If you work with food & drink or have a food or drink brand you’ll no doubt have some packaging involved. But what does packaging mean to you? Is it a necessary evil or does it really enhance the consumer experience? Or does it even detract from it? In this, the first of a short series of articles focusing on different aspects of the packaging environment, we explore what packaging means to you, whether you are a brand owner, a packer-filler, or as a consumer.

But before we delve more deeply have you ever considered the role of packaging, what it does, what it is meant to do and what it actually achieves, other than apparently destroying our oceans? By the way, have you ever seen a plastic bottle leap off the table and walk into the sea and start swimming – no me neither, but more of that later, in a future article.

At a simplistic level Packaging has three main functions – Contains, Protects and Informs. Take that most ubiquitous of products – a bottle of Gin. The bottle contains the liquid. The cork stopper protects it from the ingress of dirt, air or other contaminants. And, of course, the label Informs on many level – brand name, product, price, and critical other info such as allergen information if relevant.

But what other functions does packaging provide – dispensing, resealability, sales data (through barcode tracking), gifting formats and reusability to name but a few.

Packaging is everywhere – quite literally around us. Try and name a product, other than a financial services product, that we as consumers buy on a daily basis, that does not have packaging involved somewhere along the line? Newspapers – wrapped in plastic when dropped on the shop doorstep at 6am. Apples – delivered in plastic or wooden crates. Bananas even have little blue labels on them – never miss that branding opportunity folks. Even petrol is delivered to the filling station in a giant bottle on wheels, otherwise known as a fuel tanker.

But packaging goes far beyond this – if you were to think of a packet of crisps coloured blue or green, or a soft drink in a red can, I’m sure you could tell the brand without even seeing the name.

Imagine for a moment, selling your food or drink brand without any packaging whatsoever. Could you really do that? Without packaging, it is only half the product. When a consumer strolls into a shop and is browsing the shelves, what prompts them to buy? Well it can be a number of things. It may simply be a repeat purchase based on taste or brand recognition. But if it is a new product that they have never tried before? Well they may go on price, or a recommendation by a family member, friend or colleague. Or there may be an opportunity to taste a sample. But in the absence of all those drivers – it is the packaging that sells the product. How often have you seen a new product and looked at the label or the bottle and thought “ooooh, that looks quite interesting?’, and before you know it’s in your basket and heading for the till.

Do we need so much packaging? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. It’s never an easy question to answer despite it perhaps being obvious. Would you buy a cucumber in a supermarket wrapped in plastic, or one without such covering? In days gone by, we’d simply venture along to our local greengrocer shop in the high street and buy fresh product two or three times a week. But in this fast-moving convenience society, we may only visit a supermarket once a week or less. We may even not go there at all and expect fresh produce delivered to our doorstep as and when required. So why the plastic? Well if you buy that cucumber at the weekend and plan to use it that weekend for a picnic or a barbeque then yes it probably is unnecessary. But if you buy it on a Monday to use it the following weekend then you’re going to be able to expect to buy fresh and for it to remain fresh all week until the point of consumption. And here’s the rub – that ‘unnecessary’ plastic makes the cucumber last perhaps as much as five times longer than the unwrapped one. And in doing so, prevents the supermarkets having to throw away product unnecessarily if it is past its shelf life. So, is the plastic now our friend? Perhaps, perhaps not. I guess it depends if it has had swimming lessons or not.

On the flipside, I’ve seen in one high street retailer, coconuts wrapped in clingfilm. Seriously. And no, I don’t get it either, and can’t give you an explanation for that one. Just nuts really. Well, coconuts, to be precise.

To answer all your food & drink processing, packaging and labelling questions, register to attend Pro2Pac here.

Robert Herridge, Managing Director, Packology Ltd.