Donna Berry 2019CHICAGO — While at one point in time, food packaging’s sole purpose may have been to contain product to keep it safe and fresh, as well as allow for distribution and merchandising, its role has become so much more. And it continues to evolve.

That was the foundation of the Global Midwest Alliance’s May 29 seminar, “Fresher, faster, tastier: How packaging innovations are changing the food industry,” held at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.

“Food packaging has become a vital source of reinvigoration for a stable yet evolving sector,” said Gail Longmore, chief executive officer and managing director of the Chicago-based not-for-profit educational organization. “The food industry is undergoing rapid changes as new products and categories are developed for consumers demanding fresher and tastier options. Packaging provides a valuable link between those producing and those consuming food products. Businesses can leverage packaging innovations to create value, develop new markets and foster employment. Moreover, important issues related to food safety, distribution and trade revolve around innovative packaging techniques and equipment.”

David Oppedahl, senior business economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, explained that 2.3c of every food dollar goes to food packaging, according to the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This includes not only the physical package that the consumer purchases, but also shipping containers, printing costs and more.

That also includes sealants. It is possible to use advanced technologies, such as ultrasonic sealing, to minimize seal sizes, which in turn reduces materials and expands profits, said Tony Knoerzer, senior vice-president of sales, UltraThinSeal, Columbus, Ohio.

“It’s case pack economics,” he said. “Take chips, for example. The number of bags that fit into a case impacts how many cases are used. This in turn impacts corrugated costs and delivery expenses. If you change to a bag with lower air content and a thinner, stronger seal, you can increase the number of bags in the case.”

Retailers benefit, too.

“If the bag is narrower, the brand’s facings stay the same at shelf, but there’s now extra space in an aisle for additional merchandising,” Mr. Knoerzer said.

Backyard Farms cocktail tomatoes

Packaging also may be designed to influence product quality perception. Mr. Knoerzer explained how Lay’s potato chips changed the inside layer of the bag from a metallic aluminum to white.

“You do not see oil on the white layer,” he said. “When this switch was made, there were fewer product quality complaints and returns.”

So how do companies innovate with products and packaging? Sam Ciulla, c.e.o. and executive creative director, Ciulla Associates, Chicago, said there’s soft innovation, which comes in the form of new flavors, sizes and seasonal offerings.

“Way too many companies do this, with questionable success,” he said.

There needs to be more hard innovation, Mr. Ciulla said. This comes in the form of proprietary structural changes to a typical package or the delivery system. It’s when both graphic and structural design are part of the new product development.

At the end of the development process, there should be no answer to “What came first: the product or the package.” The two should be developed simultaneously and provide a solution to a need.

Mr. Ciulla cited the example of Pillsbury’s frostings in filled pastry bags.

“Through research we learned that consumers like cakes and cupcakes, and they like decorating them at home,” he said. “But they do not want to buy and fill pastry bags. We helped develop a filled pastry bag that allows anyone to pipe frosting like a professional.”

The built-in star tip enables four distinct designs: stars, rosettes, swirls and waves. It’s a product in a package that solves a consumer need. 

Another example is Backyard Farms L.L.C., Madison, Maine. The company markets tomatoes that are picked ripe and delivered to grocers within one day. With the tagline of “not grown too far from here,” this was a structural branding project that had to support Backyard Farms’ brand attributes, including fresh, friendly, local, sustainable, ripe and delicious.

“Our challenge was to develop a package structure that not only helped ship and display the tomatoes, but kept them bundled in their unique set of eight tomatoes on a vine,” Mr. Ciulla said. “A craft paper box with a picket fence and clear window does just that.”

The final package design addresses form and function, as well as considers the environment. The boxes are made from 100% recycled paperboard with a minimum of 35% post-consumer content. They are manufactured using 100% wind power and printed using soy inks in nearby Augusta, Maine. In addition, all of the company’s master cases are completely recyclable, and they are sourced close by in Auburn, Maine, to minimize delivery miles. This gets communicated to the consumer visually and with the story on back of pack and web site.

Nonni's Le Dolce Vita biscotti bites

Nonni’s Foods, Tulsa, Okla., was looking to expand into the specialty natural foods channel. In order to differentiate from the company’s core club store offerings sold under the La Dolce Vita brand, Nonni’s chose to share the brand’s story and its use of whole food ingredients on the package.

“La Dolce Vita was inspired by the founder’s Italian heritage, and the biscotti are made with non-G.M.O. ingredients and nothing artificial,” Mr. Ciulla said. “These are product qualities that today’s N.O.S.H. (natural, organic, sustainable, healthy) consumers are actively looking for. The original club version of La Dolce Vita looked dated and overly ornate for the N.O.S.H. consumer. Nonni’s wanted to communicate a more contemporary classic product, made using an authentic recipe with only high-quality, clean label ingredients.”

The newly designed brand identity and packaging for La Dolce Vita takes on a sophisticated approach. Branding and flavor communication appear in prominent locations creating a centered composition that allows the biscotti and real, authentic ingredients to shine.

“The simple iconic doily serves multiple functions,” he said. “It holds the flavor communication, it features the product, and it helps create strong brand blocking at shelf. The pinstripe backdrop communicates traditional baking, as well as a modern, bright brand expression that feels authentically premium.”