Good things come in small packages

19 May 2014

In the oversaturated market of personal care, how can packaging decisions affect whether your product ends up in the shopping trolley? Paul Howells, vice-president of packaging R&D at Unilever, stresses the need for a holistic approach when designing the ideal cosmetic container.

Personal-care packaging has kept evolving over the years, but the importance of consumer appeal has never gone away. Even the biggest players in the toiletries business have to ensure their brands stay relevant while maintaining the quality customers have come to expect from their favourite brands. Consumer-goods giant Unilever, committed to reducing the waste associated with the disposal of its products, recently halved the size of its female-deodorant aerosols, but couldn't afford to slash quality too.

"The product must be flawless and, where possible, we're looking to exceed expectations through great design," says Paul Howells, VP packaging R&D at Unilever. "Personal care companies should always be looking to deliver additional benefits with their packaging.

"We ensure that we have a clear understanding of the functionality that the packaging needs to deliver throughout its life. Advance simulations, and the use of materials that deliver this functionality without excess packaging, is the key to ensuring our products are as cost-effective and sustainable as possible."

The smaller deodorants were an opportunity for the company to drive a step-change in the amount of packaging used, and have resulted in a 25% reduction of an average can's carbon footprint. The redesign started with a strategic commitment to improve the sustainability of the company's packaging, but Unilever also wanted to convince consumers that the planet would not be the only beneficiary of the revamp.

"The pack is a great design, but it's important to realise that not everyone is so invested in the sustainability basis, so it had to deliver a further benefit," says Howells. "I think our customers appreciate that it is a more portable and usable product these days. You get two wins, because we've made a reduction in the packaging we've used but, also, the buyer is happy because we've put out a product that gives benefits above and beyond sustainability."

Bringing the product down to 75ml also ensured that, unlike the earlier model, the aerosols are under the 100ml limit for airplane hand luggage, which means customers can be confident their deodorant won't get confiscated at airport security.

Multiple solutions

The compressed aerosols are a good example of a product that has been designed with multiple solutions in mind. And, in Howells' experience at Unilever in manufacturing and processing, he has come to realise that when selecting packaging for a particular cosmetic or toiletry, it is not sufficient to consider just one factor at a time. The whole process from conception to finished product should fall under what he calls a "holistic approach".

"This means the brand DNA really informs the design," he explains.

Howells believes that in order for a product to sell well, its packaging needs to seduce customers in different ways.

"I think there's a trend for packaging design that really incorporates all the senses into its concept, rather than just focusing on sight and functionality," Howells says.

A product's packaging might work well and be sufficiently attractive, but if it falls short regarding other faculties, the item could well be considered below par.

"Of course, the packing must deliver the functional requirements, but it's our job, as packaging designers and engineers, to look for opportunities to add value in our packaging so that people have a deeper, emotionally based interaction with the product and its packaging," says Howells.

But, how passionate can a consumer really get about a cosmetic's casing? At first, it is difficult to know what Howells really means by this "emotionally based interaction", but then he suggests that packaging companies could learn a lot from automobile designers. Emotional interaction is a clear game-changer for customers choosing a car that's right for them, and he reckons the concept should be no different for consumers choosing which products to place in their bathroom cabinets. Making sure there is correct feedback across all senses - and not just sight - can translate into brand success.

"Automobile designers think about the way a car door closes, the way the seats feel, the car's smell," he says. "It's all been designed holistically, and that's what we try to emulate with regard to personal-care products and their packaging. We must consider how it feels when you hold the product, and how it sounds when you open and close it. It's about making sure everything fits together really effectively."

For Howells, the devil's in the details. Sometimes, the smallest innovations make the biggest difference to a consumer. He cites his favourite example of a well-designed product as Bleu de Chanel, a male fragrance contained in an elegant square bottle of midnight blue.

"There is a piece of 'magic' in the cap due to the fact that an inbuilt, yet invisible, magnet always ensures the Chanel logo is aligned to the front of the bottle. It's a gorgeous piece of packaging and, needless to say, very well engineered," he says.

A sense of identity

Magic or not, reinforcing a brand's identity is, of course, still fundamental to successful packaging design. One feature that should not be overlooked when updating the container of an established product is the brand's heritage. Its history should be carried forward, and not forgotten. Customers should be able to look at a piece of packaging and understand how it translates to the brand itself. Additionally, operators ought to take influence from the most iconic containers - brands that have enjoyed decades of success, and are instantly recognisable.

"You should be able to pick out a Lynx deodorant from a Dove one, for example. Just like you can look at a BMW and say 'that's a BMW'," says Howells. "It's about updating a brand so that although you're presenting a new innovation, you can still see that the product's history carries through."

But, how do you make the right decisions when designing packaging for a new product on the market? Does this require a different approach? With no history to draw upon, packaging designers are free to create a completely new identity from scratch, but they have to get it right.

"It's perhaps even more important to be clear about what you want to communicate in terms of brand value for a new product, because that will set the standard or the image of that brand for the future," says Howells. "If you get it wrong at the beginning, you're not going to be doing yourself any favours."

These days, if you don't make the best packaging decisions for a product's launch, your potential customers are bound to find out soon. The surge of blogging and social-media platforms has provided consumers with an easy route for giving instant feedback about their recent purchases to a whole community of internet users. The public can immediately register their endorsement or disapproval of a new product, and discuss its various benefits or shortcomings. Social media is bound to keep packaging designers on their toes, but also hints at what the modern public requires from a product, and which innovations are currently trending.

"In the past, you have been able to get away with a suboptimal design. But now, there's a significant lobby that would undermine the brand equity if something doesn't work properly," says Howells.

Instant feedback

Equally, social media can have a really positive impact on a company. If personal-care businesses produce a unique product with interesting packaging, the viral nature of these methods of communication can have a massive impact on sales.

"People that ordinarily wouldn't be interested in the product will be encouraged to go out and buy it," says Howell. "That's the two sides of the coin. I think anyone designing new packaging for products has to bear in mind the threats and the opportunities."

But, the opportunities will only arise if personal-care companies use packaging to truly engage with their customers. From sustainability, to emotional seduction and even social media, a holistic approach should be taken by brands that want to differentiate themselves from the competition. Thinking outside the box is essential for providing the innovations that consumers have come to anticipate.

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