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Starting a Packaging Project: Tips for Non-Packaging Designers.

by Wendy Jedlicka - Jedlicka Design, Ltd.
First appeared in Reference Site - 1998

The following is a continuation of articles going over things like marketing goals, budgets (and how to maximize them), analyzing the competition, eco-responsibility and its consumer perception, shelf impact, creating and sustaining brand equity, psychographics, the laws of physics, and a bunch of other useful stuff that people never think about. This isn't the whole story of course, but the non-Packaging Designer might now better understand in general what goes into designing an effective package and how to get the most out of their Packaging Designer and final product.

Part One
- Introduction: What IS Packaging?
- Who Does What?
- The Competition: Pay Attention to ME!


Part Two
- The Packaging Design Budget
- Getting Your Product to Market
- Econess & Consumer Perception
- Shelf Impact and Facings
- Creating and Sustaining Brand Equity
- Packaging in a Nutshell

Part Two

The Packaging Design Budget

I can't stress enough how important your package is to the success of your product. "Well what about Beanie Babies?" you say smugly, "They have no package at all." Oh really? What about that little Ty tag hanging off of them, if you snip that off you take the value of the little critter down 30-50%, and just how did they get to the store in the first place?

I some how can't see dump trucks and burly men pulling up to your local Beanie-Mart off-loading the week's treasures with a shovel. Can you? I didn't think you could. And yet this is the impression I get from some of my clients. "If we make it, they will buy it" seems to be their motto. Then, after some time, a small plaintive voice calls me up and starts with:

1) "We had this really good idea..."

2) "My brother-in-law does desktop publishing, so we had him do something..."

3) "The printer threw in the graphics for free if we used them for the printing..."

And ends with "..we spent all of our money on this design that just isn't working. Will you fix it for us? We don't have much to spend because we spent it all on that other idea, but could you totally start over?"

Let's be realistic. All of those beautiful product illustrations the consumers (designers and clients too) find so irresistible start at around $700-$1000. Product photography intended for packaging can run about the same. Pricing for these services is based on the the fact that the image is presented in quantity and the full rights to it are released by the artist.

Once your design is finalized, the production artist and a stripper will spend several hours preparing your design for printing, these combined services will start at about $3000 per product. So we haven't even started your design and you've spent $4000 or more to finish it!

Do you need copy written? Translations? User manuals? Let's add another $1000 per product (not enough, but I like round numbers). Now we're up to $5000 and we don't even know what this thing looks like, or even if the package will protect the product well enough to arrive at the store in good shape (another $2000 for prototyping and one test series). And once there, did you allow our designers time to really test the concepts in focus groups (formal or informal), do competitive analysis', and whatever else they feel they need to make the product stand out from the crowd?

Probably not. Because as the costs for everything else stack-up (remember we haven't even put the design on press yet), the design process, the one thing that actually puts your product in the consumers hand, gets cut short.

The big boys plan on spending 30% of the product line's development cost on packaging, some as much s 80%. Why should the smaller player expect to magically get by for less? The answer is the big boys won't, so little guys can't afford to. If you add in the costs of reworking bad packaging to the final development total, all players, big and small, spend much more than they would have if they had done their package right to begin with. This point is super important for the smaller player, especially those with marginal promotional budgets. The package should be served with as much care as the product being introduced, because it's that package that will either make or break the new product.

An excellent product will keep the consumer coming back for more no matter what the package looks like, but a bad package will keep good products securely on the store shelves and out of the hands of consumers. A mistake small manufacturers make over and over and over, seduced by the allure of an hourly rate too good to be true, or some other corner cutting scheme.

"So just how much, in dollars, does a good package cost to develop?," this is impossible to say ("Well you're no help" you're thinking). I wish I could be more specific, in the same product line I've developed complete packaging systems (primary and secondary packaging) for less than $500, or as much as $40,000 (and still counting, this piece still isn't through the company's subsidiary approvals). Mostly the costs come when the client has no clue about the direction they want to go with the product, and so rack up endless hours doing one revision after another.

Answering the questions posed in this series of articles beforehand will help you and your Designer focus your energies on developing a package that works. The better focused you are, the more accurately your Designer can estimate the total cost of the project based on similar projects completed in the past. Don't be afraid of spending money exploring promising design options though, you will more than make up this expenditure at the one place it really counts, the check-out line.

If you've short changed the design process before, hopefully you learned when you don't pay for it, you just don't get it. And if you don't get it, neither will the consumer. You're not just selling your product, you're selling a benefit, an attitude, and making a commitment to the consumer that you will fill their particular need. Part of the way you convey this information is through the use of subconscious and parallel messaging.

A successful package will not only meet the cornerstones of protect, inform and sell, but will deliver an intangible extra that will make the consumer confident they made the right buying decision (ever hear of 'Buyers Remorse'?). If you've contracted someone other than a Packaging Design specialist to create your package, make sure they explain to you in great and gory detail why they chose to execute all design options the way they did. If the answers you get back are "We liked..." or "We think that...," you might want to consider finding someone else to do your packaging. If your Designers can't explain the messages in their own work objectively, how is the consumer supposed to receive and act on them subjectively?

Physically Getting Your Product to Market

In Part One we talked about the roll of the Packaging Engineer in the development of your package. This little section of tips is not to circumnavigate this important step, but to offer alternatives to full blown package testing for products with few protective needs.

Most of the damage done to products comes from the vibrations naturally occurring in transport, as well as the shock events occurring during handling at the store, the final and often most brutal handling before sale. The simplest way to see how your intended package will fare is to simply mail your product (3rd class, the roughest trip around) to a friend living as far away from you as possible. The package should be assembled exactly as it will be shipped to the stores (outer box/case pack [secondary packaging/transport packaging/shipper], plus multiple products [primary packaging]).

Once arriving, have your friend open and inspect the contents -- including notes on, or pictures of, the condition of all packaging as well as the product. That friend should then carefully repack the product and send it back to you the same way. If your package and product can make this round trip unscuffed, unbroken, and unfettered, start cutting back on the amount packaging and do it again.

Can you use a lighter weight board? Can it make the trip without an outer box (palletable packaging)? Can you beef-up the product a little bit and get away with a bit less packaging? For example, can you add a little rubber pad inside the guts of the product to keep this one piece form wiggling loose, and then use less padding in the box?

A point often overlooked by even the Package Engineer is that not only won't consumers buy damaged products or products in damaged boxes, but those damaged in the store by other consumers pulling stuff out to look at it. Think carefully about the touch factor for your product. If it's likely that the consumer will need to physically see your product or touch it to buy it, you need to make allowances for opening and reclosure without damage.

This may sound really obvious, but is your product going to damage your package? One brand of crystal deodorant I'm very fond of (and talk about later in this series) is a total packaging failure. Not only did they miss the mark marketing and eco-responsibility wise, but the product itself, with very little use, dissolves the graphics on the outside turning the inks into a sticky gloop.

I've seem many, many products too heavy, or pointy, for the package used that were literally destroying the package from the inside out. One of my clients (without consulting me) had their beer labels adhered with water soluble glue. In Europe, where the beer's from, they don't chill their beer in ice/water filled coolers like we do here in the US. I had a party not long ago, and after only a short time, all the labels had come off all the bottles. Fortunately my guests didn't care, but some bars store their bottled beer this way for the evening. Dis-labeling as it did makes the beer unsalable, and certainly unusable for informing and winning new consumers for that brand.

Is your package compatible physically and chemically with your product and its storage/use/dispensing environment?

Eco-responsibility and Its Consumer Perception

Eco-responsibility is not just a happy sounding theory, it's good business. According to an article in the September 1999 Economist "Companies with an eye on their "triple bottom line" - economic, environmental and social sustainability - outperformed their less fastidious peers on the stockmarket, according to a new index from Dow Jones and Sustainable Asset Management."

Many manufacturers make the mistake of assuming the consumer is this money oozing, mindless slug using stuff up and casting off the waste as they go, like some feral hunter-gatherer, relieving them of eco-responsibility. If your market is the 8-18 male, I might agree. But most consumers today, given the opportunity, will choose products they perceive as being less eco-nasty.

Consumers in Germany, in a near militant revolt, began opening packages right at the check-out counter, dumping the contents into reusable plastic tubs they brought from home, and leaving the waste packages there in a heap for the store to deal with. Manufacturers are obligated by law there to retrieve that packaging from the stores. I don't see that happening here in the US any time soon, but all of my clients exporting to Europe are keenly aware of not just the packaging laws, but of the impression they need to make and maintain in the eye of the Euro consumer.

One of the easiest ways of presenting a good eco-presence is to use packaging materials that are not just recyclable, but actually are currently being recycled in the sale market. Most states, and many countries, have their packaging regulations and recycling programs posted on the internet. As you narrow down your packaging choices, take a moment and look at those options within the context of each of your market areas.

One of the easiest ways of squeezing a greater margin of eco sustainability and positive consumer perception into your package is to prominently use tree-free and high Post Consumer Waste (PCW) papers. Label bands, adhesive labels (with low solvent, or water base glue), small boxes, user instructions, neck labels, and hang tags can all be made from a wide variety of tree-free and forest-free (a PCW/Tree-free hybrid) papers and cover stocks. There still is no tree-free or forest-free boxboard available in the US (though I'm told in Asia agripulp/rice pulp corrugated is common [they basically have no trees left!]), but ask your supplier any way. Be sure to use/ask for tree-free and forest-free substrates (or in the case of plastics, biopolymers) EVERY time you do a new project. Maintain the demand for these products. Keep abreast of new developments.

If you want to REALLY do something to help the world, as well as push you WAY ahead of the competitive pack, and you're in a position to specify the pulp used to make your boxboard, ask your packaging vendor to create a tree-free boxboard for you. YOU would be the hands down market leader, with all the glory that goes with being the first. The free press you get will be priceless (no pun intended). (Aveda? Coty? Ben and Jerry's? Are you listening?)

Look at your product and package as one complete consumption unit. Most manufacturers look at their packaging as a necessary evil. If you do, so will the consumer. Use as little packaging as possible. Can you beef-up the product a tiny bit to require a lot less packaging? Many manufacturers squeeze profit per product unit down to the fractional penny, and then spend a ton on packaging to get this fragile little thing to market.

Use as much recycled or renewable (in the case of paper, even tree-free) material as your packaging needs will allow. If you can use nearly 100% post consumer waste content in the composition of your package (like they do for Wheaties), and especially for paperboard packages able to tout tree-free content, don't just put a little legalese about it on the back in a corner, scream it loud and clear. Throw down the gauntlet and proclaim your company is a leader in eco-responsible packaging and tell the consumer how they can get involved. If you maintain a web site, talk about your eco-packaging efforts on your site [example: Aveda]. Ask for more suggestions from the consumer on how to make your package better, friendlier (and therefore more buyable).

The other day I received a bulletin/newsletter from my trash hauler. This newsletter went into great detail on how to recognize the difference between products that were packaged eco-responsibility and those that were eco-posers. If you are an eco-responsible manufacturer the consumer is looking for your product, make it easy for them to find you.

Many feel Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, published in 1962 (Houghton Mifflin Co; ISBN: 0395683297) was what first alerted the public to the broad destruction of wildlife being caused by toxic pesticides such as DDT. The book drove home a simple message: Man does not exist apart from nature, but is himself a part of it. Since that time consumer action groups, schools, and the media, have worked to "Educate" the public on the evils of irresponsible packaging and other sources of pollution. Whether or not these campaigns are complete or even accurate in their education is the topic of another article. However, the perception these campaigns have left in the minds of consumers cannot be ignored.

Not long ago I undertook a product analysis for a natural crystal deodorant (mentioned earlier) sold primarily in natural and health food stores or in the natural products section of more mainstream stores. Consumer eco-activism runs very high in this particular market segment. Ignoring this point in order to attract the more mainstream consumer, the manufacturer packaged their product in currently unrecycled plastic (7). Though making their natural product look like widely advertised mainstream products, they alienated the ready-made consumer for this product, the green consumer. Following are excerpts from a consumer activist web site underscoring the currently held view of this market segment toward plastic packaging.


"Environmental Defense Fund Exposes "Sorry State" of Plastics Recycling: Analysis Uses Industry's Own Numbers..." [ ]

"EDF's analysis reveals the following facts about the current state of plastics recycling. Less than 10% of plastics packaging is being recycled. That rate is a third that of the next closest packaging category, glass. Again in contrast to all other major packaging types, growth in recycling of plastics packaging has been at a snail's pace over the last decade, capped with an actual decline over the past year. Even plastic bottle recycling -- the mainstay of plastics recycling and the only numbers APC mentions in its public materials, declined in 1996. Recycling of plastic soda bottles, the industry's only real success story, dropped sharply for the second consecutive year, from 45% in 1994 and 41% in 1995 to 34% in 1996 ­ the lowest level since 1990."...

"Producers of every other type of packaging - glass, aluminum, steel and paper - have stepped up to the plate by investing the dollars needed to incorporate recovered materials back into the mainstream of production," said Denison. "The plastics industry sinks its dollars into its latest national PR campaign to tell us all the ways that 'plastics make it possible,' while trying to make it impossible for the public to learn the truth about how little it has done for recycling."

The product I reviewed survived one reorder cycle at the store I first found it at, never to be seen again. It had many problems, all of them, I found after completing my report, had to do with its packaging and market positioning, and not the quality for effectiveness of the product. Can you afford to make the same mistakes? The consumer is under the false assumption that 90% of our municipal waste comes from packaging (actually closer to 30% at this point), and that some stupidly high amount of petroleum goes into making plastic (actually only 3% becomes plastic the rest is pretty much burned by cars). Certainly the visible representatives left behind by careless consumers (I think of them as the feral boys) aren't doing anything to change these perceptions.

When creating your new package consider: Are you designing the next 'Ambassador of Pollution' to be thrown out the car window by the thoughtless, or to wash up on a beach somewhere? Look at each of these cast offs as a perceptual warning. If the consumer recognizes your product as part of the pollution/litter problem, they'll think twice about buying your product.

One of the things that really cracks me up are the calls I get from design firms/departments that go something like this: "We want a list of eco materials" -- I ask if they understand systems thinking or if they have a training program in place to help the people using the list figure out what will actually BE eco for their applications -- the answer is always, "No we just want the list."

In theory, picking an eco material is better than an uneco one. But in many cases if you don't know -- why -- it's eco, or how to apply its use correctly, the eco material can be far -- worse -- than the thing it's replacing. A great example is PLA, a plant based plastic that can be used instead of PET/PETE. If applied to products in a market that has PLA collection and sorting systems in place, it's a fantastic substrate that offers a huge list of eco-benefits. BUT -- when used in markets without proper systems in place to handle it, just a small amount of this material mixed in with PET/PETE can contaminate the entire batch -- making it unsuitable for recycling. The unrecyclable PET/PETE in many markets is burned, adding to the pollution load caused by incinerating petroleum based plastics, as well as wasting a full batch of really good material that could have been used to make a wide variety of durable goods.

In addition to applying eco-materials properly, clients are looking to their designers to help them meet new more restrictive legislation, new initiatives from their own clients (Wal-Mart score card for example), and a whole host of -- bigger than picking recycled paper -- problems that require a look at the system of the packaging, not just its substrate.

To get an idea of what an eco/sustainable package is, take a good look at the Definition Project, by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. This definition, is not only a great framework for what a good package -- is -- but is a great way to frame any effort.

The criteria for Sustainable Packaging are quite clear, and really only ask these simple questions...

-- Does it make us, or the planet, sick? Don't do it!
-- Can we use renewable resources, energy as well as substrates, and then use them again without going back to virgin sources?
-- Are we doing it efficiently, considering all costs (logistics, materials use, recyclability, stakeholder issues, etc.)?
-- And are all components doing what they're supposed to do? Do they protect, inform, and sell with an added bonus of restoring some of the resources we've already wasted as well as increase positive consumer perception?

The criteria are an end-goal—not the Ten Commandments. As we begin new products, or look to improve our systems, the criteria provide a benchmark against which to measure our efforts. Sometimes we'll hit all the marks, sometimes just a few. But in every case the movement is always forward. No one expects a company to change all of their systems all at once, but the realities of how we do what we do provide natural opportunities for all players to improve or update systems as part of their normal modus operandi.

To do this though, designers and their clients need to do more than just pick from a "happy list" -- but rather, start to look at packaging's true costs and impacts from concept through rebirth.

Learn more:

Shelf Impact and Facings

I like to think of the store shelves in terms of this one episode of the original Star Trek: The Mark Of Gideon. The episode is about overpopulation gone so crazy that -- There is no place, no street, no house, no garden, no beach, no mountain that is not filled with people. Each one of us would order to find a place alone to himself.. -- That's your product on the store shelf.

DANGER! DANGER! Package too clever! - With very few exceptions, packaging with too much going on not only conflicts with itself, it cancels itself out of the consumers eye and gets lost in the background noise. Your package face must form a united assault (shelf impact), if it can come together with its comrades to form a united front, (shelf facing) you've won the battle, and your product will sell. As you examine the competitive environment, look at how one manufacturers' products dominate the stores' shelf. Do they have a consistent theme? Are you able to identify line extensions easily yet still recognize the group as one brand? Does it seem like that manufacturer has a 'lock' on that section (Campbell's Soup)? How can you use that homogeneity against them?

Creating and Sustaining Brand Equity

Several years ago I and a team of other designers had the task of updating Spam and its line extensions to comply with the new NLEA labeling laws. My job, as I explained to the delight of the guests at a cocktail party in San Francisco, was to find 30% more space without moving anything. "Perception was everything" I said breathlessly as though describing something really important, and held up my fingers creating an 1/8th inch square "and this was my creative leeway," I peered through my little finger space and moved it around in a circle like a movable peephole - cue the giggles.

Actually, this was one of the most challenging projects I ever had. How do you change something in a big way, without changing anything at all? Spam is, after all, not just a product, but an icon. People will notice the slightest change. We managed it, and sales stayed strong. This does bring up an interesting point about brand equity. Once you've established your brand, stick with it. In the case of Spam, they did eventually update their look for the first time in like 40 or 50 years. Their new base brand facings though employ the same royal blue background with their bright yellow name logo. Some things you just don't mess with.

Establishing and maintaining brand equity is part of the reason companies spend lots of time and money upfront to develop their package. They'll, hopefully, be living with it for quite some time. In the case of Spam, they lucked out and were around so long they became fashionable again. Most products don't have that luxury, but developing a brand identity that you can grow with is one of the most important things you can do besides making something someone wants to buy in the first place. If you're one of the sorrowful begging a bona fide Packaging Designer to fix what's broken because you spent your budget on a mistake, lets look some at possible solutions.

Consumers hate change, but love new things. Go figure that one out. If you have a package that's not doing too well, don't just scrap everything and start over (unless you totally bombed you do have some customers). Create a transitional package. Ortho did this by having a little picture of their old package on their new package, and keeping the background color the same. Land O'Lakes did this for their sour cream line by having a bug "Great New Look" and the same graphic elements, but rendered in a new illustration style.

The pop star John Melencamp worked this point to perfection (for a rock star, the name is part of the packaging). Originally hitting the rock scene as Jon Cougar he developed a following. Over the years as his popularity faded, but so as not to loose any old fans, with new albums he became John Cougar Melencamp. Now, fully established with his new sound, he's simply John Melencamp, and one of the longest running acts in the rock world. The point is you have an established customer base, don't loose one of them in the hopes of gaining more new customers with new packaging. If this sounds like "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush," you would be right grasshopper.

If you really need to start over, reexamine not only your current product line, but how new products will feature into and strengthen it. In other words, if you are starting over, really start over and do it right. Soap manufacturers do this all the time by introducing entirely new brands. If you take a look at the back of all the laundry soaps on the market to see who they're actually made by, there are really only a handful of manufacturers, yet seemingly endless brands. Rather than reworking an old brand, consider creating your own competition. if each brand you own has only a fraction of the market, together you could maintain a considerable share.

Packaging in a Nutshell

Having read the preceding articles, are you scared? You should be. People, manufacturers and consumers alike, at first take think of packaging only as future garbage. Many packages seem to reflect that lack of respect. It's only after a few failed rounds that at least the manufacturer gains a respect for what their packaging is actually doing.

Mostly they make the mistake of being too conservative as a reaction and their package/product gets lost in the sea of me too's. Learn from your mistakes, or take the time to make them before the product actually gets in front of the consumer (aka "'The Design Process"). I forget the exact number but they say it takes about five times more money to win back a customer than to get them in the first place. This means not only must your product be worth buying again and recommending to a friend, but the total product experience must be overall positive.

Is your packaging hard to open, portions hard to dispense, inconsistent in its protection (ex- some eggs broken in every dozen), directions impossible to follow, hard to reclose, unrecycleable or unreadable, embarrassing to have in the shopping cart in the first place (ex- Adult diapers with loud graphics)?

The basic rules for packaging development are:

1) Include packaging at the start of the product design process.

2) Know your target market, as well as your competition, make sure your package conveys that knowledge.

3) Consumers won't buy damaged products or products in damaged boxes.

4) Consumers, given the opportunity, will buy the more eco-friendly product/package combo. And clients are looking to their designers to address new more stringent standards.

5) Don't short change the design process, your sales will suffer for it.

6) Make sure all points in this series have been covered. Your package is a system and is only as good as its weakest link.


Now that you're ready, drop me a note and let's see how we can shake up your competition.

W. Jedlicka / Jedlicka Design Ltd.


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