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The future of packaging in today's digital age

Innovation realisation director David McGowan talks about the new digital age we now live in and its impact on drinks brands and their packaging requirements

David McGowan Pi Global - brand shaping specialists

The world was a different place when I started in the drinks industry as a young brewer in 1988.  Since then we have seen other product categories stretch their imagination as brands have evolved to find new consumer benefits in this digital age.

Remember Bob your milkman? Over time convenience and HDPE bulk containers have added value to the purchase of milk…larger more useful pack sizes, available fresh, when you want it fresh from your 24 hour local convenience store; butter has become spreadable (halleluiah!) and now sold in re-sealable tubs…even the humble lettuce has evolved into fully washed, cut, mixed and packed ready for your perfect Caesar salad.

But has the drinks industry changed? Or does it even need to?

After spending some time exploring the Museum of Brands, it made me realise that little has changed over the past 150 years. Beer is still (mostly) sold in glass bottles and cans, Spirits and Mixers are also locked into glass as premium packaging material of choice.

As a rule, pack formats have remained consistent. Any evolution has come through new moulding capabilities, sustainability and procurement targets which have resulted in material savings with quality improvement.

However do these improvements add value to the consumer or the brand?

Certainly not for the premium sector of our business. My old friends in Duty Free have always enjoyed the freedom to express luxury through their packaging that FMCG marketers simply do not.  

My favourite project over the last few years was the Bombay Sapphire limited edition crystal bottle, launched in 2011 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the recipe. Completely hand blown, with an innovative inner glass layer of Bombay blue glass and a stopper encrusted with jewels designed by Garrard. Laser etched with precision tools, it was a wonderful example of pushing the packaging boundaries with new technologies to enhance artisanal craftsmanship skills honed over time. Difficult to deliver technically, but an object of beauty, revered by consumers and at £2000 per bottle (only 350 pieces made) absolutely on brand for heritage, style and substance. (Click here to view the creation on YouTube)

Of course, that doesn’t mean there is no product innovation in the industry at all.

In an age of “have what you want, when you want”, brands have created new noise by launching product variations such as cask finish malts from Glenmorangie and there has never been greater choice of vodka flavours; Smirnoff Flavours have used the opportunity to twist their packaging a little harder.

But in this digital age, with new technology launching daily the speed at which innovation will hit the market will dramatically reduce, and therefore the ability to react instantly to competitive innovation becomes more and more important to avoid you looking dated. The ability to stay ahead becomes more challenging. What does this mean for the drinks industry?

3D printing alone is allowing for fast, accurate and relevant decision making on new designs. The ability to replace a 2d drawing, never mind a technical drawing, with a tangible model is a powerful thing when a decision is required.

In addition the development of digital printing has already left your office…craft brewers in the USA are using digitally printed cans for production stock – allowing consumer relevant designs whilst minimising capital outlay. The ability to print market specific labels as you need them is a huge benefit to small run, high value production lines. As well as the promotional marketer.  

Once substrate challenges are cracked, it is easy to see a time within the next 10 years where the advances and benefits of 3d prototyping leave the workshop and enter the actual manufacturing arena.

Surely it is not a leap of imagination to see a day in the future when some form of packaging will be 3D printed at your filling site, converted and printed on line digitally in small volumes (with promotional consumer relevant message), before passing down the line and being filled with fresh product. You can see the clear benefits for the manufacturers. Perhaps not so clear for convertors.

And of course there is little in this for the consumer… except wonderful brand engagement. The one huge aspect of the digital age is the immediate access to information – the thirst for immediate knowledge is constant and ever hungry, therefore the ability to communicate with your consumers direct, through printing what you want, when you want it is a huge benefit to both parties.

Small run launches would also complement Human Centred Design, an approach that has opened the eyes of many innovators within the industry…a way of working with clear focus on consumer empathy - driving insight and proof as to which innovations add real value.  You could launch, test, evaluate and then scale if the results are good.

And of course the digital age is driving real innovation through on line retailing and home delivery. The Tesco’s of the world have reviewed the supply chain, created applications that make it easier to shop your brand (visual pack shots!), anytime, anywhere, identified the barrier to purchase (your time!) and removed it. Simple.

But is this enough? Shouldn’t we ensure that our brands are equipped with the sensorial toolboxes they need to compete effectively in this digital world? Conventional branding principles do not work in digital where the browsing and purchase process are functionally and emotionally very different.

And so if the drinks industry follows the retailer example… do we need packaging at all?

If packaging in its truest form is simply a way to transport a product from A to B with integrity then why can’t that nice man from Tesco visit my home, (after being contacted directly by my fridge), arrive at an agreed time, clean out my 5L bespoke branded fridge growler and re-fill with fresh Tennent’s once per week…? My brand experience will change but will be arguably enhanced. My wife may not approve, but that’s a different discussion.

Which brings us full circle; back to the milkman with his float - before current packaging options, when home delivery was a convenience that consumers were happy to pay for. That’s fine for my favourite beer, but I think I would still wish to treat myself to my preferred single malt from a premium glass bottle.

So this permission to explore the new is exciting; however it is imperative to stay true to the brand… to keep the brand cohesive and the brand personality uncompromised. Being creative is easy… staying relevant and being creative requires a whole different set of skills.

And so for spirits, an industry that epitomises heritage, care and time perhaps we have permission to allow the digital age to bypass us.  Perhaps it is simply irrelevant. Perhaps our innovation lies with building on heritage, skills and passion.

After all, it is those aspects that our consumers value. 

13 December 2016