couple shopping for meat

Packaging is a brand's image maker. First and last impressions of the product experience center on packaging. So when Cryovac, a global supplier of "fresh food packaging technologies," reported on results from a study indicating "a little extra customer education" would stimulate additional purchases of beef products, we were more than a bit curious. Sure, consumers want to be better informed; they need information to make purchase decisions. They want to know "what's inside" before they buy. What they want to know, moreover, extends well beyond product characteristics. This is why the type of information is important. Cryovac's belief about "educating consumers" on packaging runs counter to what motivates purchase; namely, it is transparency, the relevance and usefulness, of the information that is most important.

The term "transparency" can be defined, then, as the amount of quality information a company provides consumers. Transparency has interesting implications for how brands are marketed.

In contrast to Cryovac's findings as an example of what is happening within the packaged goods marketplace, we see that while sustainably oriented packaging (e.g., packaging that makes use of recycled materials, can be repurposed, or shows a reduction of packaging) is quickly becoming a consumer expectation, it is a primary purchase motivator.

Consumers are far more influenced by cues that ladder up to higher-quality food experiences. For some time now, we have documented the evolving trend toward fresh and less-processed foods. Cues that signal this start with minimal (or no) packaging and move forward from there to notions of recyclability, biodegradability, reusability, and even compostability. Ultimately, a product's essential make up (such as ingredients) most strongly influences perceptions of its sustainability and motivates purchase. Yet especially in fast-moving categories, such as beverages, high-frequency packaging use and disposal has translated toward awareness of brands and companies embracing (or not embracing) what are now viewed as first steps in sustainable practices.

End-Use Packaging Considerations Are Most Understood

sustainability report Since awareness of packaging is so personally tied to the daily lives of consumers in terms of use and disposal, it follows that individuals understand sustainable packaging primarily in term of its back-end environmental impacts (what happens to the packaging after they use the product at home). Front-end issues, such as energy used in production, are less understood. For example, a discussion about energy savings gained through use of aseptic packaging was unknown to most sustainability consumers.

As Figure 1 illustrates, very little has changed over the past five years when asked about preferred packaging characteristics of the products they buy; end-use issues, such as recyclability and being biodegradable, are of greater importance, followed by attributes such as reusability and compostability.

Figure 1. Important Aspects of Product Packaging

important aspect of product packaging

Source: Sustainability-When Personal Aspiration and Behavior Diverge, 2013 report, The Hartman Group

Consumers who are moderately or intensely involved in the World of Sustainability are apt to look at additional distinctions when evaluating packaging. Our Sustainability 2013 report finds that consumers are most concerned with Styrofoam and plastics and perceive these as threats to both personal health and the environment. (Figure 2)

Figure 2. Primary Concerns in Product Packaging

primary concerns product packaging

Source: Sustainability-When Personal Aspiration and Behavior Diverge, 2013 report, The Hartman Group

Packaging is just one cue, among many, that consumers use when evaluating products. Increasingly, sustainable packaging equates to healthfulness, which in turn equates with premium products. Thus unnatural (chemical-based) packaging has an inherent challenge in perception and is viewed as less natural and less healthy. Consumers see plastic as a liability in both realms: personal health and wellness ("impacts me") and sustainability ("impacts the Earth").

With regard to consumer attitudes toward meat when at the shelf, fresh beef -- displayed unpackaged, with natural red color, a meaningful narrative, and preferably sold and wrapped in paper -- is by far a greater summation of cues to freshness, quality, and premium when compared to vacuum-packed, plastic film, shrink-wrapped Styrofoam trays, and containers currently found in a wide range of food retail settings. While we fully understand the supply chain ramifications of being able to provide beef and animal proteins with longer shelf life, freeze-ability, and less leakage, unfortunately, shoppers perceive products sold in such containers as closer to canned and industrial food experiences, and thus lower quality. Giving fresh products longer shelf life doesn't necessarily play to the aspirations of shoppers today, who hope to shop local and more frequently, especially when products are hermetically sealed in plastic.

While it's the intrinsic contents or use of a product that determines a purchase, consumers within the World of Sustainability view sustainable packaging options as "simple" measures that all manufacturers can take; therefore, it is a minimum requirement for all products, even if the products themselves don't resonate as sustainable. As consumers become increasingly engaged with sustainability behaviors and the social life of products, Earth-friendly packaging is the first price of entry for manufacturers attempting to create a more environmentally responsible halo.