Packaging is increasingly seen as one of the most important parts of marketing and advertising strategy. It must quickly provoke an emotional and rational response from consumers and convey messages that align with brand values. The companies that have combined innovative packaging and high-quality products to great effect in brand-building acknowledge, however, that both brands and packaging are constantly evolving.
"Packaging is the face of the brand on the shelf. It is like fashion. It is the dress that our products wear, so it must change to suit the current style. We need the best materials, shapes and colours for the packaging," says Hartmut Tiekenheinrich, manager of packaging research for Beiersdorf AG, Hamburg.
"We want to convince the consumer most effectively at the point of sale.
"We know that around 60% of all buying decisions are made at the point of sale, where it's only the packaging that is in direct contact with the consumer, therefore, the packaging design has to bring over all the emotions of the brand identity and communicate all the necessary information to the consumer."
Beiersdorf is one of the world's leading manufacturers of skin and beauty products and is behind Nivea – the best-known international body care brand. The company has a very strong track record for product research and development and has successfully applied this culture of innovation to the development of packaging.
Tiekenheinrich sees the goals of packaging as three-fold: symbolise the brand, make the product stand out on the shelf and have an emotional impact on the customer. He believes that in the process of packaging design everything flows back from the point of direct interaction between customer and product.
"We have to evaluate their requirements and then look for technical possibilities to fulfil them," says Tiekenheinrich.
Keeping up with the consumer
The challenge is to keep packaging in line with consumer trends, on which there are many influences. Environmental concerns, for instance, are increasingly behind moves to improve sustainability in packaging. However, some of the packaging innovations appearing on our shelves have come about simply because the way people shop has changed. Consumers are shopping in ever-larger stores, where every product on the shelf has been designed to catch their eye. This means there is now a need to appeal to other senses to make a product stand out.
"If you are going shopping in big stores or hypermarkets, then you see many visual effects and impressions everywhere. Sometimes it's really too much for a quick decision; you must therefore use your other senses more. That means packaging should stimulate more than just the eyes, so we have a trend towards 'haptic' materials," says Tiekenheinrich.
Haptic materials stimulate the sense of touch. For Beiersdorf, smooth surfaces give consumers the impression of the effect of a skin care formulation, or can be used to highlight important product features on the packaging. Textured surfaces and raised panels achieved by changing surfaces of the moulds are equally effective. Similarly, labels can be used as olfactory messengers to appeal to the consumers' sense of smell.
This does not, of course, mean that the visual element is less important. In fact, form and colour are still the key components that determine a consumer's response at the point-of-sale. For this reason, Beiersdorf continues to create a strong look for its product packaging, having adopted new shapes for its aerosol cans and examined potential new colours, metallisation and lacquering.
The company is also keen to take advantage of the visual characteristics of materials like PET, the transparency of which it feels conveys vitality, fitness and freshness – perfect for its range of bath care products.
"The highly transparent image of the bottles underlines the freshness of the formulations. To get the right impression over the full lifetime the colour is in the formulation and in the packaging. The two-coloured cap also increases the image of the whole product," says Tiekenheinrich.
He also notes that technology and machinery are making it feasible to use much more sophisticated imagery.
"In labelling too, there used to be only a few colours and technologies, but now there is a broad range available that allows us to use more colours and glossy, photographic effects.
"Also, for the last ten years we have continuously searched for ways to reduce the amount of material in our packaging. We have worked to reduce wall thicknesses for many products, researched application systems and closures. But this always needs to be done in response to the market. Consumer trends are very important and can change very quickly."
Consumer expectations and commercial reality
The needs of the consumer may be the starting point for the packaging design process, but the end point is a product that sells at the right price to generate sales volume and profit. The pursuit of trends in the marketplace must therefore be balanced with the development cost of both packaging and product, and the design and production processes must also be as efficient as possible.
The way to achieve this, according to Tiekenheinrich, is to ensure that all parts of the business contribute to the packaging process. Marketing, for instance, will have significant input in terms of branding and will endeavour to ensure that packaging is consistent with the product's overall advertising campaign.
Beiersdorf's process begins with defining a target frame for new packaging, which first takes account of the expectations of its consumers, who want packaging that is easy to understand and communicates both its function and brand message clearly. Next, the company turns to internal requirements such as marketing strategy; the need for packaged products to fit in filling lines and be easily transportable for logistics partners. In short, customer requirements must be framed by what is practical from a business perspective.
"The most important thing is to create the right brand image, which requires a lot of investment. Then you have to ensure that no one can copy you. Packaging is a very important part of the mix – especially at the point-of-sale – and it must work well with the product and with the advertising campaign."
Beiersdorf has been able to balance these considerations successfully to maintain the prominence of brands like Nivea, which has seen its packaging evolve in line with the consumer market for nearly a century and is still a leader in its product category. Tiekenheinrich believes that in future there will be many more sophisticated ways in which packaging can support the longevity of a brand.
"With all the opportunities we now have with packaging – like application systems, colours, materials, surfaces at the tool and so on – I would say packaging offers strong possibilities for brand development. For our brand I can say it's a never-ending story," he says. "We always have to make sure there is a good balance between continuity and innovation. Continuity in order to give the consumers the ability to remember the good experience they have had with existing products, and innovation with new, high quality packaging so that we can transfer the trend and the right spirit of the product to the consumer."
It is his firm belief that if a good system for product and packaging development is in place – one that brings together all parts of the business – and the technical capability to execute new ideas efficiently, the packaging will succeed in creating the right chemistry with the customer. Given the success of brands like Nivea, it would be wise to heed his message.