Is it Possible to Define Innovative Packaging?

One way to describe innovation is creating something that fills a need—or solves a problem—that no one could solve before. The best innovative products or packages fulfill a need that people didn’t even realize they had. Of course, there are differing levels of innovation. One might consider innovative a package that successfully bucks retail category conventions. Going “against the grain” always has an allure, but it can also be very risky. But then again… nothing ventured, nothing gained. Designers get a lot of calls for an original packaging solution. And many times they will develop truly unique packages that fulfill a specific need or add a functional element. These packages are not always more complex and costly, only risky in their attempt to redefine a consumer category. But before any design exploration begins, it’s essential to answer one big “Why?”: Why is the brand owner asking for innovation? Innovative packaging design has to be a process-driven experience that drills down and discovers the real forces at hand. And there could be many forces that are bubbling just below the surface.

A brand owner might be asking for innovation because a new marketing manager has new ideas on how the brand is positioned. Or a brand owner has invested in packaging that hasn’t performed as well as expected on-shelf. Or they are responding to threats from competitors, from private label products, or from themselves. Maybe on-shelf differentiation is the primary goal, or they fantasize about some new, but unidentified, technology that will set them apart. Innovation is like a code word for something they can’t define—or haven’t really even tried to define yet.

The risks to a brand with disruptive innovation are several. But the bottom line is that keeping current, loyal customers is much more important than enticing potential new customers, in almost all business.

That is not to say that inventive retail packaging does not exist. It is prevelant, actually, but no one keeps a close record. That’s because with fast moving consumer goods, an innovation can become the norm quite quickly. For example, in the last few years a new packaging format for shaving razors has become the new normal. A tray with a film lid has quickly replaced the customary clamshell design in many retail channels.

One strategy for innovation that seems to yield the best results is “borrowing” an idea from one retail category and applying it to a category where it hasn’t been used yet. This strategy often delights shoppers because they see new connections between form and function that are either just plain fun or fulfill a real need in their lives or lifestyles. It’s always advisable to develop several design concepts in parallel, refining them to be the best possible packages within the goals and limitations of the project. This keeps brand owners excited about the many different ways they can delight the shopper and the potential of consumer engagement with a new packaging concept.

The gains of disruptive innovation can be many. It can shake up a category so much that many shoppers will reconsider their brand loyalty. A new feature or technology can delight consumers that are looking for added value or feel that they have a need or desire that was previously unmet. But surprise and delight can also come in smaller, more controlled doses. Packaging decoration such as visual effects or embossed textures can connect with consumers expecting a premium experience with their premium purchase.

Ingenious packaging concepts can be the most fun to develop, but keep expectations grounded. Brand owners that are eager to act like bold risk-takers during design development can become more timid quickly when the bottom line is at stake. It bears repeating: gaining marginally more market share through disruptive innovation is not often worth the risk of alienating a loyal customer base. Managed, incremental innovation can achieve similar market share goals with less risk to the bottom line. One solution to balance disruptive vs. incremental innovation, if it’s in the budget, is to test disruptive designs in smaller, more controlled markets to see if the idea has legs—and if you can scale it up properly.


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