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Systems Approach to Communicating Product Safety with Packaging

Brand-owners can play it safe for themselves and for their customers with this use of packaging.

Sterling Anthony

Most discussions about the communication function of packaging are about its role as a marketing tool, first conveying brand name, product category, and line-variety. Beyond that—using structure, graphics, and text—packaging bestows personality and aura. Particularly for retail products, such communication is essential for shelf impact and for a competitive advantage. Consumers seek products to satisfy wants and needs, and packaging is tasked with communicating that a given product delivers that satisfaction.

What should never be overlooked nor undervalued, however, is that consumer satisfaction has to be delivered safely. It’s the rare product that’s incapable of posing a hazard and/or inflicting harm. Products differ along that spectrum, and packaging should communicate commensurately. Brand owners might be tempted to soft pedal safety communications, concerned about triggering consumer reluctance. That concern runs counter to the reality that all products carry an implied warranty of safety. A consistent and overarching reality is that federal and state statues hold that companies only are to place into the commercial stream products that are reasonably safe.

A systematic approach to safety communications has three major components. The first is product composition, which begins at product conception and proceeds through product development. What a product is made of/from is a determinant of its safety.

There are myriad ways to formulate food & beverage, drugs & pharmaceuticals, and cosmetics, for example. The choices must balance factors such as sensatory appeal, efficacy, and cost. Chosen formulas are communicated by ingredients listing. For food & beverage, ingredients listing is supplemented with Nutritional Facts in a standardized format. Composition also relates to manufactured products. An example includes toys that have small parts that can pose a choking hazard.

The second major component of safety communications is directions of use (alternatively, use instructions). Whereas communicating finalized product composition is straightforward, directions are more complex.

The sought-after result is that the brand owner’s message is correctly interpreted by the consumer. Word choice should be kept simple and precise, to not exceed reading levels and to not invite ambiguity. Sentence length should not be unduly long, so as not to burden comprehension. There should be a logical sequence to the directions/instructions to facilitate a step-by-step compliance.

Brand managers are not necessarily adept at writing directions/instructions. As such, their drafts should be reviewed within the organization, and afterward, tested on representative test participants. Directions/instructions need not be communicated only with text. Depending on the product, illustrations can be warranted.

The third major component of safety communications is warnings. A warning communicates a hazard and is designed so that the targeted audience can avoid harmful, even deadly, consequences. The hazard should not be obvious to an otherwise observant and rational person. To be effective, a warning needs to conform to a certain content and format. Regarding content, a warning should contain: a signal word, such as Caution, Warning, and Danger; a specific citation of the hazard; instructions on how to avoid the hazard; and (if appropriate) medical/remedial instructions. Regarding format, a warning should be conspicuous among neighboring text and graphics, rendered thusly by such elements as boarders, colors, and fonts.

A vexing question is, how inclusive should a warning be? After all, to cover every conceivable scenario would be unwieldy and impractical. The answer is that a warning should cover the most reasonably foreseeable scenarios.

Any approach said to be systematic must demonstrate an interrelatedness among its components. Product composition, directions/instructions, and warnings comply with that requirement. Each component affects, or is affected by, the others. Another signature trait of a systematic approach is that it requires inputs from various disciplines. Packaging is the medium on which safety communications are conveyed. However, those communications also reflect inputs from such disciplines as product development, product testing/clinical trials, marketing, and legal.

Given its limited space available for safety communications, the size of the primary package can be a hurdle. But here, it’s a case where size does not matter. If safety communications are required, they must be presented, even if the package is small. Package size can be a function of the product’s inherent size; an example being eye drops. Package size also can be a function of product amount; an example being sample portions.

Ways to accommodate safety communications under these conditions include increasing the size of the packaging by such means as cartons, cards, blisters, and clamshells. Another way is to use foldouts, such as inserts and pamphlets. It’s vital that there be proper coordination when needed. For example, a brand might include a statement on the primary package that instructs the reader to refer elsewhere for more detailed information.

In conclusion, brand owners owe to consumers adequate safety communications, and a fundamental means to that end is the use of the communication function of packaging. It is every bit as important as any other use of that function, and that is an assertion that is safe to say.


Sterling Anthony, CPP, is a consultant specializing in marketing, packaging, logistics, and ergonomics.  100 Renaissance Center-Box 176, Detroit, MI 48243; 313/531-1875; sterlinganthony1@sbcglobal.net.


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