An Innovation Impasse?

Article excerpt

1995 is the year of Pakex - the once-every-four-years exhibition for the packaging industry. Designers and clients desperate for ideas will queue at the door, says Louella Miles. Can you afford not to be there?

Trade shows mean three things: excess wear on shoe leather, dehydration and exhaustion. Tony Watts, creative director at design consultancy Siebert/Head, dreads another aspect of Pakex, the industry's window on packaging developments (NEC, Birmingham, April 3-7).

"When I go to these shows they are full of enormous machinery in big halls and 95% of it does not interest us as design consultancies," he says. "You have to spend 20 minutes on each stand trying to find the one element that is creative."

We're back to needle-in-the-haystack time. If the purpose of a trip to Birmingham is a search for ideas, then it's likely to be a time-consuming one. The other side of the coin is that neither design consultants nor clients can afford not to go, just in case they miss the next shrink-on labelling concept like the one used by designers Springetts for Dairy Crest's Frijj. Visitors are likely to have two thoughts uppermost in their minds, according to Shan Preddy of the Preddy Consultancy. "One is strategic, looking for differentiation in structural packaging," she says.

"A structural point of difference can add enormously to brand value, for example, the veteran Toilet Duck and Quaker's Feast of Flakes. The second, often the converse side, is the search for cost efficiency, in terms of cost of material, storage, distribution, and of course production.

"These two aspects can clash with each other. If you want to go for something different you might have to compromise on finishes."

As for the issue of the 80s, the greening of brands, it is one that lingers, but the priorities have altered. Clients are more likely to focus, on their visit, on technologies that offer environmental benefits in terms of cost efficiencies rather than recycling, according to Preddy. "Also linked-in are export issues, where we are still finding countries with restrictions on the packaging materials that can be used," she says. "For example, Switzerland and Sweden had restrictions on unsuitable plastics at one time, and they were different in each country."

A visit to a show such as Pakex, though, should produce more than information about regulations, new technology and widgets.

"The one thing we are looking for is new ideas," says Rosemary Clarke, packaging development manager at Do-It-All. "The feedback from product managers who have been to product shows - over at Cologne, and other shows at Olympia - is that there is not much innovation.

"It's the result of lack of investment coming through while we have been in recession, but whether the same will be true of packaging is not clear. I'm hoping to see something more innovative up there, I guess more emphasis on design through technology via Mac equipment and interfacing."

There has been some recent innovation in packaging, but examples are thin on the ground. Watts talks of Duracell batteries in folding cardboard rather than cellophane packs, and the Jaffa Cakes in egg-carton type boxes. They achieve an impact on-shelf but may have to wage yet another battle to win the minds of cost-conscious consumers.

And do such concepts emanate from exhibitions? John Brewer of Brewer Riddiford is sceptical. "The trouble with Pakex in the designer's mind is that it stands for standardisation and economies of scale - death to creativity - instead of getting excited about the packaging that is right for the product," he says.

The outcome, he argues, is always a compromise between brand recognition and economies of scale, an area where brand owners who also manufacture for own-label can lose out. "Take a large manufacturer of branded products," says Brewer. "If they are asked to produce a product for own-label they will offer their own packaging format. …