This year, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of one of the greatest packaging formats the modern world has ever known. Exactly a century ago, in 1915, the iconic Coca-Cola bottle, with its signature curves, was launched. Today, this contour glass bottle is a design classic. It has helped make Coca-Cola one of the world’s most valuable brands, has inspired both art and legend, and has steadfastly stood the test of one hundred long years.

Coincidentally, this is also the 80th anniversary year of yet another iconic packaging format that so many of us love, particularly in the sweltering summer sun which is upon us just now. In January 1935, Krueger Brewing sold the first beer packaged in a can, in the US. Today, millions of chilled beer cans are happily cracked open every hour, and cans now account for nearly 55 per cent of all beer packaging, having overtaken the traditional format of beer bottles. Everyone agrees that cans have revolutionised the growth of the beer industry worldwide.

This is therefore a wonderfully appropriate year in which to speak about the transformative power of great packaging. Often, the power of innovative packaging is not given its due, because many marketers tend to obsessively focus on areas such as core product formulation, or promotion and advertising. Yet, like in the case of Coca-Cola and canned beer, great packaging can elevate brands or even entire categories, and can make them stunning successes.

Great packaging works so well for a variety of compelling reasons which are rooted in business truths and consumer realities. Here are a few simple stories which illustrate some of these drivers.

Distinctiveness Iconic packaging design makes a brand distinctive and so instantly recognisable. It sets the brand apart from competition, including imitators. There can be no better example of this than the famous Coca-Cola bottle, which can be recognised as Coke from a mile. The history of how this bottle evolved is very interesting and educative. Coca-Cola was under attack in those days by a host of imitator brands, with names such as Koka-Nola, Toka-Cola and even Koke, which confused consumers. Since litigation against these imitators took years to conclude, the company challenged a few glass companies to “develop a bottle so distinct that you would recognise it by feel in the dark, or lying broken on the ground.” The now legendary bottle was developed in response to this brief. The design was patented immediately to fend off use by imitators, and eventually the Coca-Cola bottle was even recognised as a trademark. How many marketers would walk this bold and pioneering path today?

Functional benefits Another reason for transformative packaging is the delivery of significant functional benefits to consumers. I recall my early years in the tea industry, when packaged tea was sold primarily in cardboard cartons, sometimes with an inner paper layer. Tea in those cartons sometimes went stale quickly, and was sometimes tainted, while still on the retail shelf, with other strong smells (such as loose spices, onions, garlic.) that are widely present in our kirana stores. Tata Tea changed this paradigm completely by launching packaged tea in polypacks, which were flat, pillow-like laminate packs constructed with polyester and polythene material. Because this material keeps out oxygen and water vapour better compared to others, polypacks kept the tea fresh for longer, and relatively taint-free. These were real functional benefits that consumers valued greatly. Tata Tea rode the “ Asli Taazgi ” (real freshness) wave on the back of this new packaging format to become one of the most successful new brands in the history of modern India.

Excitement and other benefits Brilliant packaging also provides customers with a range of emotive benefits. Consider the packaging of iconic perfumes, which are designed to arouse our senses in many beautiful and surprising ways. Or consider the Italian chocolate brand Kinder Joy, which is amazingly one of India’s fastest growing consumer brands today. Earlier this month, I was visiting a small town called Angamaly, located near Kochi in Kerala. In every single supermarket and bakery in that town, Kinder Joy chocolates were highly visible and selling very well, despite their premium price. The reason? Kids love the egg-shaped pack which holds the chocolate, and they look forward each time to the thrill of opening the egg and finding a new toy inside. This emotive benefit of excitement, delivered by a unique egg-shaped pack that you can crack open on the spot, is so compelling that kids nag their parents to buy them Kinder Joy on every visit to the marketplace. In fact, I am told the Kinder Joy toys have become collectors’ items for adults too.

Appetite appeal Many food and beverage brands are keen on clear packaging, through which consumers can actually view the product each time they buy it. Research in some specific categories has shown that clear packaging appeals to the appetite in many different ways – when consumers can see the product through the packaging, in all its glorious colours and textures, they think the product tastes better, is less artificial and appears fresher. A good example of a brand which has leveraged this insight is Simply Orange, a relatively new brand of orange juice from the Coca-Cola Company. It came packed in clear containers, through which consumers could view the highly appealing golden orange colour of the juice, and virtually feel its thick texture and refreshing taste. This contrasted with other juice brands which had traditionally been packed in opaque cartons. Simply Orange quickly made huge strides in the intensely competitive US market, against well established brands such as Tropicana, with its distinctively shaped clear bottle being one of the key drivers of such success.

Expanding the category Sometimes, an entirely new packaging format can help expand a specific product category, and make it far more appealing to a new segment of consumers. Fastrack, the youth brand of watches and accessories, successfully attempted this when it invented new packaging for its wrist watches. The objective – to transform watches, which were highly desirable products for middle-aged people but were not necessarily appealing to college students, into cool accessories for youth. To appeal to this consumer segment, Fastrack moved away from the time-tested, somewhat staid watch boxes to cylindrical aluminium tins, which looked younger and cooler, and could also carry colourful graffiti around them. These tins complemented the bold product designs and irreverent advertising, and together created a magical halo which has made Fastrack a highly desired brand amongst college going youth across India.

Cost and transportation All brands want to bring their costs down, and most brands also seek ease of transportation to ensure wide consumer reach. Transformative packaging can deliver both these benefits. Surprisingly, these were also the business imperatives which led to the development of the ubiquitous beer can.

Cans are lighter and also take up far less space than bottles for the same volume of beer, hence are less expensive for breweries to transport. In addition, beer cans are easier for consumers to take along on a road trip or river cruise (where they are highly desirable accompaniments), because glass bottles are more likely to break during such outdoor journeys.

Therefore, as we end this article by paying tribute to Coca-Cola’s iconic bottle on its 100th birthday, we must also sit up and recognise the magical power of transformative packaging. If we are excellent marketers, we must endeavour to re-imagine packaging for our brands, however challenging this may be. The stories of the brands highlighted in this article should inspire us to say “Yes we ‘can’”.

Harish Bhat, Member, Group Eexcutive Council, Tata Sons

Harish Bhat is author of Tata Log: Eight modern stories from a timeless Institution. These are his personal views. The author acknowledges valuable inputs from Sria Majumdar, Tata Sons, in the writing of this article.

bhatharish@hotmail.com

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