Packaging innovation propels product development

by Allison Gibeson
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There isn’t anything new about the popcorn in the Pop Up Bowl introduced by Orville Redenbacher’s, a ConAgra Foods brand. What’s different about the bowl design — it serves as a ready-to-serve, free-standing container. The innovation shows how packaging is increasingly becoming a focus of new product development and point of differentiation.

Aaron Brody, president and chief executive officer of Packaging/Brody, Inc., Atlanta, said companies that produce frozen meals increasingly are using packaging as a part of the cooking mechanism. Products that feature separate compartments to package different ingredients such as yogurt and granola also have succeeded in the marketplace. Even Lunchables and Deli Creations sandwiches, both Kraft Foods products, do a good job of using multi-component packaging, he said.

Mr. Brody said this type of convenience packaging dates back to the original TV dinner products. Since that time, packaging has evolved from aluminum to plastic materials, allowing for microwave cooking. In addition, some frozen products now are partially cooked to the optimum condition for reheating in a few minutes in the microwave.

“It’s the multiplicity of components that can be prepared together, heated together all at once without the consumer having to think about anything,” Mr. Brody said.

As an example, Mr. Brody said the Nutella Snack & Drink product from Ferrero contains three compartments — one with breadsticks, one with chocolate and hazelnut Nutella, and one with iced tea to cleanse the palate — allowing consumers to enjoy various foods at once that previously could not be packaged together.

Not all creative uses of packaging have turned out as well as anticipated. In 2005, Wolfgang Puck introduced a 10-oz self-heating gourmet latte that was supposed to heat the coffee to 145 degrees in six minutes and stay hot for 30 minutes. The problem was some cans overheated and the calcium oxide that was used to heat the canister occasionally leaked into the coffee beverage. The products were pulled from the shelves, but Mr. Brody said the concept for a self-heating coffee or soup canister is still in development.

Research also is being done in the area of aromas, where companies are attempting to maintain the fresh smell of a product once the package is opened. Another innovation is a device that opens a package automatically once it detects a product is heated properly.

The most significant barrier to innovation in packaging is cost.

“There is the notion of it being a unique package to differentiate yourself on the shelf ... unfortunately there are a lot of very careful economics calculated, and it takes a second-line company to try to do the innovation because they have to move forward, they have to differentiate themselves to compete against Kraft and ConAgra,” Mr. Brody said.

He said food companies are looking at the purchase cost of the materials for packaging as a bottom-line cost and do not look at the net gain they may achieve using such packaging as a method of differentiation. He emphasized such differentiation is important because companies are not just competing against other packaged goods companies but also against in-store kitchens at supermarkets and home delivery businesses. Other barriers to using such packaging include production capabilities as it becomes more complex to package multiple ingredients together.

Mr. Brody said companies should use contract processes and packages to do testing to find if the consumer wants a particular product. Although such steps may not reduce costs initially, once the package is in the marketplace and demonstrates its functional merit, the costs will come down, he said.

For example, he said the polyester bottle for carbonated beverages was extremely expensive when it was introduced, but now it’s the standard for such beverages and is cheaper than ever before. He also said the zipper closure on shredded cheese was resisted for years but is now the standard in the marketplace.

Going forward, microwavable products will continue to be a major focus area for convenience packaging, but innovations in sandwiches and with self-cooling cans for juices and carbonated beverages also will garner interest, he said.

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