William Makely

One of the packaging trade publications recently published an article containing tips on how to write a successful package design brief. It made sense, as far as it went: know the brand, research your audience, address how the package would be manufactured, etc.

What was striking was what it did not address. How would the proposed new package be handled, filled, sealed, cartoned, cased, palletized and shipped? In stores, would it meet the retailers’ shelving schematics? In the consumer’s home, would it open easily without tools and reseal securely when necessary? And finally, how would the energy needed to create it affect the environment, and would the specified materials facilitate easy recycling of the empty package?

Total Design

When we think about package design, we tend to think first of the package as the attractive vehicle that will carry our goods to market. In reality, successful package design rests as much on engineering and practical packaging experience as it does on a lively graphic projection of brand image and careful analysis of audience preferences.

In reality, a package has very little, if any, intrinsic value; it exists only to serve the product and the brand, by securing the product and by presenting the brand to customers in a positive light.

Yes, exciting shelf impact can attract new customers, and that is key to company growth. But if the package doesn’t perform to the customer’s satisfaction, will he or she buy the product again? Designers often talk about the “first moment of truth,” when a consumer is attracted and takes a package off the shelf. They less often talk about what happens next.

Eye appeal alone can’t outweigh the impact of how well the package works for the consumer. Only that will generate the repeat sales and the customer loyalty that is the true lifeblood of successful brands.

Package design must address the entire life of the package, from its conception through its filling and consumer use, to the re-use of its recycled materials to create a new package.

Asking Probing Questions

Like any creative act, the process of designing a new package begins with information gathering. The creative brief for a new package begins by asking questions of the people in a company who know the product, the target market and the production environment. Answers to these questions affect far more than the physical appearance of the package.

Questions related to marketing aim to not only identify targeted consumers, but also competitors for those consumers, existing brand recognition, as well as package size, other required physical characteristics of the proposed package that relate to distribution, retail shelving requirements, etc.

The successful design brief also gathers information about the manufacturer’s production line handling, filling, sealing, etc. Simple facts like the manufacturer’s most efficient production line speeds can affect how the package will be designed to facilitate cost-effective filling.

These questions then can become the basis for an eye-catching package that provokes interest on the shelf, but also performs well on the company’s filling, sealing and labeling lines, and in the consumer’s home.

The Environment Factor

Environmentally friendly packaging has evolved from the simple lightweighting of plastic packages by reducing wall thickness and an increased use of PCR (post-consumer recycled content) in a wide variety of packaging materials. Today, the focus is increasing on developing packaging that performs well for one product and can then be completely recycled into new packaging, sometimes described as “cradle to cradle” design. Consumers increasingly support companies and products that minimize impact on the environment. Package design supports this by emphasizing a choice of materials and package designs that simplify recycling.

The designer, for example, can facilitate recycling by choosing easily recyclable materials for the package, and either designing the package to be made from one single material or making it very easy to disassemble for recycling. This can be further simplified by using environmentally friendly label adhesives.

Another option is to give the package the longest possible use life — by making it refillable, for example. This eliminates the need for immediate recycling, which in itself requires further energy.

The marketing function of the package and the security of the product are always going to be the designer’s primary concerns. But specifying materials that are easy to recycle while still meeting the demands of the package, or designing a package that is refillable and reusable, will reflect well on the brand owner and satisfy consumer concerns for the environment.

William Makely is a contributing writer for Food Manufacturing.