Beer in a bag? Yoghurt in an edible container? Sprayable Marmite? Totally implausible? Actually, they’re not. The first is already available in China, the second earned developer WikiCell the special jury prize for innovation at SIAL Paris last year and while aerosol Marmite is not yet a reality, other brands have made the leap from their traditional formats into aerosol cans - take Britvic’s Turbo Tango, the squirtable foam that created such buzz among teenagers when it was launched in July 2011 that it was re-introduced last summer for a limited period.

Although there’s nothing new in fmcg suppliers using packaging more typically associated with another category (notable examples including New Covent Garden Soup Company’s adoption of the milk carton for its chilled soups and Pringles crisps in a tennis ball tube), there has been a noticeable increase in the number of brands trying out new packaging for size over the past year or so.

This week, Wrigley unveiled a new bottle format for its gum. We’ve also had Heinz Squeeze & Stir soup (in a tube), Flora Cuisine (in an aerosol can) and Bisto Instant Roast Gravy (another tube). So why are so many brands suddenly thinking outside the box (and bag, jar, bottle, tube, tub and pouch for that matter)? What’s the key to success? And are there any pitfalls to all this packaging promiscuity?

In a market as tough as the current one, it’s no great surprise that brands are looking to packaging innovation, sometimes in tandem with development of the product itself, to try and add value to their offerings and spark all-important consumer excitement.

“The past year has seen this strategy widely used, particularly where this can tie in with consumer needs and desires,” attests Mintel’s senior global packaging analyst Benjamin Punchard. “For example, stand-up pouches have performed particularly well. These have found a niche as a refill solution that can be positioned as economical for those consumers watching their wallet and as an environmental solution for those wanting to be ‘green’.”

“Change your pack type to something with a different on-shelf profile and the shopper may have difficulty finding it”

Adopting a packaging format with a proven track record in another category has the added benefit of being cheaper and less risky than developing totally new packaging, adds Paul Taylor, executive creative director at design agency BrandOpus.

“Innovative brands have always borrowed from other categories to further themselves,” he notes. “It’s not necessary to invent to communicate simply and clearly. A new structure can cause confusion which is why the success of true innovation can be so elusive. It can be a lot more effective to borrow from another category to avoid alienating the consumer.”

Visual cues

But these are not the only reasons that brands are looking to challenge packaging conventions. Ron Khan, global packaging director - ice cream, research and development at Unilever, says one of the main motivations for borrowing packaging more commonly used in other categories is that it also allows brands to adopt the visual and semantic cues from those categories.

“Packaging is a consumer’s first signpost to a product -it provides clues about the properties of the product within,” he explains. “For example, ambient liquid sauces - pasta sauces, cooking sauces, mayonnaises - have traditionally been packaged in glass jars or metal cans. Both jars and cans signal ambient products and long shelf-life. However, in recent years, brands have brought in flexible pouches, transferring this pack format from the chilled, short shelf-life area. This brings with it associations of fresher, higher quality products with the added benefits of being more modern in appearance and more convenient for the consumer.”

“Innovative brands have always borrowed cues from other categories to further themselves”

Disruptive packs

Encouraging consumers to see an ambient product as akin to fresh obviously creates opportunities to charge a price more akin to fresh - or at least close the gap. By getting in there first with a disruptive piece of packaging, a brand can also “create something novel within a category on the shelf and so stand out from the crowd”, says Khan. “Think of Levi’s 501 jeans sold in paint cans or breakfast cereals packaged in milk cartons.

Sometimes the goal is to create a temporary buzz around a brand and all that’s required is a limited edition. But sometimes new packaging can help a brand reboot not only itself but the whole category. It can even help create a new one, as New Covent Garden did. And there’s another more prosaic benefit: it can allow a manufacturer to exploit manufacturing synergies by using one pack format across more than one category, bringing economies of scale and saving money.

Whatever the reason, you don’t have to look far to find examples of brands that have successfully exploited unconventional packaging - sometimes at the expense of brands using the dominant formats. The example that instantly springs to mind is Ella’s Kitchen, which transformed the babyfood category when it launched meals in pouches in 2006.

“Before Ella’s Kitchen, the babyfood sector hadn’t changed for years. We were the first company to use a pouch for babyfood - now jars are in sharp decline and the pouch format has been copied around the world,” says Olivia Adamson, its head of operations. The company’s guiding ethos is to “think differently and this is embodied in the company’s approach to innovation”, she adds. “Taking an existing pack format and using it in a new category is like a chef using two great ingredients which nobody has combined before to make a new taste. If you get the right combination you can create something totally new, exciting and different.”

She cites the example of the company’s new cereals range in “spouches” which launched last June. “We wanted to create a breakfast product that was healthy, fun, resealable and easy to pour,” she says. “These goals drove us to design and introduce the spouted pouch, a cereals pack format which is unique around the world to this category and diversifies the range in the marketplace.”

Another company enjoying success off the back of packaging innovation is Innocent, which launched a range of NFC juices in recyclable PET carafes in February 2011. According to Douglas Lamont, marketing director at Innocent, the idea for the carafes came from two clear consumer insights. “First, juice buyers tend to be in ‘zombie shopping’ mode at the juice fixture and we found that our carafe could really help our standout in such a busy aisle,” he notes.

“Second, our drinkers loved to see the juice they were buying and our carafe allowed them to enjoy seeing and pouring their juice whilst also looking lovely on their breakfast table. As a result, it was very much a conscious and strategic decision to launch our juice in carafes based on a clear consumer preference and the belief we would see stronger commercial success.”

“At the moment I believe we’re seeing a period of innovation through necessity rather than the desire to be truly creative”

Open-minded approach

Heinz is also ahead of the curve on packaging. From Heinz Baked Beans in handy single-serve microwaveable pots, through to concentrated condensed soups in flowwrap tubes, the company has successfully taken packaging it already used and applied it to other categories over the last few years, says Tim Reynolds, production operations director at branding and design agency Bloom.

“Heinz has got lots of different lines across lots of different categories, so they can ask people in the building: ‘What do you think about using this type of packaging? What are the pitfalls?’ It’s an easy win for them and a good way of creating a bit of noise around a brand as well,” he says.

But the recent surge in cross-category packaging is not always just about taking something from one category and applying it to another. Unilever has borrowed packaging cues not just from other categories it’s active in but also from other industries, says Khan. “For example for Magnum Temptation, we use a ‘jewel box’ carton rather than traditionally used flexible flowwraps to bring in cues from the cosmetics and jewellery industries that reflect the luxurious nature of the product. Another example is Lynx, where our packaging uses colours, graphics and designs associated with gaming in order to make the product appeal to the target consumer.”

For Khan, the key to success is engaging the consumer. “Good packaging is about bringing alive the promise of the brand and delivering a great consumer experience,” he says. “So in order to be sustainable, transferring packaging cross-category should only be done when new packaging can reflect the brand promise better than the previous option, or deliver a better experience for the consumer.”

Possible pitfalls

Get it wrong and the repercussions can be devastating, warns Mintel’s Punchard. “For some categories, a particular pack type can be a heuristic used by shoppers to find that product in store,” he explains. “Change your pack type to something with a different on-shelf profile and the shopper may have difficulty finding it. “Change it without communicating clearly the benefit of the change and cynical consumers will assume it is just a cost saving exercise for the brand owner.”

A good example of where a new packaging format has failed to strike a chord with consumers is milk in a bag. Although the format ticks numerous environmental boxes sales of bagged milk have been disappointing due largely to their inconvenience, believes Dave Brown, worldwide development director consumer branding at branding agency Brand Union.

“It’s great on the environmental sensitivity issue, but it’s less convenient because you have one extra procedure to deal with to fill the jug and it only takes one bag of milk to burst in your shopping and that’s a really bad brand experience so you won’t do it again,” says Brown. “On the one hand it’s doing great things for recyclability and the environment, but on the other hand it’s not necessarily making life easier for consumers.”

Looking beyond grocery

While some consumers may be reluctant to embrace change, Reynolds expects to see more examples of cross-category packaging as brand owners look to create greater shelf standout and it won’t just be driven by manufacturers. It will also fuelled by packaging suppliers. “You’ve got a lot of packaging manufacturers out there who are thinking: ‘What we’ve developed here is a great device - who else can we sell it to?’ They’re always on the look-out for other areas in which they can push their products,”he says.

GreenBottle, which has developed what it claims is the world’s first paper wine bottle, is one such example. It is hoping to roll out the bottle, which weighs about 60g, compared with 400g for a standard glass bottle, this year.

Another packaging supplier leading the way is Cheshire-based Global One-Pak, which operates largely in the household and personal care sectors. “As part of our R&D programme, we have explored the benefits to brand owners of the transference of innovations from other industries into the household and personal care sectors,” says Global One-Pak director Clive Broadbent. “One example is our micro-trigger used on FabAir room freshener. Similar trigger designs are used in the hair care sector. This trigger spray substitutes traditional aerosol cans that rely on butane gas to produce a fine mist spray for room air fresheners.”

Although not many food manufacturers have yet embraced spray technology, Dan Abramowicz, chief technology officer at Crown, believes it is ripe for cross-category exploitation. “Aerosols have some unique qualities like precision dosing and they also provide a good oxygen barrier,” he says. “You can use them to dispense some pretty viscose products like peanut butter. Could that convenience offer some advantage to consumers in terms of making it easier to spread or eliminating the use of a knife?”

Taking the aerosol concept one step further is AeroShot, an inhalable energy shot that went on sale in the US and France last year. Developed by The Lab Store, the puffable tube delivers a shot of lime-flavoured caffeine and B vitamins when inhaled and was one of the innovations showcased at SIAL.

Abramowicz also believes the bottled water industry should look more closely at aluminium cans. “The PET bottle is an extremely successful package, but there’s been a big backlash about the amount of waste generated,” he reasons. “Why not use beverage cans? Here’s a package that has great environmental credentials and is recycled at extremely high rates, particularly in Europe, unlike PET bottles.”

Spray technology

Many would argue that a can doesn’t have the convenience of a resealable bottle. However, the bigger obstacle to this or any other packaging innovation is likely to be cost, says David Rogers, owner and creative partner of brand and packaging design consultancy We Are Pure.

“At the moment, I believe we’re seeing a period of innovation through necessity rather than the desire to be truly inspiring and creative,” he argues. “For many the recession is still biting and the need for brand differentiator is paramount, but cost is a barrier to true innovation and there simply isn’t the surplus cash available for the testing and development of new packaging so it’s therefore not a priority.”

He may be right, but the recent explosion of interest in crossing the category divide for new packaging ideas suggests suppliers and packaging companies are finding ways to minimise those costs and that this is a trend that is, if anything, being driven by economic hard times rather than being hampered by it. Marmite in a spray can, anyone?


Thinking outside the box... or jar