Everything You Need to Know About CPG Packaging Design at Scale in 2023

photo of industrial design working on cpg packaging design project
  • Packaging design is a powerful force in the world of consumer packaged goods (CPG), but most professionals in the CPG industry understand its role based on their own background. The best CPG packaging design combines manufacturing expertise with marketing creativity.
  • The history of packaging comprises eras of operational focus, branding ingenuity and customer-centered thinking. Now, analytical tools and engineering advancements allow designers to “future-proof” designs that can be successfully produced at scale.
  • Customer research — along with the consumer insights it brings — is one of the most important ways companies can create thoughtful packaging that fosters lasting consumer loyalty.

Take a moment to picture the packaging of your favorite product. Maybe it’s a snack, makeup item, or device.

Why does it catch your eye, and if so, how? Do you love its colors or shape? Is it easy to use? Easy to open? How does the package impact your experience of the product?

In the consumer packaged goods (CPG) space, packaging represents more than containing.

First and foremost, the package ensures the product arrives safely in stores, meeting supply chain goals and minimizing damage during transport. Packaging also helps customers make purchasing decisions: The jar, bottle, box or wrapping can embody a brand, making the product jump off of shelves — or simply blend in with the competition.

Packaging design can help or hinder consumers’ experience of the product, building loyalty — or creating frustration.

To understand the big-picture importance of CPG packaging design, let’s zoom out and cover everything you need to know about package design at scale. Read on to learn about:

  • The history of package design
  • Why packaging changes are more complex than meets the eye
  • Some of our favorite CPG package design success stories

Without further ado, let’s “unpack” this topic, shall we?

Industrial designers discuss cpg packaging design

CPG packaging knowledge: centered around experience

Your idea of the perfect package — including the criteria you use to define it — likely stems from your background. Simply put, most CPG teams typically understand packaging in relation to their chosen discipline. Whether you’re a marketer or a packaging engineer, you approach packaging differently.

For instance, a marketer likely thinks about how a package looks and feels. Marketing teams want a product’s packaging to be disruptive and to effectively differentiate their offering from the competition.

To marketers, the ideal package reinforces a brand’s credibility and endears the product to its target audience.

On the other hand, for packaging engineers and supply chain leaders, a package means something else entirely. Engineers prioritize manufacturing and cost efficiencies, trying to keep the cost of goods as low as possible.

Those with supply chain expertise understand the technical elements of containing, preserving and distributing a product safely. They also understand the impact of sustainability — whether (and how) the packaging design can be manufactured with sustainable, yet affordable, materials.

Clearly, these two groups of CPG stakeholders have distinct priorities — but they’re not competing priorities. Ultimately, both marketing and engineering teams share the goal of putting their product safely into the hands of eager customers.

A “perfect package” is one that addresses everyone’s concerns. Organizations whose package design fares best take an interdisciplinary approach — one that brings together marketing creativity and technical know-how.

Photo of a consumer considers two different products based on their packaging design

Packaging design: A brief history

In the earliest days of product packaging, those in the CPG packaging business focused primarily on distributing products to the masses. A package’s sole purpose was to keep the product safe and to do so cost-effectively. In this way, a business could scale the product and distribute it to every corner of the globe.

Thus, packaging got its start as an operational tool.

The beginning of branded packaging design

Then came the Industrial Revolution, ushering in a whole new era for packaging. Now that product distribution to the masses was a reality, consumers could afford to choose between brands. Companies needed to distinguish themselves from competitors, and branding began playing a pivotal role in the marketplace.

Brands came to signify stories buyers could identify with. A product wasn’t just an inanimate object: It existed to build trust and familiarity with buyers so they would purchase over and over again.

Strong brands also told customers they could expect consistency from their favorite products. Whether a consumer bought their favorite cereal in California or Maine, the brand always delivered the same experience — which started with the package. By catching shoppers’ eyes and telling the brand story, packaging had a central role to play in developing trust with the public.

Packaging design became a key brand differentiator for companies’ marketing engines and evolved to become more vivid, creative and thoughtful.

In some cases, product packaging shifted from crates to bottles. In other cases, products took on radically different forms, such as the Mrs. Butterworth’s syrup bottle, which takes the shape of a fictional character invented by the manufacturer.

Packaging design with the consumer in mind

In its next era — the one we’re in now — CPG packaging became much more consumer-centric. Today, rather than existing primarily to entice buyers, product packaging is designed for the end user.

Previously, the usability of a package was essentially an afterthought — and manufacturing challenges reinforced this reality. Once a manufacturer establishes a structural package design, reconfiguring that design at the factory level can be costly and time-consuming.

Even so, forward-thinking brands realized user-friendly packaging design set them apart from the competition. They noticed that customers cared about a package’s convenience and ease of use — and that distinctive features could create points of delight for consumers.

This consumer-focused era of CPG packaging design requires ethnographic research and a deep understanding of their target customers’ daily habits. But brands that gather data to inform decisions build brand equity and customer trust.

photo of a mother and daughter considering CPG packaging

More than meets the eye: the complexity of CPG packaging decisions

Identifying and resolving pain points is the key to consumer-centric packaging, both now and in the future. Thoughtful CPG packaging design considers end users’ touchpoints and finds opportunities to make the experience more memorable or enjoyable.

The best-case scenario is turning pain points into points of pleasure by satisfying consumers’ unmet needs. Packaging engineers and marketers alike should ask, How can we use the package to differentiate our brand and foster delight?

But at scale, changing packaging is a major undertaking, especially packaging structure. Any design change can have ripple effects on a package’s integrity.

What’s more, the scope of factory operations and the significant cost of goods mean that packaging changes come at great expense. Brands often spend millions of dollars to roll out a new line. As a result, package designers face the lofty task of ensuring any given design stands the test of time.

Luckily, modern tools allow packaging designers to more effectively future-proof their designs.

Major advancements in CAD engineering and other technologies mean that designers now have a deeper understanding of packaging elements, weight distribution and the far-reaching impacts of even small adjustments. This allows them to steer clear of minor changes that lead to major supply chain impacts — from conveyor belt accidents to distortions during transport.

At Product Ventures, we apply predictive technology thoughtfully to help CPG brands avoid fear-based decision-making. That way, we can provide our clients innovative — yet informed — packaging design changes with the help of in-house expertise and state-of-the-art tools.

Design thinking constructs
When package designers chase one outcome single-mindedly — just visuals or solely structure — they’re likely to create problems for one constituent or another.The best packaging solutions exist at the intersection of:
●      Desirability
●      Viability
●      Feasibility
●      Sustainability
When packaging designers consider each of these factors, they’ll find the most strategic and balanced outcomes for the company and the consumer.

Product Ventures’ CPG Packaging VIPs

What does thoughtful package design look like in practice? Our team brings together customer insights, engineering expertise and market knowledge to help clients ensure their customers get the whole package.

Here are three of our favorite success stories that illustrate great packaging design in action.

Filmstrip of Product Venture's process on Blue Buffalo pet food packaging design
1. Blue Buffalo: Turning a painful pet food experience into a pleasing one

If you have a cat, a dog or another furry friend, you know that feeding time can look (and smell) unpleasant — to us humans, at least. When creating a new package for General Mills, we noticed that many consumers don’t like dealing with pet food packages or the stuff inside.

By nature, wet pet food packaging poses a distinct challenge. When sealed, packages tend to create a vacuum that makes food cling to its insides. As a result, the food takes on the shape of the package, which can be unappetizing to picky pets and annoying to pet parents, who end up using a utensil to scrape out and break up the food.

Seeing this frustration — and consumers’ great care for their pets — we turned this pain point into a more pleasant experience with “spoonless” singles packaging.

Our engineering team worked with our designers to create a package that could easily dispense the pet food product with a simple press at its sides (as opposed to scooping it out with a utensil). This was possible because our engineering experts integrated within our client’s manufacturing team to understand how the filling process provided this design innovation opportunity.

Once the product is successfully dispense, we included a forklike feature to the flange (the flat outer ring of the package), giving pet owners an accessible tool to decant the food straight from the package. This addition makes serving pet food easier, faster and more convenient for pet parents.

In a competitive market like pet food, this package design meets a customer need, which helps the brand stand out.

[Read the full Blue Buffalo case study]

Film strip of Product Venture's process on the Duracell Easy Tab CPG packaging design
2. Duracell: Understanding the audience: a key inclusive battery packaging design

When Duracell enlisted our help to create a new packaging design for a hearing aid battery, they noted that cheaper battery options had similar packaging. They wanted to differentiate themselves in a customer-focused way. We delivered a solution on the cutting edge of inclusive package design.

Spending time and money on customer insights wasn’t yet mainstream, but we invested in researching this audience and its special needs. Many of these customers were aging, so they tended to have failing eyesight and reduced dexterity along with hearing loss. This made opening packages and changing batteries deeply challenging for them.

In fact, we learned most hearing aid battery packaging was so frustrating that many aging individuals wouldn’t even use their hearing aids except in times of extreme need. They didn’t want to ask others for help, but they couldn’t change the batteries themselves.

These insights informed the new package design, which featured an “easy tab” that made the process simple and accessible for customers. The package wasn’t just for transporting or displaying the product — it needed to help the people who use it.

Now, as more brands see the value of inclusive packaging, it’s clear that customer insights aren’t “nice-to-have”  — they’re integral to design projects.

[Read our full Duracell case study]

Filmstrip of Product Venture's process on the Sir Kensington's CPG packaging design
3. Unilever: Balancing sustainability with effective branding

Achieving Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance (ESG) goals is more important than ever, in virtually every industry. But for CPG brands, this poses a unique challenge.

Sustainability goals encourage brands to use less plastic in CPG packaging. Yet alternatives like glass aren’t ideal either. Glass’ breakability is a challenge for consumers, and the material’s weight significantly increases supply chain costs and transport emissions.

Unilever’s condiment brand Sir Kensington’s was using sourced stock packaging when its product team came to us seeking a more sustainable packaging solution. We worked with them to create a structural form factor that accomplished two goals:

  • It used less plastic to achieve sustainability goals.
  • It brought the brand to life through a distinctive, ownable bottle family featuring a trademarked character.

In this case, clear plastic using minimal materials was the most responsible choice. This practice is known as “lightweighting,” and it has recently become a trend across the packaging industry amidst the push for more sustainable practices and lower-cost materials.

For the condiment brand, this “best of both worlds” solution met marketing and operational needs alike.

[Read our full Sir Kensington’s case study]

photo of cpg packaging design on shelf

What’s next: E-commerce changes CPG packaging for good

For brands with a brick-and-mortar focus, standing out on store shelves has long been a top priority. But the e-commerce evolution may shift the tides of the packaging design status quo.

With online retailers making up more and more of the commercial marketplace, shoppers’ moments of decision are shifting from in-person to digital experiences.

This loosens many of the constraints of traditional CPG packaging design. Plus, products sold digitally place fewer limitations on packaging design than the dimensions required for brick-and-mortar shelving.

Packaging is still evolving drastically. The changes bring new opportunities for innovation and the potential for designers to capture consumers’ attention — and delight shoppers in new ways.

In short, it’s time for “out-of-the-box” thinking like never before.

Product Ventures works with the best-known brands to provide a holistic approach to product and package design. What can we do for your company? Contact us today to discuss your next challenge.

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