Cutting Packaging Down to Size

Smaller, lighter packaging generally raises red flags with consumers. It usually signals they’re getting less product for their money instead of the steady, insidious price hikes which always cause consternation, especially in a down economy. But that isn’t always the case nowadays.

Consumer product manufacturers, faced with several dilemmas, have steadily worked to cut down on extraneous packaging for very good reasons. With the rise in raw materials, energy, manufacturing and transportation costs, coupled with the meteoric rise in environmental consciousness, they’ve been consistently cutting down on packaging.

Wal-Mart’s introduction of a “Packaging Scorecard” a couple of years ago, applied considerable pressure from the world’s largest retailer to over 66,000 suppliers to reduce packaging. The retailer promised to become “packaging neutral” by 2025. No small feat. It does signify Wal-Mart’s commitment to virtually having all the packaging that flows through its distribution chain recyclable, reusable and compostable by 2025. The impact of this decision has had profound ramifications in the entire consumer product industry.

The effect of all of these factors combined: a classic case of push-pull.  Slowly, but surely, manufacturers are becoming more environmentally focused and making significant strides in reducing packaging. Examples abound in the marketplace. Procter & Gamble’s rigid tubes of Crest toothpaste now stand on retail shelves sans boxes. General Mills reduced Hamburger Helper packaging by 20%, saving materials and an estimated 500 product distribution truckloads. Kraft’s Crystal Light new PET bottles cut about 18% of packaging weight, saving an estimated 8.7 million pounds of plastic.

Stonyfield Farm’s initiative, switching from #2 plastic cups to #5 thermoform plastic cups for its yogurts, reduced its overall packaging by 17% thanks to the thinner-walled #5 cups. The #5 cups are not recyclable as the #2 cups were, but in true Stonyfield Farm fashion, the company is working with TerraCycle to repurpose used yogurt cups to repackage new consumer products.

Nestle Waters North America saved 20 million pounds of paper over a five year period by simply designing narrower labels on its popular regional water brands, including Poland Spring and Deer Park. Coca-Cola has announced it will cut the amount of plastic in its Dasani water packaging by 7% merely by redesigning the shape of the bottles.

In a recent move, Kellogg’s announced that it would test shorter, fatter cereal boxes in its Detroit market, representing the company’s biggest packaging change since the 1950’s. This is big news. The footprint of cereal packaging hasn’t much changed in decades. If this experiment is well-received, it will no doubt have ramifications throughout the entire spectrum of the consumer product industry; including non-food companies. Significant changes to consumer staples like cereal are bound to be immediately visible; a source of instant conversation and debate.

Kellogg’s is touting the company’s commitment to innovative thinking, responsiveness to its retail partners, consumers’ environmental concerns. However, there can be little doubt that an 8% decrease in packaging materials has its own advantages. Cost savings that go right to the bottom line. The perception of a greener footprint. Taking a lead marketing position in a highly competitive category. All good—if it works according to plan.

On the face of it, retailers ought to embrace the shorter packaging because they can move shelves closer together and offer more product in the same footage. Consumers ought to love the new packaging since it will fit far better on their pantry shelves. The potential hitch: after decades of consumers being educated that smaller packaging equates to less product, it’s going to take time to reeducate consumers that in the case of greener packaging, it isn’t necessarily so.

Marketing “Less as More”

Smaller or lighter pack sizes will have be used to enforce positive values. Otherwise, they may become the cause of negative perceptions among consumers. No easy task. Yet, consumer product companies ought to consider: what better way is there to sell sustainable values than through that most important of marketing initiatives—packaging? Using the packaging itself to explain why consumers are seeing and holding less packaging presents a valuable opportunity that should not be missed.

Further, using packaging as a communications platform about the company’s commitment to sustainability issues gives marketers a powerful tool to reach consumers. Tying that messaging in to every customer touch point will further educate consumers and give companies that embrace environmentally friendly practices in general, and greener packaging in particular, a competitive edge.

Some marketers observe that if more and more consumer products begin to appear in sustainable packaging, that edge will disappear. Not so. If companies are smart about the manner in which they think and work, they can continue to leverage this—and always appear to be on the leading edge in the bargain.

More and more innovative ideas will be fueled over the next few years. New materials and substrates, new energy-saving packaging manufacturing techniques and equipment, new ways to do more with less will continue to present themselves. Exciting possibilities undreamt of today will become realities with focus and determination.

Smart companies will embrace more far-reaching package design systems over time and find ways to do business more efficiently on every front, including the intelligent use of energy and natural resources. Continuing commitment to these important goals will make the companies and brands that embrace them shine in the eyes of consumers.

Many companies’ sustainability measures are going unnoticed since they are deliberately choosing not to communicate these initiatives. Whether this comes from a fear of the perception of green-washing, or companies simply feel it is the right thing to do sans advertising the fact, it is a mistake not to market social responsibility as a cornerstone of branding or rebranding efforts. As long as sustainability initiatives are communicated in a fair and honest manner, companies stand to gain appreciable value in consumer perception.

How about this for a paradox: cutting packaging down to size will only increase its importance in promoting the brand. The old adage: “Less is More” is true, after all.