February 10, 2014

Your How-to Guide for Choosing the Right Packaging Material

Your How-to Guide for Choosing the Right Packaging Material

Those of us who aren’t designers only think of product packaging materials as being either an enticement or a hindrance. If the material can be used for some other important purpose, then it’s an enticement. If the material is indestructible plastic that’s used for clamshell packaging and can’t be opened without a Samurai sword, it’s a hindrance.

As a public service, we’re offering you a concise how-to guide for finding the best materials for packaging your product, so long as your product is a food item of some sort. If we were to go into all of the items in the world that merited retail packaging design of some kind, we might be forced to exceed 750 words.

What is my budget?

Before you begin any packaging endeavor, you must determine the scope of your budget, as this will determine whether you will be able to use material of some kind, or just force your customers to scoop kale chips into their bare hands.

For the wealthy brand, there is always glass, natural fibers and shredded $100 bills reconstituted into standing tin-tie bags. But most small brands will not be able to afford such luxuries, and will have to rely upon standard bulk-item materials from which enticing retail package design must be fashioned. There are many budget-friendly packaging options that offer superlative protection for food products. Food-grade cardboard is a relatively inexpensive material that offers reasonable crush protection and interesting design opportunities. An even more reasonably priced alternative is bio-based food packaging that’s made from renewable organic sources. Of course, your ultimate decision will be based on the type of food you’re packaging, which leads us to the question:

What type of prodcut am I packaging?

Is your product vulnerable to crushing, like potato chips or crackers? Will the package affect the product’s potential for spoilage? Will it have to be refrigerated or frozen? Can it be stored at room temperature before opening and subsequently refrigerated? Is it liquid? Solid? Vapor?

Determining the very best packaging materials for your type of food product will largely involve science. For different types of food items, one enemy might be microbes, while another might be oxidation. Carbonated beverages must be packaged in materials that can withstand CO2 pressure, such as glass or PET, but there is also a cardboard “can”being distributed in Europe that seems to be quite impressive.

How is my packaging being stored?

Will your retail product packaging have to endure thousands of miles of travel over harsh terrain in stifling heat or blistering cold? Will the product have to endure severe changes in temperature before it reaches store shelves?

If your product is being distributed all over the United States or even internationally, the packaging has to withstand all types of climates and altitudes. The packaging material is the literal and figurative barrier between product loss and product sales.

What is my message?

The type of material your product uses for retail packaging design is a part of your overarching brand statement. Any disconnect between the type of material you use for your packaging and your brand identity will lead customers to believe that your entire brand mission statement could be a big, fat lie.

If your brand prides itself on being folksy and local, you probably want to source many, if not all, of your materials from local distributors. If your brand prides itself on being eco-friendly, vegetarian/vegan friendly, gluten-intolerant friendly and just all-around swell, your packaging can’t harm the environment one iota. This means that if there are harmful petrochemicals leaching from the plastics into local rivers and streams during manufacture, it will turn into a PR nightmare for your brand.

The retail food market is beyond competitive — frighteningly so. The biggest deciding factor for whether your food product moves off of store shelves and into the hands of the consumer is the retail product packaging, and the packaging design firm and material you choose could make or break the entire concept. No pressure, though.


by Kevin Smith
SmashBrand helps brands create, optimize, and launch successful products, services, and customer experiences. Our data-driven process is the key to accelerating sales and minimizing risks.

We use a strategic combination of market research, design, and consumer testing to solve complex brand problems more effectively, create differentiation, and forge more meaningful connections with customers.

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