Maria Spinetta explores the conflicting demands that put packaging innovation at risk
As sustainability and digitalisation continue to drive the evolution of FMCG packaging, other important characteristics can be deprioritised. Yet when factors like functionality, usability and consumer engagement aren’t considered at the front-end innovation point, progress may be hindered. A strategic assessment mitigates this risk, streamlining and enriching the innovation process with a methodical, comprehensive approach.
There are three core areas to consider in the packaging assessment: purpose, material and design, and end of life.
Define the purpose
For most products, the core requirement of packaging is to provide protection from contamination and damage, maintaining quality throughout the supply chain. Maximising shelf-life is a concern for food, beverage, and cosmetic packaging, and this is often achieved through physical means such as layers, coatings, and material combinations.
Additional packaging functions should be revisited during the assessment too. For instance, the shift towards cleaner labels may increase the number of requirements that packaging needs to fulfil. The labelling regulations of target markets must also be considered.
When it comes to attracting consumer attention at point of purchase, haptics – how the packaging feels – is just as important as how it looks. Printed electronics, such as radio-frequency identification and ambient intelligence, can also elevate engagement, as can novel dispense mechanisms.
Addressing these factors is challenging when packaging is stripped back to the bare minimum for sustainability reasons. However, consumer research can provide useful insights when redefining minimum functionality requirements. It may also reveal evolving consumer priorities that could be used to inform packaging innovation and drive competitive differentiation.
Consider material and design choices
Changes to the materials used in packaging are often reactive, dictated by costs or evolving requirements such as those related to sustainability. Many businesses want to break this cycle so material choices also support commercial objectives.
A packaging assessment facilitates a more proactive stance. It might begin with the identification of potential new materials, followed by a review of how they would impact packaging design and a consideration of how this fits with the wider ecosystem. For instance, while compostable materials are often perceived as a silver bullet for sustainability, their availability and functional properties may be inadequate. What’s more, they may only be fully compostable in quite specific conditions.
Strategic partnerships and investment could enable progress here in the long term. Meanwhile, a purposeful assessment of alternative materials and packaging designs can ensure short term changes align with business goals.
Reimagine end of life
Optimising packaging to promote recycling or re-use requires an understanding of the entire lifecycle. Working to a circular model where materials are maintained at their highest value is the goal, but it is not always possible. Recycling packaging into an equivalent product or even re-using it for the same purpose can pose significant technical challenges.
While recycling conventional polymers is relatively straightforward, not all countries have a mature ecosystem to handle this. What’s more, some polymers and packaging constructs are difficult to recover through recycling. Re-use offers much potential, but for it to be truly effective return or refill schemes need to be developed. This involves changing the user journey as well as the adoption of new technologies and business models.
A thorough packaging assessment accommodates these challenges by considering consumer behaviour, and its variations in different markets, to boost re-use and recycling. Engaging with organisations involved in waste management is also critical.
An upfront packaging assessment ensures opportunities, challenges and conflicting demands are identified early in the innovation process when they are easier to resolve or navigate. Ultimately it accelerates progress and increases the likelihood of landing on a packaging solution that satisfies multiple and complex requirements.