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Managing packaging innovation

Packaging innovation can be a brand-builder, if managed effectively.

Sterling Anthony, CPP
Sterling Anthony, CPP
If asked to define the word "innovation," Forrest Gump might say, "Innovation is as innovation does." His definition would hold its own against those of the Webster dictionary: the introduction of something new; a new idea, method, or device.  Many brand owners seem to subscribe to Webster, though, taking liberties with the definition's subjectiveness. They declare their devotion to innovation. They boast of their successes. What they don't do as much is disclose why their innovations deserve to be regarded as successful.
It's a safe generalization that every brand owner has experienced disappointing results, to varying degrees, in pursuit of innovation. But, in the parlance of the newly-begun baseball season, you can't get a hit unless you take a swing; and since strikeouts can't be eliminated entirely, a decent batting average should be the objective. But even that might not be sufficient. The reason is that not all innovations are embraced by the targeted public. A brand owner can produce what it believes to be innovations, but which turn out to be ho-hummed curiosities. To avoid that unenviable status, a brand owner should manage innovation in a systematic fashion.
In packaging, innovation can be applied in a number of areas: materials, design, and processes are just a few. Each has the potential to have an impact on a brand owner's entire value chain. In trade journals, conferences, exhibitions, and design contests, packaging innovation is a fixed element of the discussion. Plus, the packaging supplier industry is never short on innovative offerings. As with other disciplines, packaging is under pressure to incorporate innovation. Packaging, however, differs, in that some responses end up on store shelves, perceived (justifiably or not) by consumers as measures of the brand owner's overall competence at innovation.
Given the stakes, the brand owner needs to manage packaging innovation with a three-pronged approach: begin with a well-defined brand; stay within the functions of packaging; and, avoid the three major pitfalls that lead to consumer rejection.
Begin with a well-defined brand

Before embarking upon a quest for packaging innovation, with the intent of using the results to enhance the brand, the brand owner should be able to define the brand, in terms of its essence. What does the brand stand for?  If that question can't be answered concisely, in a single sentence, the brand is fuzzy, and not the kind of fuzzy that's paired with warm. Packaging can project and build on what the brand stands for, but not if that determination has not been made beforehand.  Packaging professionals should not be shy in seeking detailed information about the brand, in order to better assure that a chosen innovation is consistent with it.
In addition to conciseness, the brand definition should convey how the brand is different from the competition. And, not just any difference will do. The brand should be different in a way that is meaningful to the consumer. In all, when a brand is built on a defining concept that establishes a relevant difference, the brand is best positioned to benefit from packaging innovations.

Stay within the functions of packaging

Packaging is a powerful, multifaceted tool. But, as with any tool, it should not be assigned tasks that are outside its functions. There are four:  protection, communication, convenience, and utility. A packaging innovation should relate to one of those functions (or more, since they overlap). A simple test is of the sentence-completion variety: This innovation improves the packaging function of _____.

On first consideration, four might seem a modest number of functions, except that each lends itself to multiple applications. Protection, for example, is typically interpreted as physically shielding the product from damage; however, packaging can protect people, pets, and property, depending on the product's hazard quotient. Anti-theft and anti-counterfeit also are types of protection. Each of the other functions is similarly diverse, providing a multitude of possibilities for packaging innovation.
Brand owners expecting more from packaging than it's capable of delivering are not irrational. They're simply not aware of the functions. Conversely, packaging professionals, aware of the functions, nonetheless might feel a reluctance to emphasize limitations. After all, it wasn't long ago that those professionals lamented about being underutilized and about packaging's being an afterthought in the product development process. Now, packaging is widely acknowledged for its strategic potential, and while it's okay for professionals to bask, they should be the last ones to oversell the capabilities of packaging innovations. That's because projects that go beyond the functions will produce disappointing results, likely causing the unenlightened to wrongfully conclude that the packaging failed at something that it was capable of doing.
Avoid the three major pitfalls that lead to consumer rejection

Being too complex is one pitfall. Even when an innovation is understood by consumers, it still can be overly complex. Such a case is when consumers decide that what's to be gained is too little for the effort that has to be expended. Simplicity is to innovation as brevity is to speech. Subscribing to KISS (keep it simple, stupid (or Sam)) is no insult to the consumers' intellect, rather, a concession to their busy lives. Combining innovation and simplicity is quite the challenge, but, bear in mind that: both are relative; they are not opposites; and, simplification is a type of innovation, in itself. Besides, trimming an innovation of undue complexity is consistent with the previously discussed topics of a concisely-defined brand and the convenience function.

Being irrelevant is the second pitfall. A particular innovation might provide something new, but that alone doesn't mean that it's something for which consumers are clamoring. Innovators should guard against becoming so enamored of what they produce that they fail to appreciate that consumers are not as emotionally invested. Innovations should be the result of consumer needs and not just the result of a company's technical capabilities. Relevance in innovation has its parallels in the requirement that the brand embody a relevant difference, and in the utility (i.e. usefulness) function.

Being too costly is the third pitfall. Will the innovation result in higher production costs, and if so, can they be passed along to the consumer? If not, can a justification be made for the brand owner's absorbing the costs? The economy is recovering; however, consumer purchasing behaviors might be affected for the long-term, if not lifelong. The consumers' insistence on added value and their reluctance to pay for extras without assurance of getting every penny's worth are business realities. Alternately, consumers might express certain concerns, yet, be unwilling to pay extra for innovations that address them, under the belief that it's a corporate responsibility. It's something to think about in light of the many sustainability projects on the drawing boards.
For example?

Intentionally, this article offers no examples of packaging innovations. There are plenty galleries and contest entries for that. Besides, any example has subjectiveness attached to it; therefore, let each brand owner decide what constitutes innovation. Just remember that results count, not merely newness; for, "Innovation is as innovation does." And, speaking of Forrest Gump, he famously observed, "Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get." Such uncertainty should not characterize packaging innovation and won't with a systematic managerial approach.    

Sterling Anthony is a consultant, specializing in the strategic use of marketing, logistics, and packaging. His contact information is: 100 Renaissance Center-176, Detroit, MI 48243; 313-531-1875 office; 313-531-1972 fax;
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