Package Innovation Staying Power:How to Outlast Today’s Trends
By Ken Miller and Jim Warner
To differentiate in a commodity marketplace, marketers look for opportunities to ride a lifestyle or cultural wave. You want your product to look fresh and of the moment.
What better way to do that than with package innovation? It’s the most compelling means of delivering both functional and perceptual benefits that sing on shelf and perform in use.
However, this strategy (if it’s a strategy at all) is a path strewn with pitfalls. The investment in package innovation is significant, both in time and money. And if the trend is not enduring, the window of opportunity can be missed—or it simply may not allow enough time to amortize the cost of package development.
It quickly becomes clear that if you’re looking to either anticipate or react to a trend, you must separate the loser from the lasting. But how?
First, let’s clear up an issue with the term “trend”. As Webster’s defines it, trend is: “To extend in a general direction; follow a general course; to veer in a new direction; to show a tendency; to become deflected; a practice or interest that is very popular for a short time.” This definition suggests that a trend can take place rather suddenly and haphazardly, without, necessarily, a firm rationale or underpinning. And it can then disappear, as a style or fashion might. This is a great concern when investing in package innovation.
Rather than talk about “trends” that are worth pursuing, we really should seek to recognize more fundamental “shifts”. Unlike trends, shifts imply profound swings in attitude and behavior that come from somewhere real and lead to something enduring. Important to note here is that attitude and behavior are the drivers—true shifts are consumer driven, evolved or based. They are not forwarded by retailers looking for a positioning hook or marketers seeking uniqueness for uniqueness’ sake.
So, to the point, how do we distinguish a “trend” from a “shift”? Look for underpinnings in consumer attitudes and behavior stemming from the following:
Pronounced lifestyle change that emerges gradually. The phenomenon of overscheduled kids who require constant shuttling to and from activities might underlie a valid shift toward on-the-go consumption and convenience meals. This is unlikely to reverse itself in the foreseeable future. But, just forcing your product into a cupholder or backpack is not the solution. Product formulation and structure must work hand-in-hand to create true out-of-home convenience.
More subtle demographic swings that are actuarial in nature. Consider changes in income, regional living, occupations, family composition, etc. For instance, more single-member households are bound to emerge when people are living longer and divorcing more frequently. What opportunities does that present? Just ask those who package tools, frozen meals and cleaning supplies.
Unrecognized emotional needs that have always been present. Kids love to explore and exert their independence at every turn. Products that allow them the freedom to assemble and customize say “this is just for me, and just the way I like it.” Kraft’s Lunchables sure got that right. These needs are the antithesis of a trend. They’ve always been there. Recognizing them and extrapolating them to potential product needs could present tremendous opportunities for marketers.
Fresh emotional needs that surface in response to a lifestyle catalyst. Harried lives drive the need to create comforting environments and experiences in the home. Sensory experiences or indulgent body products that melt stress provide a welcome respite from the demands of the day. As do products that bring families together for that increasingly rare bonding moment. Simplicity, human connection, time alone, social consciousness, affordable luxury—these are true attitudinal shifts emanating from societal and value changes that are here to stay.
Consumers’ expectations that the things they buy improve their lives. The majority of consumers are not passionate about “design” per se—and if they are, it is surely a trend rather than a shift. But they are forever thrilled by design that delivers. Products that work better than expected are broaching a new frontier of unabashedly delighting the consumer. Packaging that truly accommodates the way a consumer wants to use it. Ergonomics that reduce physical stress across age groups, but don’t pander conspicuously to any one. Forget trends. Recognize the shift in what consumers expect from your product—and push it further.
Let’s look at a few iconic package structures that have successfully capitalized on these principles, and have endured beyond expectation because of it. These package innovation classics give us the chance to look back at what has worked, and identify examples of fundamental shifts that spawned them:
The original kid’s package. Who would have thought that attaching a woven string handle to either side of a cracker box would provoke lasting change? Intentional or not, the National Biscuit Company’s package latched on to previously unrecognized needs among kids. Using packaging to help kids express ownership (“this is mine”) created involvement and loyalty that had little to do with the crackers themselves. Portable utility reinforced the product’s ability to deliver on this emotional need (“it goes where I go”). Some years ago, the string handle disappeared—the victim of cost engineering. And with it went the packaging world’s first acknowledgement of what makes kids tick, along with a bit of this product’s soul. But every subsequent kid-friendly execution owes a debt of gratitude to that first Animal Crackers package.
Cereal snack packs
Kellogg’s original single-serve-at-home and on-the-go package still does everything right. Perforated to create a bowl. A milk-proof lining. Just enough for one. It stores anywhere and goes everywhere—and it multi-packs perfectly. Brilliant!
Countless package innovators have tried to improve on or replace this package, and they’ve failed. That’s because the early designers knew what their later colleagues forgot: That single serve is not just about volume—or clever gimmickry. It’s about simplicity, intuitive operation, efficiency and occasion-relevant performance. And, also, about addressing the genuine emerging household need for time savings and convenience. The snack pack concept was just right for the time. But just as importantly, it was done right.
The package structure that transformed the surface cleaning ritual—without compromise. Enduring lifestyle shifts were leaving less time for cleaning, and placed the practice lower on the priority ladder. What if a new delivery system could maintain scrubbing power, and cut the guilt associated with less time spent cleaning? Talk about functional benefits serving emotional needs: The first Windex trigger sprayer limited dependence on abrasive cleansers and minimized the mess, eased the application and reduced exertion from cleaning. And the results were there—along with the psychological satisfaction of a spotless home. As the pace of modern living accelerated, people were dedicating less time to thorough regular cleaning, which brought the trigger sprayer even more front and center.
Plastic beverage bottles
This package innovation, which most certainly transformed the in-use experience of more usage occasions than any other format, actually had its roots in production advantages. Glass was cheap, but it had key disadvantages against PET and other plastic derivatives. Plastic runs down the filling line faster. It is much lighter to ship, and suffers no breakage. It created a new recyclable supply chain. And, it has unique flexibility in design. Plastic bottles were simply easier for manufacturers to adopt, but they became the beverage standard because of overwhelming consumer acceptance of the format’s benefits: It is lighter than glass, unbreakable and better suited to convenience purchase, out-of-home consumption and kid-friendly use. Plastic beverage bottles are a good example of how tech-driven innovation can align with unrecognized lifestyle needs to truly change the landscape.
64-count crayon box
The age-old Crayola package leverages both emotional and functional needs to deliver a powerful brand experience for kids. Open the box and what do you notice? First, the smell of the wax and the range of colors. These cues are strong creative triggers for kids. Next, note how the “stadium seating” of four separate sleeves shows off the colors. But the most impressive feature is the sharpener integrated into the box. How about that! Why should kids’ creative potential suffer at the hands of blunt crayons? The manufacturer noted early on that sharp crayons meant a more satisfying experience for its user. While this package structure isn’t flawless, it has survived because it recognizes that the brand is selling much more than a box of wax sticks. It’s selling a branded creative journey.
Quaker Oats has been marketed in its fiberboard canister since the beginning of time. Or so it seems. The package has become profoundly iconic, and uniquely representative of quality and trust. In fact, it could be said that this package is largely responsible for many of the positive equity components in the Quaker Oats brand to this day. Some may say this iconic package appears dated and limiting, but others argue that it is a museum-quality reminder of how a powerful, but simple, form can build a franchise.
Cheese in a can
That’s right. Kraft Easy Cheese. Think what you will about this product, but it transformed our food consciousness. Before, cheese looked like cheese. We unwrapped it, cut it with a knife, and wrapped it back up again. Then, Kraft poked us in the eye. Why couldn’t we enjoy cheese without all the fuss? Let’s face it: Easy Cheese is fun. Kids can use it. There’s no mess. It travels. It doesn’t even need refrigeration. Not only did this product reinvent cheese, but it changed the way we think about foods of all kinds. It opened our eyes and prompted us to think about other non-traditional ways to dispense food. Easy Cheese got us thinking in directions we never dared to pursue before.
These structures should help you recognize those market-moving events that warrant investment and can drive successful long-term package innovation. Just remember the distinction between a fleeting “trend” and a fundamental “shift”. Dig deep to identify underlying causes that suggest changes in attitude or behavior may be sustainable, rather than just fashionable. Make sure the changes are, in fact, consumer-based. And don’t forget those fundamental human needs that may have always been there, but have simply gone unrecognized. They may just need an insightful marketer paired with an ingenious designer to interpret them and translate them into fabulously successful package innovation. And that’s a fundamental “shift” in behavior we all would welcome.