April 1, 2021
Packaging innovations are changing the food industry. Today, 70 percent of consumers make decisions at the last minute standing in front of supermarket shelves, searching for tastier, more innovative options. Businesses are learning to leverage packaging techniques to engage their target markets, create value and quality perception, and address food safety and environmental impact. While most package designs were retained for 7+ years in the 1990s, marketing experts now reenvision a packaging makeover every two years.
Food Island Partnership's Food Propel program is helping P.E.I. food companies differentiate their products in a competitive marketplace with a host of a new packaging concepts. Federal and provincial funders, along with program partners, ensure that P.E.I. food entrepreneurs -- including Sarah Bennetto O’Brien, Jordan McIntyre, and Martin O’Brien -- can strategize with a network of packaging experts and mentors. Together, they're promoting dynamic solutions related to R&D, marketing, and manufacturing to ensure their packaging needs are met.
Packaging changes may be driven by functional concerns, a need to improve product visibility, or a desire to shrink container sizes and reduce environmental impact. Martin O’Brien at Cascumpec Bay Oyster Company is keenly interested in sustainability. “The traditional waxed cardboard box used for most seafood is non-recyclable and virtually non-compostable since it breaks down so slowly, so I wanted a different solution," says O'Brien. “Recyclable plastic boxes are used by some in my industry, but it's not good enough when only a fraction of people actually put them in the recycling bin.” His solution is a sustainable high-end wooden basket made viable by the enhanced automation of his packing line. He's also discovered the benefits of unique packaging. "I landed a major U.S. distributor just because of a picture of our newest box I'd posted on social media. But we need to remember that good quality at competitive prices is what distributors really want."
Sarah Bennetto O’Brien of The Handpie Company is excited by the outcome of her packaging project through Food Propel, focused initially on brand appeal and visibility. “Our packaging revamp took almost two years working closely with mentors and several businesses. While our old packaging was very functional, it didn't have shelf appeal when sold through our retailers, so bright and colourful shelf appeal became our main concern. That translated to vivid colours, custom illustrations, and high-quality photography, as well."
Packaging efficiency was also a significant benefit. "We now have printed poly that can be run through a flow wrapper rather than hand packing each handpie and individually heat sealing each package. It's turning what used to take 8 hours of labour into 2.5 hours. The true test for our packaging will come in the future with broader retail in high-traffic grocery environments, but we've had positive comments from our customers already."
Jordan McIntyre of Mary Manette Seafood wanted to transform the visual appeal of her products on the shelf. “For our herring and mussels, we wanted sleeve-like packaging instead of boxes to package our tins since we liked the way the sleeves revealed a bit of the tin. It gave our products a more premium look and reflected the transparency of our mission to be sustainable. For our sauces, we wanted a clear, squeezable bottle in a plastic that was as sustainable as possible but also functional, allowing the sauce to be squeezed out on a chip with some smoked fish."
McIntyre sees great value in leveraging the Maritime nature of her company. "We drew on strong heritage qualities people associate with this part of the world to support the visuals of the Mary Manette Seafood brand. We took photos of shelves of premium tinned seafood in Montreal and decided to go a bit darker, a little romantic and moody, to stand apart from other brands that use a lot of white, and cartoons and drawings to convey brand messaging." Based on feedback from a U.S. broker, McIntyre also changed "Naturally Smoked Herring" to "Wild-caught Nova Scotia Herring" on her labels. "It was a stronger descriptor and reinforced our brand as Maritime owned and operated.
Another learned lesson involved making decisions about quantity vs. cost and inventory expenses. “In the beginning, we paid more for lower volume, and I'm glad we did," says McIntyre. "Once things got rolling with increased sales, we knew our profits would increase by paying less for higher volume. Paying more for less at the beginning was a good way to reduce our risk, pay less for storage, and stay nimble. That kind of flexibility was valuable. It kept us resilient and able to face new challenges as needed."
Offering advice to other P.E.I. companies launching a packaging project, Sarah Bennetto O'Brien believes the right fit with a design firm is crucial, so companies can focus on what they do best. “I also encourage interested parties to double their available budget,” she says. “Good things cost good money. Hire the right team from the beginning. I found my team by hunting down the firm that created my favourite packaging in a similar sector, but in another country. Also, ensure the firm you hire understands provincial and national regulations. You need to feel confident your new packaging will meet all guidelines required."
Bennetto O'Brien sees her packaging process as ongoing."We revised our main flavour selection packaging first, with a secondary generic pack that we sticker for smaller run flavour varieties, with plans to change over to most fully printed in the future. I don't forsee ever feeling truly done with packaging or any aspect of our marketing/brand presence. As the world evolves, so does business!"
Jordan McIntyre has stayed closer to home with her project, working with 9 Yards Studio, a P.E.I.-based architecture and design firm. “We chose them over other established marketing companies because we were seeking a high degree of creativity, and we knew they could deliver. We wanted our brand to look a little different and have some soul. We started working with them in November 2019 and finished the branding and packaging design and website in May 2020. The pandemic slowed things down a bit, but we were able to pretty easily get back on track.”
Martin O'Brien also cautions that storage space for packaging can often be overlooked. "Every business needs warehouse space, and you may have a hard time finding space to use that you can afford. In my case, I need to buy a container load of packaging at a time for cost efficiency, so I've had to make investments in packaging storage I hadn't anticipated."
All three food entrepreneurs stress that companies should talk to their clients and customers early in any packaging redesign. "Go to your customers first -- distributors, restaurants and grocers," says Martin O'Brien. "Ask them what they would like and if they want changes at all. Sometimes there's a good reason why industry has used the same type of box for decades. But, sometimes they'll be thrilled you're seeing things through a different lens."
By Magner Ink (www.magnerink.com). This is one in a series of articles on the P.E.I. Food Cluster.