Distinctive design is not only an added selling point, it might also be
the best way for brand owners to stand out from own-label copycats.
David Redhead reports on the manufacturing processes that are giving a
real boost to the art of packaging
How do you separate your cola from the rest of the red crowd? Pepsi
thinks the answer is blue. But Coca-Cola may have a better idea. There
is a rumour abroad that the soft drinks giant is to swap its standard
can for a new version which will echo the curvaceous form of the
original bottle. Since the new can could be a registered trade mark, the
thinking goes, Coke would stamp its authority on the legions of
lookalikes once and for all.
If Coke does put its faith in form, it will boost the currency of the
growing number of dedicated structural packaging specialists which have
been arguing for years that pack shape can supply a crucial edge in
consumer recognition and loyalty.
‘Shape is part of a product’s equity just as colour and graphics are,’
says Martin Bunce, design director of structural consultancy Tin Horse,
whose recent work includes the relaunch of Vosene shampoo in a teardrop
pack. ‘It makes a product stand out on the shelf and underpins and
reinforces its existing brand values.’
Peter Kay, creative director of structure at Design Bridge, goes
further: ‘Shape can reposition an existing product, harmonise a range,
define a new market, or appeal to new consumers.’
With modern technology, all packaging can take adventurous forms and
suppliers of raw materials are getting more involved in spearheading
design advances. British Steel has been particularly forward-thinking
and is evaluating the use of virtual reality in its packaging design.
Glass is inherently sculptural; advances in injection- and blow-moulding
techniques mean plastic and steel containers can be almost as
distinctive. Even mundane materials, such as flow-wrapped film, can be
given touches of personality.
The catch, of course, is cost. The toolmaking for a custom bottle is at
least pounds 50,000 but, if it doesn’t fit standard production lines,
that can spiral into millions. As a result, brand owners have been
unwilling to think long term.
‘People didn’t want to take a flier without knowing what it would do for
them,’ says Steve Kelsey, creative director of structure at the PI
Group. ‘They concentrated on colour and graphics because the costs and
risks were lower.’
Not any more. Structural specialists are now doing well from the blue-
chip brigade. PI lists Procter & Gamble, Unilever and Shell among its
regular clients, and recently completed the pack design for Magnotec,
Castrol’s new synthetic oil brand.
Behind this shift in attitude is an impulse to stand apart from the
rising tide of supermarket own-brand copycats, but the ‘shapist’ cause
has also been boosted by legislation which allows distinct packs to be
registered as trade marks.
‘Investment in new pack shapes is increasing because the equity which
designers create can be defended legally,’ says Peter Kay, who has
designed souped-up packs for Brylcreem’s hair-care brand.
‘They realise that their smaller competitors may struggle to afford the
While it is the FMCG giants that spend most on shape, it is makers of
luxury products who take most risks. Perfume makers have always
presented their bottles as sculpted icons, and manufacturers of other
premium products are almost as expressive.
Michael Peters used shape as an integral part of its design for FCN, a
new super premium cognac by Courvoisier. Bottle structure has now become
a vital quality area in the premium cognac sector.
Shott’s, an American alcoholic soda recently launched by Whitbread, is
typical of packaging innovators in the drinks sector, projecting its
supposed transatlantic 50s heritage by means of a ribbed bottle
developed by Jones Knowles Ritchie. Spirits manufacturers push the idea
further by combining unexpected colours with daring forms. Ultraa, a new
vodka designed by The Impact Agency, not only comes in the blue colours
recently adopted by Babycham and Bristol Cream, it also courts attention
with a rocket-shaped bottle.
Striking shapes are most effective when least expected. Dairy Crest’s
Frijj milk shake brand claimed market leadership and a value of pounds
11m within months of its unheralded launch in 1993. Dairy Crest won a
youthful audience without any promotional support, aside from Springett
Associates’ chunky and attractive Friesian-patterned bottle.
Manufacturers that are still sceptical about pack shape should take such
successful strategies to heart. Otherwise, they may find conventionally-
packaged best sellers outmanoeuvred and outmorphed.