Increasing the odds that packaged products move in the right direction.

Significant change is based upon a rather simple premise: Those with little or nothing to lose start revolutions, and those who feel they have little or nothing to gain resist them. (Or, as Woodrow Wilson said, “If you want to make enemies, try to change something.”)

Think about the great revolutions of the last 250 years: The American. The French. The Russian. The Arab Spring. All were started by those who had few resources and fought by those who had lots of them.

It’s just as true in business as it is in politics. Companies bury new patents if they might affect the marketability of existing ones. They buy and “digest” startup companies so they can keep potentially competitive products off the market. They work through trade associations to create “standards” that keep the uninitiated on the outside, looking in.

Packaging is no different. When I was a young Brand Assistant working on Jif Peanut Butter at P&G, my first task was to recommend a switch from glass to PET jars. It seemed like a no brainer to me. The new version was lighter and easier to carry. And, it didn’t break or shatter when dropped – a big advantage for a food product.

It took P&G 10 years to agree to this simple switch. Why? Because there was significant risk that choosy mothers who choose Jif might not choose it in plastic jars. The fear was that there was potentially more to lose in sales and brand equity than there was to gain in convenience and safety. Happily, this did not turn out to be true and the business continued to grow through and after the switch.

This rationale helps explain why it has taken so long for flexible pouches to catch on. No leading brand wants to frustrate, re-educate, or alienate the considerable consumer franchise it has worked so hard and spent so much money to acquire. Thus, it usually takes a new product or a new company to create a brand in which a revolutionary package becomes part of the product’s appeal. If it’s a new brand in a big company, it will be fought against tooth and nail by existing, competitive products within that company. If it’s a new product from a startup, it must run the gauntlet of competitive pressure, retailer reluctance, and consumer acceptability.  

How, then, can you increase the odds that existing products move to more sustainable packaging or new products that do so can survive? In a word, you must focus on building a brand identity around the concept of performance. The product must deliver this performance along two measures: 1.) Functional excellence, and 2.) Sustainable excellence, as measured by the environmental impact of both the product and its package.

Taking this approach virtually guarantees that there is a built-in desire on the part of marketers to accept and value change. If you promote a product based on its functional and packaging performance, you are forced to continually improve this performance in order to keep your competitors at bay and your customers from switching to something else. Thus, by making sustainability part of the brand promise, it will become an important part of the long-term journey towards market acceptance and leadership. 

Robert M. Lilienfeld is a Fox TV environmental commentator and Editor of The ULS (Use Less Stuff) Report, a newsletter dedicated to conserving resources and reducing waste. Along with Dr. William J. Rathje, he co-authored the book Use Less Stuff: Environmental Solutions for Who We Really Are and the 1995 landmark New York Times Op-Ed piece entitled Six Enviro-Myths. His website is www.Use-less-stuff.com