on supermarket shelves, but the 90-year-old soup manufacturer saw great potential in the UK market, and was determined to introduce its new line of soups there.
"We could not enter such a mature market without a package that truly differentiated our brand," says Dirk Buley, Sales Director at Stockmeyer. "The soup-kettle design commands attention and provides the level of convenience that is increasingly preferred by British consumers."
The new package—supplied by Crown Holdings—positioned Stockmeyer as a premium brand and captured significant market share. Stockmeyer sells more than 1 million cans of soup per year in the UK.
The German soup maker, which distributes its soups to U.S. supermarkets through Stockmeyer North America, sells its shaped soup cans under the Trader Joe's name.
Closer to home, Stephen Liff, Vice President of Marketing, Comfort Foods, claims his company is taking the unusual step of producing shaped stainless-steel containers. The company's gourmet ground coffees come in can designs that range from a "barrel" shape to contoured canisters.
"The shaped can gives our product a distinctive look on the shelf and hopefully conveys to the consumer that it's a higher-quality coffee," states Liff. "We realize that if we're going to survive in today's competitive climate, we've got to do it differently."
To achieve the custom can contours, Comfort Foods takes straight-walled containers and shapes them in-house, using special equipment from an unnamed European manufacturer. The stock cans use a special stainless steel, formulated to resist bursting at the seam during the expansion process.
Colorful graphics bolster the can's shape appeal. Can Component prints Comfort Foods' Harmony Bay Classic American Roast canisters using four-color process plus two custom colors. According to Liff, "The shape plus the high standard of decoration say about Comfort Foods that we have a desire to be innovative in packaging but traditional in product quality."
One of the latest developments in packaging convenience is Campbell's Soup at Hand. The product's single-serve container fits in a car's cup-holder and contains 10.75 ounces of microwaveable soup in a tall plastic can with foam label.
The success of this packaging, compared to sales of traditional canned soup, is a significant example of the importance of value-added can packaging.
The soup category is reinventing itself to meet the changing notion of convenience, and the development of the microwaveable can provides it with a great opportunity for growth.
What's next?
Where to go for more information...
* Easy-open ends and shaped cans. At Crown Holdings, contact Keith Lucas at 215.698.5303 or visit
* In-house can shaping. At Comfort Foods, contact Stephen Liff at 800.514.3663 or visit
* Can industry data. At the Can Manufacturers Institute, contact Sean Reilly at 202.232.4677 or
Quite often, when U.S. companies adopt new technologies, designs and market directions that began in Europe or Asia, they make them their own. That strategy seems likely with the "new" cans.
Americans love convenience, and the major user advantages of these cans—easy-opening and resealable—combined with newfound shelf presence, offer benefits to both manufacturers and consumers. BP
The author, William Makely, has written
extensively on packaging and technology.
Contact him at


Metal can Lid opens Easily, snaps back on to reseal

Hirzel Canning Company and Farms in Toledo, Ohio, has developed what it claims is the first reclosable food can with a metal lid in the United States.
Hirzel packs Dei Fratelli Italian dip and pizza sauce in the 12-ounce can, which uses Silgan's Dot-Top technology. Silgan licenses this closure system from Metalgrafica Rojek of Brazil.
The new can is in test market in supermarkets and Italian specialty stores, and Hirzel is not yet ready to talk about results. It does say that encouraging results would lead to other products using this technology.
The lid contains a bulbous plastisol membrane that covers a 1/16-inch-diameter hole. When a consumer peels back the membrane "dot," this action releases the vacuum and allows easy removal of the lid. The user can snap the lid back on the container to reclose.
Instructions on the lid say, "1. Peel dot halfway to release vacuum, 2. Dot stays on lid, 3. Lift off lid." Graphic icons on the label stress the lid's "Easy To Open" and "Recloseable" features.
"The advantages are that the can is resealable and has no sharp edges," says Sales Manager Steve Hirzel, who confirms that the cost is similar to other cans and lids.
The resealable cans run on Hirzel's existing lines (which previously packaged the sauce in glass jars) with minor equipment modifications.
Where to go for more information...
Reclosable can technology. At Silgan Containers Corp., contact Jeff DeLiberty at 818.710.3742 or visit
Taking Niche Marketing Up a Notch
As President Phil Connelly took Vietti Foods Inc. from a manufacturing-driven to a market-driven company, his team designed packaging that would reinforce the value of each product in targeted consumers' minds.
New labels designed by Vietti's agency, Asen Marketing, feature updated colors and fonts to create a more modern image while retaining the brand's 100-year-old tradition.
The labels utilize large product photos, eye-catching graphic elements, and an "Easy to Open" logo to draw attention to the convenience of the new package.
Vietti sells regional recipe chili that is only available in the region it targets. That says to consumers in those regions, Connelly claims, that Vietti caters just to them—a powerful marketing appeal confirmed by the company's success since launching the line.
Where to go for more information...
Label design services. At Asen Marketing, contact Paul Scoonover at 865.769.0006 or at