Packaging: MIA?

Many beverage marketers are forgetting about packaging. I don’t mean the label design or sleeve, but rather the actual physical container itself — its shape, material, and personality.

How do I know? Recently, I was looking through a list of all of the products we’ve covered this year, and I realized that I couldn’t remember holding many of them at all. Now, there are plenty of reasons why products are forgettable, but for those that might actually bring innovation in flavor or design, having a great shape is sometimes a forgotten opportunity.

Packaging has taken quite a downturn over the past ten years. Back when we first started BevNET, companies were always talking about their proprietary packaging. Whether it was something simple, like a raised company logo on a 16 oz. glass bottle, or something complicated and new that had never been tried before, there was generally a proprietary piece that added zip to a packaging plan.

Now, our experience is that companies look to use a package that is accepted and successful – for someone else. And that copycat methodology hurts innovation and encourages poorlyplanned products.

Over the course of time, packaging innovations have made worlds of difference. The CSD category, the former sweetheart of the industry, has seen many: 12 oz. cans, two- and three-liter bottles, the 6-pack and the fridge pack. Coke’s modern growth has even been attributed to its development of the now one-size-fits-all-brands 20 oz. PET bottle. Why aren’t we seeing more attempts to create sizing variation, as well as that of taste?

In today’s market, look at “the Red Bull can” or “the Vitaminwater bottle.” Hundreds of competitors have gone into the same package without ever giving more than a minute of thought to changing anything more than the design on the label. And for those companies that have gone the extra mile and succeeded in using something different, such as Rockstar – or Monster, depending on who you ask – with the 16 oz. energy drink can, their reward is their own sea of imitators.

What happens as a result of this is, in the long run, actually detrimental rather than helpful to a new brand. Let’s use the example of the now iconic Red Bull 250 mL can. Sure, it might seem easier to launch with this package than without it. Won’t everyone who sees that can immediately understand that it’s an energy drink? Sure they will – but it will also serve to remind the prospective buyer of the Red Bull they went looking for in the first place. Rather than create a point of difference, the products shyly say “me too.”

Unfortunately for energy drinks and functional waters, it’s going to be an uphill battle to get past this. Every product that has gone into a 250 mL can or 20 oz. ribbed bottle has essentially helped to validate Red Bull and Vitaminwater as market leaders. Furthermore, it has trained customers that these types of products only come in certain types of containers – meaning that creative marketers must be willing to accept even more risk when they vary their packaging, pushing any new idea further to the fringes.

We see a lot of “me too” products, and you all know how we feel about them. We get calls from marketers who stress points of difference, who say consumers have a predisposal to certain flavors, and certain packages, as well. But nothing says ‘intellectual laziness’ like a knocked-off can or bottle. And nothing reinforces the strength of a category leader by echoing its iconography, either.

John Craven is the founder of beverage-industry watchdog The, based in Cambridge, Mass. The’s goal is to test nonalcoholic beverages — primarily soft drinks — and to provide a written critique of each one on its Web site. With more than 1,100 reviews posted since 1996, The has become an internationally recognized resource for beverage industry professionals.