Packaging is the container or wrapper that holds a product or group of products. Types of commercial packaging include shipping cartons, containers for industrial goods, and holders for consumer products. Besides protecting the product from damage and protecting consumers from hazardous products, packaging can function as a crucial marketing tool, helping companies attract new customers and retain established ones. This second function became even more important for companies in the 1990s as the reach and effectiveness of advertising began to shrink. Simultaneously, packaging makers have had to weigh the need for attractive, promotional packaging with consumer demands for environmentally friendly packaging and less packaging altogether.


Before World War II, packaging was used primarily to surround and protect products during storage, transportation, and distribution. Some packages were designed with aesthetic appeal and even for ease-of-use by the end consumer, but package design was typically left to technicians. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1800s, the "build it and they will come" maxim had prevailed. After World War II companies became more interested in marketing and promotion as a means of enticing customers to purchase their products. As a result, more manufacturers began to view packaging as a way to lure buyers.

During the mid-1900s, several influences contributed to turn packaging into an integral part of most companies' marketing mix. Consumers became better educated, and wealth and expectations generally increased. Consequently, consumers began to rely much more heavily on manufactured goods and processed food items. New technologies related to production, distribution, and preservatives led to a massive proliferation in the number and type of products and brands available in industrialized nations. Thus, packaging became a vital means of differentiating items and informing inundated consumers.

The importance of consumer packaging was elevated in the United States during the late 1970s and 1980s. Rapid postwar economic expansion and market growth waned during that period, forcing companies to focus increasingly on luring consumers to their product or brand at the expense of the competition. Package design became a marketing science. And, as a new corporate cost-consciousness developed in response to increased competition, companies began to alter packaging techniques as way to cut production, storage, and distribution expenses. Furthermore, marketers began to view packaging as a tool to exploit existing product lines by adding new items and to pump new life into maturing products.


Consumer packaging serves to contain and communicate. A product's "packaging mix" is the result of several requirements that determine how a package accomplishes those two basic functions. Robert D. Hisrich identified eight major package requirements that dictate the mix. A package must: protect the product, be adaptable to production-line speeds, promote or sell the item, increase the product's density, help the consumer use the product, provide reusable value to the user, satisfy legal requirements, and keep packaging-related expenses low. Two classes of package design criteria are: functional requirements and sales requirements.


Package design must meet five groups of functional criteria: in-home, in-store (or warehouse), production, distribution and safety, and legal. In-home requirements usually dictate that packaging be easy to use and store, remind users when and what to repurchase, reinforce consumers' expectations of the product, and tell them how to safely and effectively use the product. In addition, increasing numbers of consumers expect packaging to be recyclable and environmentally sensitive.

In-store criteria require that packaging attracts attention on the shelf, instill confidence in the buyer, identify the product or brand and differentiate it from the competition, communicate benefits and uses, and entice customers to actually purchase the item. The product must also be easy for retailers to store and stock on the shelves or the floor, and simple to process at a check-out counter or other final point of distribution. For instance, packaging that is oddly shaped and takes up a large amount of space may draw attention, but it may also be shunned by mail-order sellers concerned about shipping costs or space-conscious store retailers.

Production demands, the third group of functional criteria influencing packaging, are primarily based on cost. A designer may create a fantastic package that would perform excellently in the marketplace, but if the company can't find a way to produce the package cost-effectively, the design is useless. Among the most important considerations is production line speed. If a container is too long, wide, or short, it could significantly slow the speed of the production machines. Or, if the top or spout of a container is too small or is oddly shaped, the product may not flow easily into the package.

Packaging considerations related to distribution and safety are important and numerous. If an unacceptable portion of the goods are damaged during storage, transportation, or distribution, the package has failed. Likewise, if the package injures the user, future sales could be lost or the company could be liable for damages. As a result, engineers are faced with numerous technical considerations that have a residual impact on the final look and feel of the package. For instance, packages must be able to withstand the pressure of several other crates stored on top of them. They must also be able to resist moisture, adapt to temperature changes, and withstand rough handling. From a cost standpoint, packages must also be designed to suit standardized transportation requirements related to weight, size, and durability.

In addition, packaging must be tamper-proof, which is to say tamper-evident, since it is extremely difficult to make a package truly tamper-proof. Because of the deaths in 1982 from tampered-with Tylenol containers, providing tamper-evident packaging became another major concern of packagers. As a result of this tragedy, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires the use of tamper-evident packages for certain products, and companies adopted tamper-evident packages to avoid being liable for tampering incidents. Tamper-evident packaging comes in a variety of forms including seals, plastic bands, layers of sealed packages, and innerseals. Similarly, harmful substances such as cleaning agents and pharmaceuticals also must be childproof.

Furthermore, packages should ideally be designed to handle normal use by consumers. For example, a vegetable-oil container must be able to fall from a counter without breaking and to have very warm oil poured back into it without melting. Examples of packages that may result in harm to consumers include: those with sharp edges, such as some pull-top canisters; glass containers that hold products made for use in the shower, which could cause serious injury if dropped; and heavy item boxes that might break when the customer is carrying them or cause strain or injury to the consumer when picked up or set down.

The fifth basic group of packaging requirements is laws and legislation. Various federal laws have been passed to protect consumers from misrepresentation and unsafe products. For instance, some laws require that containers for potentially dangerous goods, such as gasoline or drugs, be stored in specially constructed containers. Other laws forbid producers from misrepresenting the product quality or quantity through misleading packaging. Perhaps the most influential class of laws that affect packaging, however, is that related to labeling.


The label is the text printed on a product package or, in the case of items such as clothing, attached to the product itself. Legally, labels are all written, printed, or graphic material on the container of products that are involved in interstate commerce or held for sale. The main body of legislation governing packaging and labeling is the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1966. It mandates that every product package or label specify on its "principal display label" (the part of the label most likely to be seen by consumers): (1) the product type, (2) the producer or processor's name and location, (3) quantity (if applicable), and (4) number and size of servings (if applicable). Furthermore, several restrictions apply to the way that the label is displayed. For example, information required by the act must be in boldface type. Also, if the company is not listed in the telephone book, the manufacturer's or importer's street address must be displayed.

Other information required by the act relates to specific foods, toys, drugs, cosmetics, furs, and textiles. For instance, under the act, labels for edible products must provide sodium content if other nutritional information is shown. They must also show ingredients, beginning with the one of highest quantity and descending in order. Certain food items, such as beef, may also be required to display qualitative "grade labels" or inspection labels. Likewise, "informative labeling" may be required for products such as home appliances. Informative label requirements mandate information about use, care, performance capability, life expectancy, safety precautions, gas mileage, or other factors. Certain major home appliances, for example, must provide the estimated cost of running each make and model for one year at average utility rates.

Congress passed significant new labeling legislation in 1990, the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, that became effective in the mid-1990s. This act is intended primarily to discourage misleading labeling related to health benefits of food items. Specifically, many package labels subjectively claimed that their contents were "low-fat," "high-fiber," or possessed some other health virtue when the facts indicated otherwise. Basically, the new laws require most food labels to specify values such as calorie and cholesterol content, fat and saturated fat percentages, and sodium levels.


According to a 1991 survey by the Roper Organization, consumers are willing to pay 4.6 percent extra for environmentally friendly products. Moreover, estimates indicate that about a third of all U.S. landfills were full by the mid-1990s and that packaging accounts for a third of the country's solid waste. Consequently, packagers have to juggle environmental concerns with functional and marketing concerns. In response to consumer demands, companies adopted the use of recycled materials as part of their packaging and offered products in packages that are recyclable. Furthermore, companies reduced their packaging or implemented more environmentally friendly kinds of packages. For example, McDonald's replaced its polystyrene shells with paper packaging, which, while not recyclable, has a far shorter life cycle than the foam containers or other alternatives.

Besides accommodating consumer concerns, some forms of environmentally sound packaging also benefit companies in other ways. By reducing their packaging in the late 1980s and early 1990s, companies found that they saved significant amounts of money. For example, by removing the cardboard packaging from deodorant containers and by introducing concentrated and refillable laundry detergent containers, companies have substantially reduced the packaging costs of these products, according to Brandweek.


In addition to functional requirements, product packaging must be designed in a way that will appeal to buyers. The four principal merchandising requirement areas are: apparent size, attention drawing power, impression of quality, and brand-name readability.

Apparent size entails designing packaging to look as large as possible without misrepresenting the actual contents. This objective can be achieved by ensuring that the panels or dimensions of the package most likely to be viewed by the consumer are the largest, and that the product or brand name is shown on the most visible areas in large letters. In addition, the package can be made to look larger by using solid colors and simple, bold designs free of borders, superfluous art work, and unnecessary print. The pretense of largeness is particularly important for packages containing commodity items, such as rice, driveway salt, and canned fruit or vegetables.

Attention drawing power refers to the aesthetics and conspicuousness of the package design. Depending on the product and the goals of the marketers, the package may be made to appear attractive, exciting, pure, soft, sexy, scary, intriguing, or to evoke some other emotion. In most cases, though, the product is displayed on the front of the package in the form of a picture, art, or see-through window. In addition, bright colors, glossy stock, obtrusive carton displays, and other elements can garner positive attention if used prudently.

A quality impression is an important sales requirement for packaging because items that are perceived to be of low quality are usually assumed to be a poor value, regardless of price. Examples of packaging mistakes that convey low quality or poor value include: faded lettering or colors, tacky designs or strange typeface, outdated pictures and designs, and cheap construction.

Readability, the fourth basic sales requirement for successful package design, means that the package must be extremely simple and easy to read. This is of paramount importance for products such as breakfast cereal that are shelved next to numerous competing brands and products. If the package attempts to convey too many messages, it will likely fail to connect with the consumer. Because of the mass of buying choices, buyers typically do not take time to absorb messages on packaging, with the possible exception of high-priced specialty items. Among other guidelines, letters or logos should be large and printed in the same type style as that used in complementary print and television advertising. The requirement of readability contributes to the difficulty in packaging completely new products.


Packagers and researchers of consumer perception, such as Mona Doyle, contend that packaging began to play a greater role in selling products during the 1990s. They argue that companies can no longer rely solely on advertising to communicate information about packaged products to consumers. Instead, packaging has taken on a greater share of this responsibility. With scarce shelf space in stores, packagers must provide packaging that differentiates a company's products from its competitors or packaging that simply catches the eye of the consumer, especially for new products.

Indeed, just as ease-of-use and readability are elements of the strategic packaging mix, packaging has become an even more important part of a company's strategic marketing mix. Most packages for consumer products are designed for one of three purposes: (1) to improve the packaging of an existing product, (2) to add a new product to an existing product line, or (3) to contain an entirely new product.

Redesign of packaging for existing products may be prompted by several factors. Many times, a company may simply want to breathe new life into a maturing product by updating its image or adding a new gimmick to the package, such as an easy-pour spout. Or, a company may redesign the package to respond to a competitive threat, such as a new product that is more visible on the shelf. Other strategic reasons for package redesign include:

Even small packaging changes for established brands and products typically require careful consideration, since millions of dollars are often at risk if a company alienates or confuses customers. In 1988, for example, the Adolph Coors Co. changed the words "Banquet Beer" on its beer container labels to "Original Draft." Although the label change was generally successful, sales dropped in southern California and west Texas, the two regions where Coors beer had been sold since the 1940s. Many customers there were confused by the change and assumed that Coors had altered the product. Coors changed the label back to "Banquet Beer" in those two areas and sales recovered.

A second reason for package design is to extend a product or brand line. An example of a product line extension is Anheuser-Busch Companies' Busch Light beer, which is an extension of the Busch beer product line. Another example is the Tide detergent brand line, which was extended to include Tide Free, a detergent without dyes or perfumes. In the case of product extensions, the packaging strategy is usually to closely mimic the established brand or product, but to integrate the benefits of the new feature into the existing package in such a way that customers will be able to easily differentiate it from other products in the line. There are, however, significant risks inherent in packaging for extensions because a new package may confuse customers or frustrate retailers.

The third impetus for package design is the need to generate housing for an entirely new product. This is the most difficult type of packaging to create because it often requires the designer to instill consumer confidence in an unknown product or brand, and to inform the buyer about the product's uses and benefits. Packaging for products and brands that are entirely new to the marketplace require the most education, and are therefore the most challenging to develop. In contrast, packaging for goods that are entering established product categories require less education, they must, however, overcome established competition. In general, packaging strategies for such products entail mimicking the packaging of leading products, which helps to assure the buyer that the product is "normal." For instance, packaging strategies of salad dressing, soda, eggs, toothpaste, and milk are all similar.

An example of a new product launch that demonstrates the importance of packaging in the marketing mix is Ore-Ida Foods, Inc.'s introduction of Deep Fries in the early 1970s. Deep Fries were frozen, oil-coated french fries that were cooked in the oven. Although they were comparatively expensive, Deep Fries were more convenient to prepare and better tasting than other frozen fries. The package was designed to convey to consumers that the product was premium and it offered "Deep Fried flavor and crispness without deep frying."

The initial launch was successful and Deep Fries soon cultivated a small group of loyal customers. Nevertheless, sales growth failed to meet projections. Consumer research showed that the Deep Fries package succeeded in conveying a premium image but had failed to inform customers of the benefits of Deep Fries. In fact, many customers had purchased the product simply because of the quality of the packaging. Other would-be customers never tried the product because they were unable to justify its high price. Those that did buy the product realized its benefits, were satisfied, and continued to buy.

Ore-Ida developed two new packages and eventually selected one that proved, through market tests, to achieve the desired sales growth. Its new package changed the quote "Deep Fried flavor and crispness without deep frying" to "The Self Sizzlers, they make your oven work like a deep fryer." In addition, the Ore-Ida name was replaced with Ore-Ida's parent company name, H.J. Heinz Co., which served to soften the expensive, premium image. The phrase "Heinz, Self Sizzling Deep Fries" was also added to the package. The product eventually captured a loyal groups of customers characterized as working women who habitually purchased the best, most convenient products.

[ Dave Mote ,

updated by Karl Heil ]


Boyd, Harper W., Jr., and Orville C. Walker Jr. Marketing Management: A Strategic Approach. Boston: Irwin, 1990. Doyle, Mona. Packaging Strategy: Winning the Consumer. Lancaster, PA: Technomic Publishing, 1996.

Erwin, Lewis, and L. Hall Healy Jr. Packaging and Solid Waste. New York: American Management Association, 1990. Hisrich, Robert D. Marketing. New York: Barron's Business Library, 1990.

McCarthy, E. Jerome, and William D. Perreault Jr. Basic Marketing. 13th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill College Div., 1998. Mehegan, Sean. "Green on Green." Brandweek, 20 May 1996, 43.

Rosette, Jack L. Improving Tamper-Evident Packaging. Lancaster, PA: Technomic Publishing, 1992.

Schoell, William F., and Joseph P. Guiltinan. Marketing: Contemporary Concepts and Practices. 5th ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1992.

Stem, Walter. Handbook of Package Design Research. New York: Wiley, 1981.

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