Standing out in an increasingly saturated industry is a concern for beverage manufacturers of all sizes, but simultaneously keeping up with rapidly changing consumer demands intensifies that challenge. Major manufacturers regularly introduce new products while new categories and products from smaller companies disrupt the status quo. The solution for many companies is taking the form of packaging innovations that are changing the way consumers look at soda, beer, juice, and other beverage categories.
With smaller packaging sizes, multi-packs, and situational package types, packaging innovations have become the norm for beverage companies looking for new ways to meet consumers' changing demands and entice them to buy, and that will continue to be a major trend for the industry in 2016.
Reducing size, not profits
One packaging innovation gaining traction is mini-cans and mini-bottles. Coca-Cola and PepsiCo recently reported sales declines for soda volumes in larger packaging but sales boosts for smaller packaging, like 7.5-ounce mini-cans and 8-ounce mini-bottles. This type of packaging will be the way companies “reinvent” the soda business in the coming year, Sandy Douglas, president of Coca-Cola North America, said at a conference last year.
Soda companies have multiple reasons for downsizing their packaging. Increased profitability in exchange for convenience is a given, but soda companies are also contending with nationwide soda tax proposals and recommendations from the WHO, FDA, and 2015 Dietary Guidelines that consumers limit their sugar intake, which soda is notorious for containing.
"As you downsize packaging, you’re realizing, especially on the sugar side of things, people want to limit their intake of (sugar), but they still want a Coke," Brian Reed, principal of market structure at IRI Worldwide, told Food Dive. "They just don’t want a lot of Coke. So an 8-ounce can is a perfect way to keep Coke in people’s hands but at the level that they want so they don’t substitute an energy drink or small bottle of juice or something else for that."
Smaller packaging will be more common among larger manufacturers rather than smaller soda makers because larger companies tend to be more flexible in their ability to change up their packaging in terms of capital and production capabilities, Reed said.
"The larger manufacturers are really good at matching up who needs what, when, and they will develop packaging to fit that need state," said Reed.
Getting the right count
Major beer manufacturers are experimenting with the quantity of individual products in multi-packs of various sizes. In this case, manufacturers tend to match up packaging more to the type and availability of shelf space in different configurations offered by varying retailer types, such as grocery stores versus drug or convenience stores, Reed said.
Manufacturers also change up pricing for multi-packs in different outlets.
"I can sell a 15-pack at Walgreens and a 12-pack at a grocery store for different prices, and it’ll be different to discern that," said Reed. "A lot of that is the outlet, but (manufacturers) are also getting to who needs what and how many and which package type as well. They are doing it for some profit reasons, but a lot of it is to provide retailers with packaging that’s specific to the needs they serve."
The sampler pack
Also coming to market are sampler packs, especially in the beer category, though this trend tends to be more common among craft beer producers than major beer manufacturers, according to Reed. Craft brewers tend to produce several varieties they can package together in one multi-pack, whereas that might not be the case for an Anheuser-Busch InBev or MillerCoors.
"(Craft brewers) have multiple flavors, and they want you to try a new flavor, so they’ll give you a 12-pack which has four bottles of three different flavors," said Reed. "They’re pretty good at that, because their mission is, they’ve got a variety of different things, where a Bud or a Bud Light, they’re not going to do that."
A package for every situation
Instead of offering a variety of flavors, major beer manufacturers are more likely to introduce a variety of packaging types. Bottles and cans can come in a range of sizes, and bottles themselves may be long or short necks, like Miller Lite’s steinie bottles briefly reintroduced last year, or they can be made of glass versus aluminum—it all depends on the situation in which consumers want to drink it. Cans and bottles, for example, can differ significantly from a situational perspective, according to Reed.
"Bottles tend to be more at-home or in my everyday kind of living. Cans tend to be much more portable—I’m going to tailgate, camping, somewhere else," said Reed. "(Manufacturers) recognize that the configurations need to be different based on those situations when (consumers) are using the product.”
It's clear to see
See-through packaging runs alongside manufacturers’ desire to be more transparent about their products, so more beverages will appear in see-through plastic, glass, and other clear packaging, according to a 2015 Packaged Facts report. Along with any messaging printed on the label, a physically transparent package enables consumers to actually see what the product looks like before they buy.
Manufacturers that produce beverages that are visually appealing or feature whole, natural ingredients, another fast-growing consumer trend, can especially benefit from clear packaging.
"The bottle, marketers say, gave consumers the feeling of drinking something fresh," The Wall Street Journal reported.
One drawback with this type of packaging is that some products can degrade when exposed to sunlight— a consideration manufacturers keep in mind when testing out this packaging innovation.
Recyclable PET bottles and aluminum cans have been beverage producers’ packaging types of choice for decades. Studies show that such packaging can impact consumers’ purchasing decisions. But creating packaging that is sensitive to its impact on the environment will begin taking new forms, particularly using plant-based, recycled, and renewable materials.
Coca-Cola unveiled what it called the world’s first 100% plant-based PET bottle last June as part of its PlantBottle initiative launched in 2009. It’s likely other companies will follow this beverage giant’s lead, especially since the USDA proposed a new rule to promote plant-based materials. The agency would offer plant-based packaging manufacturers access to loans with cheaper interest rates for when they decide to build a new plant.
Other recent eco-friendly packaging innovations have included an edible water bubble for drinking water and Tetra Pak’s recyclable bottle made from renewable paper. Nestle Waters North America debuted a new bottle for its Resource Natural Spring Water brand made from 100% recycled material, except the label and cap. Earlier this year, DuPont and ADM introduced bio-based renewable packaging materials made with polymers derived from fructose, including one that is especially suitable for beverage producers as it improves gas-barrier properties to improve shelf life.
Beverage manufacturers have always innovated packaging to suit the needs of consumers, but as consumer demands change ever more rapidly, so too must those packaging designs. Taking a step back and determining the best packaging type and design can address consumer needs and balancing the company's needs for profitability, sustainability, and operational efficiency.