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Looks Aren’t the Only Thing that Matters

To further assess the state of the packaging industry we talked to a few manufacturers that agreed a that when it comes to packaging coffee, form must follow function but that function has a double meaning: 1) to preserve and protect; and, 2) to inform and to sell.

Phil Polizzotto, president of Packagemasters, Inc. in New Jersey, which does their own in-house artwork, has seen coffee packaging become more refined over the last few years. He believes that the recent changes we’ve seen in packaging have been the result of companies like Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts. “I think that the marketing techniques by the people like Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts have taken off to such great lengths that people are looking at a package a lot closer than they ever did before.”

Polizzotto sees coffee packaging changing on every level, including the packaging used for office coffee or in-room coffee for hotels, “I think that we’re finding that the sophistication of the package for your office coffee service and for in-room for hotels is going to the next level. We’re seeing a lot more of the retail packaging finding its way into OCS business, where people were just looking for the least expensive package. Now they’re saying, ‘I want to upgrade my package. I want to make it look like more of a retail upscale package.’ We are seeing a lot more coffee going to upscale offices that we never saw before, where people are taking their name brands and putting it into an upscale doctor’s office, lawyer’s office and then also telling the people that they can find that in your grocery shelf as well. And it’s not that far away from the same package.”

Packagemasters’ is responding to this trend. Explained Polizzotto, “We are definitely putting out structures that are much more appealing by using more exotic structures than we had in the past.”

Even the sophistication of the printing of the printing is changing. In years past, packaging companies used two to four colors for the job. “Now we’re getting into five, six, seven, eight colors. We’re getting into more process printing than we’ve ever had before. People want something more eye appealing, something that’s going to catch the consumer’s eye.”

While color and design are important packaging elements to Polizzotto, he is careful not to compromise the quality of the package when designing it. “We can keep a product fresh as well as give you an structure that will enhance the packaging. We are not losing track of the fact that you still need to have the product to be on the shelf for a period of time.”

Presentation Packaging of Minnesota, which has been in business for about 30 years, focuses on the gift market. Dawn Nibbe, group marketing specialist, talks about their products, “We found that many tea and coffee companies have been wanting to sell their products on the store shelf as gifts, so these are patterns that we have put together that they can use very easily with their existing line. Within the last three to five years, we’ve seen that as really strong and another way for them to sell their name brands and to get them out to more customers.”

This year, because of the events of Sept. 11 and the renewed patriotism that followed, Presentation has developed a new design for their Liberty Collection to be used around the 4th of July. Nibbe talks about the product, “It’s a strong packaging option for kitting coffee items together. That’s actually a new pattern for us this year because of the strong push for patriotic packaging. The other two that have been very strong is our Café Bellisimo and our Planet Coffee, both have coffee themes to the packaging and again they are used for gift packaging.”

Nibbe also comments on the quality vs. design issue when it comes to packaging, “We try to take an image and put it with structure. For the market that we serve, which is the gift, is to insure that the package looks very presentable on the shelf and at the same time give support and structure.”

Icon Graphics in Rochester, New York, has most recently done a private label project for a full line of traditional coffees for a chain of food markets. Icon created a new look for the commonly purchased blends on everything from cans to single serving bags. Ethan Crist, manager of marketing and business development explained what the company wanted to “say” with their new packaging look and how they wanted it to compete with national brands, “One of the things they wanted us to do was to address significant areas of design in terms of how does it either compete or compare to national brands. How can they differentiate in terms of establishing their own brand, but also communicate that they are equal to or better than the national brands. One of the things that this distributor company does is that they do not sell their private label products as a generic equivalent. They want to be equal to or better than a national brand to the point that they’ll often come up with their own blends, their own flavors or products. So they specifically asked us to address those two things in terms of comparing and or competing with national brand. As a result of that we created a fairly distinctive look that kind of breaks it out of the category, but not so much that it is unrecognizable. We give it something that has a little more personality. It’s as much about the experience as it is about the product.”

Like Polizzotto, Crist sees more of an exploration of color recently. He believes there’s been more of a dramatic use of color and the packaging tends to play more on the emotion of the brand or the product rather than the actual product itself. “By and large, the coffee packaging just tended to be a little more conservative. I think this is a trend that needs to be explored by the packagers - it’s about the experience of the product - less about what kind of bean it is, where did it come from.”

For lack of a better comparison, Crist sees coffee packaging going in the direction of motor oil packaging. He explained his theory, “First it was that round can, then it was the molded plastic bottle and now they are doing different things, using the clear bottle, using all sorts of different colors to break the product out of the shelf. That’s the kind of thing that’s beginning to happen in the coffee industry. People are realizing that there are an awful lot of choices out there, which is really good for their opportunity to be selected. So you’ve got that opportunity, now you’ve got to answer that knock.”

S & D Coffee Co., Inc., of Concord, North Carolina, a food service, business to business oriented company, servicing office coffee environments, has been using a fairly new Fres-Co packaging method called the Motherbag for the past three years. Marcia Brashear, director of marketing describes the construction of the bag and why it’s useful. “It is basically a large bag, that looks a lot like valve bag and inside of that larger bag are loose filter packs. So basically you’re saving on packaging, instead of having each filter pack in an individual film, when you open it, you might have six, eight, ten or more in what they call the Motherbag. And the reason for that is that we have several customers who do massive amounts of coffee. You might be looking at what they call the quick serve restaurant business. And in the morning shifts they are going through coffee fast enough that it doesn’t have time to stale. You don’t have to worry about opening individual packs. That way you can open one and then just grab filter pack after filter pack. That’s probably the newest thing in terms of commercial packaging.”

Brashear talks about the return of the filter pack and why they are gaining in popularity again, “In the old days if you had a filter pack of coffee, it was very poor coffee. It just wasn’t that good of a blend. And the process to put it in there and extract was not that good. The things we see on the business side is a lot of people are going back to filter packs because the roasting technology has changed. Nowadays with all the roasting technology that there is and with roasters that we have here at S&D, we’re able to produce a filter pack that if you brew it side by side with an open brew, it tastes identical. You would not be able to tell the difference. It’s just a big time saver for the people who are working, and of course cleaning up. A lot of people are going to filter packs now that the technology is there, where you can get the same cup of coffee from a filter pack and actually use less coffee, so there’s a savings for the customer as well.”

Brashear believes it is important to utilize different packaging for different venues. She explained, “You have to take into consideration first where it’s going to be used. If it’s at a customer location and what we would call “back end” - where only employees are handling. You don’t necessarily need to have eight colors and very, very expensive packaging. You can have a very simplistic packaging that tells the person what kind of coffee is inside and gives it the identification. It doesn’t need to be a whole lot more than that.”

Randy Layton vice president, coffee operations at Boyd Coffee Co. in Portland, disagrees about the look of the “back end” packaging. “We’ve been trying to update our graphics and that’s an ongoing process. The type of business we’re in, we think it’s important to have the package look like the product that is inside of it. A lot of times packaging is kind of an afterthought or deficiency designed as an afterthought. People are supposed to make a decisions on what the coffee tastes like, but we found that first of all, we are going to make that decision before they taste it based on what the package looks like - even at the level where it’s not a retail product.”

Brashear goes on to point out, however, “We do feel that you can still spend about the same amount of money and make film attractive even if it for the food service industry. So we try to make our film, like the S&D coffee films and the ones we design for our customers, which we do all in house here, as attractive as possible, weighing those facts. We don’t want to make the film so expensive that it drives the cost of the coffee up. When you’re dealing with retail then it’s a different issue.”

For the last five years, to cut down on unnecessary waste and help improve the environment, Alterra Coffee from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, cafes have been offering a 50 cent discount off of a pound of coffee if customers bring back their bag to have it refilled. Across the cafes, they have about 40 to 50% compliance with this practice and in their main store, that compliance jumps to 60%. President Ward Fowler talked about this practice, “This answers a couple of questions. For us, they don’t landfill very well, so we like the idea that the stuff gets re-used. Fifty cents is in the neighborhood of what we actually spend out of pocket for the bag itself. Plenty of our customers are concerned about packaging and over packaging. So to give the option of doing it this way, it’s obviously struck a chord because a lot of people do it.”

Fowler believes that the packaging and its design should communicate what the product is all about. His company actually takes that a step further and produces a clear side so that the customer can see the product they are purchasing. Fowler points out why this is important to his company, “The packaging that we use is black on one side and clear on the other. Even though a clear side is not ideal, we feel like it’s essential that the customer can see the coffee before they buy it. On the black side we use a pressure sensitive label to dress up and identify what’s in the bag. That label works well on a black background and it takes up most of the back face. It looks a little bit like a framed painting. There are three labels featuring three different pieces of original art done by a local person. They are all coffee themed. We get universally positive feedback on these designs and they’ve been out there a long time and we have not changed them.”

Fowler is also trying to refine the pressure sensitive label business which he says “although it creates a flexibility where inventorying bags is concerned, it is also a head-ache to do. If it’s not done right, the bag does not present very well on the shelf. So we have been working on having this package printed by one of the converters and it’s very tricky. For us, it’s a very important aspect of it. I think when you’re fighting for attention in wherever it is that you’re merchandising there’s going to be a lot to conflict with what you’re trying to do.”

As far as new trends, Fowler has visions of the old vacuum pack tins coming back into style. “I have two old coffee tins on my shelves here - the old vacuum packs that used to use the key that rotated around the lid, which opened. I would love to see those again. I don’t know if those machines exist to do the whole key and everything, but I think some of the symmetry associated with some of those old cans and the can itself was cool and easy to use and probably more reasonable than what’s out there now.”

The success of any coffee product depends on many things but if the packaging optimizes the quality of the coffee inside and if the outside labeling communicates clearly and dynamically what the coffee inside is like, then the battle is half won - and that package of coffee is a lot likelier to tip into the shopping cart.

Tea & Coffee - May/June 2002


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