As we enter an era where consumers embrace waste reduction, simpler values and – dare we say it – frugality, there’s also a move towards packages that can be re-invented as storage vessels once the product has been used up. And some important streamlining and simplifying is taking place in terms of graphic elements as well.

To get a feel for the new directions in which packaging is heading, we spoke to four packaging experts: Chris Tremewen, managing director at Cowan Design; Darren Ledwich, design director of consumer packaging at FutureBrand Australia; Graham Purnell, creative director and partner at Cato Purnell Partners; and Michael Grima, division manager of structural packaging at Outerspace Design.

Darren Ledwich sees innovation as still largely driven by the desire to create standout products in busy categories. “The biggest catalyst in the local market is the rapid rise in supermarket house brands,” he comments.

“In each category they enter, their designs typically mimic the market leaders and dilute the effectiveness of those leaders’ design cues. So they drive change within the category as national brands struggle to stay ahead on quality and innovation.”

“Also, as markets mature and shift, it allows us to break free from traditional pack types. The wine industry is a good example – you can now buy wine in cans, tetra packs and foil bags.

Another great example of this is the work of FutureBrand Paris, who came up with the Nespresso coffee system. Nespresso lets people make barista-style coffee with all of the associated ritual, flavour and aroma, in a more convenient way.

While the work has won a number of awards, including the 2006 Strategies Design Award for Global Design, the underlying innovation in the product form and system is the real driver of this product.

And like lots of fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG), the aim was to create a brand experience – in this case, all the way to dedicated stores, display systems and so on. So, in terms of product innovation and experience driving a strong brand proposition, it represents real best practice.”

Ledwich says the need for more environmentally responsible packaging is the most important challenge for designers. “This is a good thing, and it forces us all to think creatively and responsibly about materials, weight and recyclability,” he says. “Designers create the world’s most desirable junk, and our view is that we need to be part of the solution, not contributing to the problem.”

“The challenging part is that clients and consumers expect this without wanting to compromise on the other aspects of pack design, such as cost, convenience, security and standout.

While we are currently still beating our chests about the fact a pack may be recyclable and promote it like some kind of product benefit, pretty soon it will be just the price of admission into the market. Right now, the brands we see genuinely embracing sustainability principles are building them into their business, not just their products.”

Ledwich thinks original designs are coming from all directions but that there seems to be a common thread in terms of the simplicity of the look. “I think there has been a reaction against lush hyper-real photography-based design,” he says.

“Simple, often purely typographic solutions, when executed with skill, create a form of storytelling. The packaging can be quite pure in form and simple in terms of materials but manage to express the personality of the brand and make a human connection. Emma & Tom’s juice is a great example of this, as are Lewis Moberly’s herb packs for Waitrose.”

“We recently created a new brand for 7 Eleven’s in-house food offer called Munch. Our strategy was to build a strong light-hearted way for the product to speak to the customer, to talk about features and benefits and to have a personality distinct from but related to the store in which it is sold.

This has worked well, and the Munch personality draws from and contributes back to the attitude of the 7 Eleven brand as a whole. Sales performance has been way beyond our client’s expectations.

“It’s interesting how products that were once simply a commodity within a store can now be the driver. Not only that, but different products can speak in different tones and languages and still be part of a cohesive whole for the parent brand.”

According to Chris Tremewen, the greatest innovations in packaging design are taking place in form design, especially in terms of bottle shapes.

“Our business has been operating in Asia for several years now and we are witnessing an acceleration of innovation in form design, particularly bottle shapes in large markets such as China,” he says.

“Due to the high-population pockets and relatively low tooling costs, many of our global clients in China are investing in proprietary pack shapes to protect brand equity. In Australia, where per-capita costs for tooling are higher, we are not witnessing as much innovation. However, several of our beverage clients are exploring opportunities in this area.”

Chris Tremewen sees a few different pressures on pack design today and into the future. “Consumers are looking for value,” he says. “They expect high quality, reliability, functionality and convenience across all FMCG categories. Packaging and product perform-ance are paramount.”

“As we enter an age in which many consumers begin to baulk at the notion of ‘conspicuous consumption’, brands that embrace a platform of sustainability will gain popularity. Packaging design is one element of a brand’s carbon footprint that marketers and designers will need to tackle together.”

Tremewen cites Cowan’s design for a new line of tea bags as a recent packaging innovation. The tea bags, from Madame Flavour, deliver a retro loose-leaf tea experience. The brief was for a stylish new brand of tea made from sophisticated blends, with an Australian twist.

The client wanted to launch a brand that would create a unique tea experience for the user. There were two areas identified in which to interpret the message: taste and ‘moment’.

Taste refers to the larger leaves, which give a fuller flavour, housed within a tea ‘pod’ that allows the leaves to brew to perfection. The moment concept is about savouring the moment of the forgotten loose-leaf tea experience, which is now available in the convenience of a pod.

Cowan created an emotionally led brand name, Madame Flavour tea, and a visual identity that positioned the product as a stylish and sophisticated brand that would stand out from the competition grounded in functionality. Positioning the brand on an emotional platform is designed to give the consumer a cue to switch allegiances.

The artwork for four variants – English Breakfast; Earl Grey Twist; Sultry Chai; and Green, Jasmine & Pear – includes rich indulgent colours that evoke warmth and differentiated types. Each variant also has its own packaging characteristics, including side-of-pack story and unique graphics.

“After just two weeks on the shelves, sales were extremely high, with Sultry Chai, Green and Jasmine & Pear performing at Woolworths at six-month expectation level, without marketing activity,” Tremewen says.

Graham Purnell thinks there’s nothing more innovative than a great idea that a brand can call its own. “For me, this is where innovation starts,” he says.

“There are far too many ‘me too’ products and design approaches out there. Packaging has the potential to be one of the most effective ways to communicate directly with consumers. The brands that engage most with consumers are more often than not the ones that the consumer would consider the most innovative.”

Developing really focused brand strategies is one of the biggest pressures on packaging design, according to Purnell. “Our designs need to provide commercial effectiveness and ensure longevity of the design solution.

We need to be projecting our thinking years down the track, past the immediate need of the brief. If we ask ourselves the question ‘will this pass the test of time?’ and the answer is yes, then the greatest pressure is really on us to try and take the client there.”

Purnell mentions the repackaging of Beez Neez Honey Wheat Beer, a handcrafted specialty beer that was first created as a Christmas gift for staff at Capilano Honey.

The brief was part of the greater project of rebranding/repackaging the entire Matilda Bay Brewing Company portfolio. “The existing packaging lacked shelf presence, didn’t communicate key messages strongly enough and lacked brand continuity with other products in the portfolio, which was affecting master brand awareness and growth,” says Purnell.

“The aim was to embrace the Matilda Bay craft-brewing heritage and visual equity of the brand and evolve Beez Neez into a much stronger position to drive sales.”

Purnell says that although Cato Purnell has designed an enormous amount of beer packaging over the years (Victoria Bitter, Crown Lager, Carlton Draught, Stirling, Fosters Light Ice), craft beer has its own unique characteristics.

“We researched the category extensively and found that much of the competition was either very traditionally beer in its design approach (James Squire, for instance) or too far at the other end of the spectrum and did not have any beer-credentialing elements.”

The goal was a design that embraced the current brand while injecting subtle beer-design cues to increase masculine appeal and the perception of brewing credentials and heritage.

In the end this was achieved by keeping the visual equity of the existing product (distressed type, bold orange colour and rendered wall background) while developing a stronger information layout and descriptor by increasing the type size and reversing it out of a black shape to maximise presence.

The distressed visual language was extended across other packaging elements and point of sale and a foundation was created to visually hold together the portfolio of products across all of its sub-brands.

Michael Grima says the latest innovations in structural packaging involve just-in-time manufacturing, where the product, package and closure are all manufactured and assembled on site at the same time.

“This is happening a lot out of the European Union, where the market is larger and companies can afford to invest in the latest technologies with the greatest capacity,” he says. “It is not happening so much in Australia.”

Grima sees material reduction as a trend, citing free-standing, recyclable film pouches that use less material, and also thin-wall injection moulding, which is now available with greater accuracy and tighter tolerancing of tooling.

In terms of the materials themselves, he says recyclables, materials from renewable resources (such as cornstarch) and oxybiodegradable plastics are leading the way.

The blurring of lines between product and package, whereby the package is the container, is an exciting development, according to Grima. “The package can be part of the solution,” he says.

“Packaging can be used for storage of the product, preserving the freshness of food via sealing and re-sealing packets, membrane barriers, and so on. It can also allow for portion control, which further extends the life of food goods, and takes into account domestic storage so that it lasts until the contents are all used up and is fridge and freezer safe.”

Packaging can also play a role in the dining room by creating a table presence, a way to present and serve the product. “Rather than unpacking the food and placing it in a serving dish, the package can be the dish,” says Grima. “It can also be suitable as a cooking dish or re-used to store other food or items.”

He also points to innovation in transportation (durable, stackable or nesting packages) and shelf presence and branding (where the package is an advertisement on the shelf) but is most excited about the user experience and a ‘less is more’ approach.

“Perhaps in the future, packaging will be less about being loud and standing out from the crowd, and more about subtlety and the joy of use and discovery,” Grima says.

“For example, the Japanese model of conveying a premium image and engaging the consumer by using more natural materials like paper, timber, fabric and glass; presenting the product very well and creating a unique user experience while opening the package, discovering the pack and its contents, and noticing intricate details and quality of manufacture – this is likely to take off.

It’s about creating a personality and building a relationship with the consumer, not just amplifying the brand. These products and packages are more intimate and the consumer becomes more attached, not wanting to discard the packaging.”

“We may also revert back to a 1960s hippie-style bulk-buying model with generic re-usable containers,” says Grima.

Ledwich, too, thinks we are rediscovering many materials and processes that we have taken for granted for a long time. “Paper and cardboard are as fresh as ever in the hands of good designers, and environmentally responsible too,” he says.

“Similarly, glass keeps coming out in surprising new forms, with durability and recyclability its strong points. Now bamboo is appearing everywhere and has become something of a green badge with which to clad your products.”

“These are all very old materials, having been used for centuries, and history remembers these as artefacts rather than litter. It seems everything old is new again, with traditional values of frugality becoming increasingly relevant as times get tougher for households.

“It will be interesting to see how packaging and marketing respond to the current economic downturn. It is not hard to imagine a return to bulk buying and unpackaged goods as we turn to simpler values. It would be the ultimate challenge to brand these naked products so that consumer relationships and trust are maintained.” 

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