The packaging mistakes companies make—and why they make them

The top complaint is packaging that is hard to open, which every year leads to countless emergency room visits for deep cuts and sprains
The top complaint is packaging that is hard to open, which every year leads to countless emergency room visits for deep cuts and sprains


Shampoos that are hard to open when your hands are wet. Chips that go flying. What went wrong?

What are your packaging peeves? Ask most people and you’re likely to get some rather energetic responses. The top complaint is packaging that is hard to open, which every year leads to countless emergency room visits for deep cuts and sprains. Also on the seriously aggravating list: resealable packages that won’t reseal, dispensers that clog or leak, and containers that keep you from emptying every last dollop or drop.

As this litany suggests, packaging can be a neglected aspect, if not an idle afterthought, of product development. It’s understandable given packaging is the disposable part—the barrier, protector or bright and shiny advertisement surrounding what is actually consumed. It’s the product people are buying, after all, not the packaging.

Or, maybe not. Market research gathered over the past five years indicates there has been a significant shift in consumer sentiment so that now the vast majority of people say the design and materials used to package a product influence their buying decisions. Of particular concern is excessive packaging—the kind that makes you feel like a one-person climate menace toting all the leftover cardboard, plastic and Styrofoam to the trash.

Brand experts say a product’s success today often depends as much on the creativity, usability and sustainability of the packaging as what’s inside. But since each of those attributes often comes at the expense of the others, package design is a tricky balancing act. Avoiding pitfalls requires preparation, anticipation and imagination.

“Product developers care so much about the product itself that they often don’t start to think about packaging until very late in the product-development process," says Daniel Johnson, chair of the department of packaging science at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Rushed and overlooked

As a result, things can get rushed as the launch date approaches. Details get overlooked. To save time and money, packaging might be tested by technicians in a lab or by company employees in a conference room, rather than by people in real-world situations. Peeling a tamper-resistant seal off a bottle of shampoo while comfortably seated at a table is a different matter than while standing wet and naked in the shower.

“We do a lot of educating clients to see the packaging from their customer’s perspective," says Kaeo Helder, an industrial designer at Red Antler, a branding consulting firm in New York. “The easiest and simplest is always that dumb solution of ‘Let’s just wrap it in plastic,’ but then you have that scenario when someone has their teeth on it trying to get it open."

If a product is typically used in the kitchen or bath when hands are likely to be wet, he says, maybe design a square top or a top with divots that is easier to grip. Even better if it breaks the seal upon twisting. Overall shape is important, too. Will the container fit where consumers are likely to store it? You don’t want a product that’s too tall for pantry shelving or too wide to go in a refrigerator door or in a shower caddie.

They are small details that can have a big impact on sales. “We’ve seen this trend of companies saving money by not investing in focus groups and instead getting a handful of interns to monitor social media on how people are feeling about a new package solution," says Renee Benson, a packaging engineer in St. Louis at CRB Group, an engineering, architecture, construction and consulting company. “They don’t seem to get that most people don’t complain. They just change their buying behavior."

New product, old package

Another common error is failing to envision the downstream effects of tweaking an existing product, which companies tend to do every few years whether the product needs it or not. Ms. Benson gave the example of a sanitizer brand that added a moisturizing agent without considering how that might affect the packaging, which had a diaphragm valve in the dispenser made out of a particular kind of elastomer, or rubbery polymer.

“When they upgraded the formulation to add more emollients, that caused the elastomer to swell and then we got leakers out in the field," Ms. Benson says. “Because they skipped the step of looking at product-container compatibility, that caused a defect and customer ill will."

The same thing can happen when a company may decide to use a slightly thinner packaging material to cut costs and reduce waste. Seems like a good idea. But other aspects of the manufacturing line are often predicated on using the bulkier material.

For example, the temperature used for the heat seal may be just right for the original material but will affix the thinner material so stubbornly that customers will have great difficulty opening the resulting package or container. Remember this when the exertion required to open a bag of chips sends them flying all over the room.

Indeed, designers and engineers say packaging innovation is often constrained by existing machinery. Or, maybe the packaging has just been that way for so long, no one imagines a better way. Case in point are paint cans, which are awkward to carry, don’t pour easily, are hard to open and hard to reseal. “Something like a stand-up spouted pouch would work better," says Dr. Johnson. “But for an average paint company to change one production line over to a new kind of container is a multimillion-dollar problem."

Moreover, the whole supply chain—from delivery pallets to store shelving to mixing machines—is built around paint in a can. But now, with direct-to-consumer e-commerce, companies that cling to clunky, legacy kinds of packaging—whether paint cans or anything else—are asking for disruption.

Startup disruption

Packaging experts say internet startups have a chance to upend entire industries based solely on coming up with a better package. An example might be a raft of small companies now offering tubeless toothpaste formed into tablets and packed into little recyclable tins or glass bottles. It’s touted as better for the environment and, unlike toothpaste in a tube, you don’t have to dig it out of your carry-on to show to security screeners at the airport.

“Brands ignore packaging at their peril," says Patrick Llewellyn, chief executive of 99designs, a global platform that matches designers with companies looking to create or update their packaging, particularly now that Covid has consumers ordering more goods online. “Previously your shopping experience was primarily in a store finding and comparing products on a shelf," he says. “And now, all of sudden, the box arriving on your doorstep might be your first experience with the brand."

Companies must now consider the “unboxing experience." Indeed, there are popular YouTube channels that show people unboxing various products from toys to electronics to everyday groceries—to vicariously enjoy the thrill of opening something. “It’s all in how you stage that unboxing experience where you can open a flap here or remove a piece of paper there and reveal something," says Mr. Helder at Red Antler. “It’s like an archaeologist, almost, digging into something."

But again, it’s a balancing act. People want less packaging, and yet they want the product to arrive in good condition. They want packages that are practical and sustainable but also spark joy. They want a package that informs (ingredients, directions, use-by date), but they also don’t want to be overwhelmed with verbiage. And now there’s the added complication of creating packaging suitable for multiple supply channels, which have various price points and transit and delivery demands.

Big brands are increasingly having to develop different packaging for use in different retail situations, including dollar stores, convenience stores, warehouse stores like Costco, grocery stores and online marketplaces like Amazon. “There is a lot more packaging design going on," says Dr. Johnson at the Rochester Institute of Technology. “It’s a great time to be a packaging engineer."


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