Dairy - staple products in dull packaging. Steve Thomas-Emberson believes brand-owners may be missing a trick by abiding by the 'category rules'

If ever there is a consumer category that shouts ‘must have’ then it is dairy. Unfortunately, from a packaging point of view, it is this necessity which has to some extent been its downfall. We all need at some time over a week, milk, yoghurt, a fat spread, and the odd pro-biotic drink. Historically, consumers have been stuck in their ways, purchasing the same range of dairy products in the exact same quantities week after week.

As this has been the historical case, and I emphasise historical, product producers have never really felt the need to come up with innovative eye catching pack shapes or designs.

Mary Lewis of the hand-packaging design company Lewis Moberly is quite succinct in her appraisal. “Dairy packaging presents the problems that it is a very fast FMCG product, often with a somewhat limited shelf life. The historical perception that dairy is a household basic means costs and margins are low in all areas, including the packaging. Therefore, as well as a fast turnover the potential for premium packaging is reduced unless a premium can be charged.”

The mention of the word ‘premium’ is an interesting one for it follows virtually all other consumer categories from clothes, perfumes and even DIY. People will pay for premium. There have been in the past some quite spectacular dairy product packaging innovations. Any one that can remember the Benny Hill song ‘Ernie’ will recall the poor milkman’s “ghostly gold tops rattling in their crates”.

Well some creative packaging soul actually created the milk bottle that made less noise in a milk float. Unfortunately, it came too late to help stem the decline in the milkman’s share of the market.

What is very surprising is that despite the massive growth in almost every sector of the dairy marketplace, innovative packaging is still very much the odd man out, despite the massive increase in competition that all dairy producers have experienced.

The most cursory of glances along the fat spread shelves will confirm this. It is a sea of same colour combinations, exact same shapes and the same poor printing. How can you tell one from another? Science can be applied to the problem.

Landscap vs portrait

All packs that are landscape in shape rather than portrait and that are merchandised from left to right rather than from top to bottom make the consumers eye drift to the end of the shelf.

If the packs were portrait and merchandised in the same way, then the eye subliminally stops and registers each top to bottom stack. The eyes behaviour is controlling the consumer and therefore the person will register more of the sector range.

Dairy products are growing fast. Yoghurts, once a special purchase, are now de rigueur and can even come in a self-assembly pack! They can be cheap or they can be expensive [or is that premium?].

A few years back one of the most innovative packaging solutions in this sector came onto this market. It dispensed with what is euphemistically called category colours and launched itself as pure indulgence, in a manner reminiscent of chocolate marketing.

The product in question is Rachel’s Organics, a premium yoghurt in a black pack. It was stunning and of course stood out on-shelf. Would it sell? It took the market by storm, to such an extent that black within the yoghurt sector is now used as a premium colour. Who says it needs to be the same?

In the rest of Europe the story of traditional category colours still holds true, but with some subtle differences as Rowland Hening of Pineapple Design in Brussels, Belgium explains.

“Milk in Europe is somewhat different from the UK. It still uses predominately the same colours but the pack can be as much as 70% colour rather than white being the main colour. Tetra bricks are the most common especially for sterilised milk.

“With regard to yoghurts, fruit flavoured packs tend to be very colourful to emphasise the fruitiness. Bio and cholesterol free spreads are in far simpler packs and tend towards cream or yellow. They are different but stop short of being medical in appearance.”

Packaging companies, both in the UK and Europe, are fast cottoning on to the growth of dairy sectors. Tetrapak is continually pushing the barriers of what the brick can do both in performance and shape.

Likewise for Plysu and RPC in milk products, with the latter forming RPC Dairy Packaging just last year to bring together all the company’s expertise on a formal basis.

Such a move gives hope for the future because as well as being able to offer specialist technologies there is a range of decorative techniques available such as in-mould labelling and specialist plastic shapes. Frank Doorenbosch, product group manager, comments: “Plastics have already proved their versatility. Increasingly, manufacturers are looking for that something extra, either in terms of technology to extend shelf life or high quality decoration to maximise on-shelf impact.”

A different way

There is obviously hope for innovative packaging solutions, even if the constraints are tight. Mark Wickens, director of Brandhouse WTS, explains. “There are certain category norms that are expected and colour is one of them. What there is certainly scope for is putting the elements together in a different way – a striped pack in category colours would stand out and it would give the impression of being healthy. It is safe to say that brands that step outside the norm are usually very successful.”

There are some inherent problems for the majority of dairy products, namely size and print quality, as Nick Verebelyi, director of Design Bridge, explains.

“Yoghurts are mainly sold individually and have restrictive print qualities. There are no half tones and, in some cases, the print is so poor the colours cannot even butt up to each other. As a consequence they look poor when set against a multi-pack, which is form, filled and sealed.

“There the benefit is the opportunity for better print quality – gravure or litho – which facilitate better graphics.

“Tesco’s Finest range of yoghurts are more oval in shape and have fantastic image quality and have a better all round message for the consumer. Structure allows a brand to break away from its competitors without incurring extra costs as they are by nature high volume items.

“Risifrutti is a Swedish yoghurt that was strongly endorsed by the famous skier Pernilla Wiberg, but the packaging let it down. It was neither energising nor tasty so we redesigned the pack in its entirety, both structure and graphics, to represent what the snack was in the consumers mind.”

Another Design Bridge re-vamp was for “I can’t believe it’s not butter” which looking at the pack should have been “I can’t believe it’s blue”, such is the impact. It hits you!

Of course some dairy products, especially yoghurts, are targeted at the children’s market. Jacky yoghurt, a brand in both Sweden and Finland, is just such an animal. Animals are its graphic family.

The brief was to extend the market to include 10 and 12 year olds so a graphic element of an appropriate animal, reptile or fish was used to differentiate the contents. It is zany humour but, more importantly, the pack is ‘ownable’ and cannot fail to associate the brand with yoghurts.

What then of the packaging companies themselves? Rapak, the market leader across North America, Australasia and Europe in the supply of bag-in-box filling systems, has now introduced an optional Ultra-Clean filling head for the Autokap and Steri-kap models. This move has enabled Rapak to be the first bag-in-box company to achieve EHEDG accreditation for this new head, a regulation that is now a pre-requisite for most European dairies. While this form of packaging is now commonplace for wine, the Ultra-Clean element opens up new opportunities across a whole range of dairy liquid products.

Pack innovations

Looking at pack developments, the Dutch dairy product manufacturer Campina and RPC Verpackungen Kutenholz, have developed a 300ml bottle, extrusion blow-moulded in HDPE, for Campina’s NutriStart breakfast drink. The bottle has a curved grip for ease of handling and features a sleeve from Decorative Sleeves printed in six colours.

There is both hope and scope in dairy product packaging. Hope for the brand manager and consumer alike that the packs are attractive and interesting, and scope for packaging designers, pack producers and providers of superior printing techniques to flex their muscles and expand the markets they are already in. Dairy products are growing fast. So should innovative dairy packaging.