For Paul Drake, founding partner and Creative Director of global design agency JDO, his firm’s work in 2019 on a reusable, stainless-steel container in a contemporary, elegant design for Shell’s Helix Ultra Net Zero Carbon lubricants range is a good example of the “lane-change moment” the CPG industry is experiencing—of which, he said, “we don’t get many.”
“As an industry, I think we have become more and more aware of the wastefulness of everything we do,” he says. “I believe COVID and other things are forcing a lane-change moment. There’s an opportunity to look at the world differently. I think it’s [reusable packaging] long overdue; we desperately need it.”
From a design standpoint, he adds, the opportunity to “design the perfect pack for a product,” rather than designing around the constraints of the supply chain, such as manufacturing tolerances, palletization, shelf-ready packaging, brand standout on shelf, etc., is an exciting one. “There’s a whole new potential for what a package does and how we live with it,” he says. “In theory, it might be beautiful and more elegant, and we might keep it at home for longer. And from that perspective, it’s very exciting.”
The Shell container was designed for trial use in France in the Loop circular shopping platform, which allows consumers to purchase products in reusable packaging that is returned for cleaning and refilling. When it announced its involvement in Loop in May 2019, Shell said it was “the first lubricant company to create a reusable container for motor engine oil in this century.”
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It added that its Shell Helix product is a perfect fit for the Loop system, due to the brand’s PurePlus Technology, which comprises low-viscosity and low-friction formulations. “Just like Loop aims to reduce impact on our planet, using Shell Helix can result in greater fuel economy, leading to lower CO2 emissions,” the company remarked.
In designing the container, JDO had to meet three key goals: durability for use up to 100 times, cleanability with Loop’s industrial processes, and lifecycle optimization, meaning it could be responsibly disposed of at end-of-life. Stainless steel met all these requirements. But JDO envisioned something beyond the standard, round containers being used by the majority of brands on the Loop platform.
“Stainless steel is a lovely thing,” says Drake. “It fits so well in the kitchen and in the bathroom, and in all the places we use consumable products. So obviously, every brand that jumped on the Loop train grabbed a stainless-steel vessel. But it was so difficult to do anything custom at the time. They all ended up in similar formats and pack shapes, and the brand romance was lost.
“So we asked ourselves, ‘Can we do something that’s stainless steel, but still delivers on that feeling of motoring and excellence and on the Shell values of geometry and precision, but with an approachability? How can we get all of that into a pack rather than just put it into a stainless steel jerry can? Can we convey the personality of the product and the brand even with a returnable package?’”
The answer to all those questions was “Yes,” but the process was not without its challenges. JDO was given just two months to deliver the package to Shell, and the designer’s aspirations were ambitious. Initial sketches showed a container with a contemporary, considered, and elegant design. “There was that need to make it feel special and premium, but there was also a functional need,” says Drake.
Functionally, motor engine lubricant containers traditionally have a handle to allow for pouring of the product. This feature is also a strong category cue. But to be cleaned effectively in the Loop system, the reusable Shell container could not have a through handle. “And, because of the volume [1 L], it didn’t really need one,” Drake explains. “But we wanted to allude to it. So we sculpted a recessed area into the surface, with a ridge on the spine of the bottle that’s really lovely and tactile to hold, especially in the stainless steel.”
The neck of the bottle, which is capped by a distinctive, stainless steel closure, is angled diagonally to allow for air evacuation as the consumer pours the product, resulting in a smoother pour. A one-piece pressure-sensitive label—removed during the cleaning process—covers the front and back panels and wraps around the rounded, soft edge of the container.
The final design was beautiful to behold, but complex to produce. For the 200 containers required by Shell for the Loop trial, JDO had to find a company with the metal pressing equipment needed to make the containers, but agile enough to handle such a small run. They found a partner in U.K. company Chasestead, a low-volume sheet metal and fabrication engineering company. Based on CAD information from JDO, Chasestead first created the tooling and then pressed stainless steel sheets into the forms of the two halves of the container. They then CNC-machined out the flashing on the edges of the forms and robotically welded them together to create the containers. “It was a hybrid of a handmade state-of-the-art technology and a rapid turnaround process,” Drake relates.
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While Shell did conduct a trial of its Helix Ultra Net Zero Carbon lubricants range in the stainless steel container on the Loop platform in Paris, the product is not currently available on the site.
Concludes Drake, “Beyond finding a solution to reduce waste, we saw our design of a reusable modern-day jerry can for Shell Helix as an opportunity to disrupt the category and increase consumer satisfaction. Not only do the new cans have a sleeker, ownable look, but they also feature durability and functionality that would not have been possible to achieve in disposable packaging. It illustrates the many possibilities that reusable structures have to elevate brand experiences through premiumization and innovation.”
In early 2021, the package won a PAC 2021 Beat in Class Award in sustainability in the PAC Global Leadership Awards. Commented Drake at the time, “It is a great honor to be a recipient of a PAC 2021 Best in Class Award in Sustainability. Developing design solutions that minimize a brand’s environmental footprint continues to be of critical importance in our industry, to consumers, and for the planet. At JDO, we are consistently working to do our part, looking for like-minded partners that are committed to positive change, like Shell, whom we share this award with, as well as Tom Szaky, founder and CEO of TerraCycle, the driving force behind the Loop initiative.”