Strategies & Insights

Peak Performance: Convenience and Efficiency Continue to Drive Japanese Design Innovations

Posted: September 13, 2009 by
Neil Kozarsky and Ron Romanik

Over the last 15 years, there has been an explosion in the number of convenience stores, or konbini, in Japan. In urban locales as much as rural, more and more Japanese consumers are relying on these stores to fulfill all of their daily needs and wants for goods that are both high quality and efficient to use. Because of this cultural trend, the 7/11 chain in Japan is akin to Wal-Mart in North America as far as the powerful influence they have on the package design industry.

Customarily, the Japanese do not prefer to eat on-the-go, but the "need" has trumped the "ideal" as individuals in this culture try to squeeze more minutes of work into each hour than most first-world cultures. This lifestyle evolution in Japan is revealed in the fact that nearly everyone can buy delicious, portable, and affordable sushi or sashimi from a konbini as they leave their train stations.

BEING CONVENIENT

Packages in Japan's konbini, unlike U.S. convenience stores, are not simply miniature versions of supermarket products or package configurations. In Japan, every item on a konbini shelf "solves" an obvious problem for the consumer. For example, mayonnaise packages sold in konbini are typically hand-friendly, with a one-hand dispensing tube that eliminates the need for a utensil.

INTUITIVE QUALITY

Japan is a society that views the wasting of time as being extremely rude. This value underlies a lot of packaging methodology. Japanese expect packages to be easy to open and reclose, to dispense neatly and positively, and to dispose of efficiently.

Japanese expect the quality of goods in konbini to be the equal of what they would find in their favorite supermarket. They also expect meal preparation solutions that are complete, innovative, and intuitive, such as this package of noodles that illustrates three easy steps in opening and preparing.

One new meal-in-a-bowl packaging concept from Dai Nippon Packaging Ltd. incorporates a perforated foil component that acts as a colander for draining noodles during preparation. And many Japanese noodle ingredient pouches illustrate a key intuitive value in opening ease. Consumers can open these pouches however they want—from the top, bottom, or sides.

FINDING OCCASIONS

Japanese are getting fatter, though not as fat as Americans. The Western influence of fried fast food may be to blame, though. In Japan, this expansion over the past 15 years has inspired smaller portions (yes, even smaller than before). In addition, new diet products get more prominence on retail store shelves and more advertising and education is linked to the need to slim down.

In konbini, consumers find package sizes that can translate into multiple use occasions. In the U.S., it would be difficult to find packages as small as the dried French fry cup (right) or the tiny ice cream container (left). The 1.4-oz. French fry cup clearly declares that it contains 241 calories, and the 4.5-oz. ice cream cup contains 275 calories.

A recent trend in Japan is the proliferation of well-thought-out kits for anything from noodles to stick coffee (center). In this self-contained package, a consumer gets two cups, two plastic stirrers, and two stick pouches each of instant coffee, non-dairy creamer, and sugar. These packages are also frequently available in kits serving four cups of coffee. There is simply no "speed limit" for indulgence in Japan as the consumer can enjoy quality products like these virtually anywhere and anytime. This trend also illustrates a huge "win" for the brand owners as the packaging facilitates a critical expansion of use occasions and associated revenues.

STEPPING OUT

There's a new-versus-older generational value transition in process in Japan concerning the consumption of food in public. Not unlike the belief that personal grooming should be conducted privately, the act of eating in public is frowned upon by the over-50 crowd.

Driving the on-the-go eating trend, however, are long working hours and relatively short opportunities for meal time. As millions and millions of consumers descend upon Tokyo daily for up to three meals a day, the reality has become that people are going to eat when the opportunity presents itself regardless of the tradition or norm.

To compensate for the obvious faux pas linked to the now necessary behavior of eating in public, the Japanese go to extraordinary lengths to optimize the convenience, neatness, and functionality of eating or drinking on-the-go through thoughtful package design. The protein-rich energy gel package (left) is a perfect on-the-go pouch, and the TetraPak carton (right) contains a personal serving of sake.

EMBOLDENING TEXTURES

Japanese package design has recently turned to texture as a differentiation weapon in the battle for visibility. The very popular Fire brand of coffee uses a faceted approach in the can shown here. Embossed logo designs, like the gold emblem on top of the carton shown here, are also very important package design elements.

Another element of Japanese packaging that is consistently more intuitive and effective is the quality and clarity of surface graphics and labels. This effort is for the sole purpose of helping consumers quickly find the item they are seeking on a shelf. Japanese consumers expect efficient communication, and modern Japanese packages use obvious visual clues and illustrations that aim to take even slight frustrations out of the shopping experience.

GILDING THE LILIES

Historically, gold shades were linked to royalty in Japan (the Emperor's seal is gold), and it was not advisable to employ gold designs for consumer products. This phenomenon can be compared to the old "rule" long followed by U.S. designers to not use black on packaging because of its association with morbidity.

As that U.S. taboo has eroded, so has Japan's resistance to the use of the royal color. Today, marketers can not resist gold shades as a strategic attempt to become more visible on crowded shelves. Brand owners in Japan have increasingly broached the taboo and consumers have been gradually accepting more yellow and gold colors and tones.

DELIGHTFUL SURPRISES

Japanese package designers are willing to try just about any idea once to see if it might delight consumers. This unique packaging innovation for a strawberry soda actually reached U.S. shores last year. Removing the tamper-evident seal and cap on this glass bottle reveals a glass ball seated securely in a plastic cap.

The cap comes apart into two pieces, one of which the consumer uses as a tool to push the glass ball into the bottle and "open" it. The ball remains in the top part of the bottle in a compartment with a curved bottom. As the consumer uses the product, the ball moves around, makes light clinking sounds, and produces carbonation bubbles.

REFILLING A NEED

Space is such a concern in Japan's houses that much consideration is given to how much space a package will take up when it is disposed of. Japanese companies are introducing new package designs of cups and cans that collapse before disposing. Pouches are a clear winner when saving space in garbage bins—and for saving space in landfills.

The proliferation of refill pouches in Japan has spurred innovation in controlled dispensing designs for flexible pouches, adding to Japan's advanced position in this segment of flexible packaging. In order to facilitate easy and controlled refills, contoured pouches are configured to allow insertion into a bottle. One can also find components inserted and heat-sealed flawlessly into such die-cut pouches to prevent movement and spills while refilling.

Daiwa Gravure Co. Ltd. has a new innovation for consumer refillable soaps and lotions called Cartridge Pack. The dispenser comprises two cylinders that slide together. The top cylinder has a pump, and the rigid tube end of the pump has a sharp angled opening. The completely sealed refill bag is placed into the dispenser, and the tube punctures the bag. The tension in the film of the bag keeps a seal around the tube during use, so much so that the pump delivers lotion just as well when inverted.

POUCHES STILL KING

Population density and lack of space in Japan create vicious competition for the eye. It is difficult if not impossible to be visible without an effective strategy, and vertical package presentations are essential. Visibility and all-around space savings are the reasons that the stand-up pouch market continues to grow in Japan.

The Edge Stand Pouch from Plast Corporation has a bottom skirt—integrated into the pouch—for extra stability. It is available as a retortable stand-up pouch for mixed liquid and solid food, a retortable four-side-seal pouch for beans, paste, or grounded food, a boil-sterilizable pouch for processed food, and a center-seal pouch for frozen food.

Dai Nippon Printing Co. Ltd. has been developing biomass packaging called Biomatech as part their sustainability approach. They produce Biomatech bottles, cups, and films, as well as the PLA-laminated stand-up pouch for the Pow detergent shown here.

UNIVERSAL DESIGN

One of the most important factors driving the Japanese packaging industry is the aging consumer. This has spawned significant "universal design" activity, where virtually all aspects of package interaction are made more intuitive.

Removal force of lids and caps is less, and large graphics and text help the consumer "negotiate" packages in ways that are literal and easy to manage, avoiding seconds of wasted time. How a package feels in consumers' hands and how easily a package dispenses are also very important, giving consumers confidence that they will not spill the contents (like the four-sided, pyramid-shaped condiment pouch shown here). Likewise, most beverage caps do not need to be completely closed in order to prevent a leak.

As divergent as Japanese and American cultures are, active consumer lifestyles in both countries demanding ultra-convenient and functional packaging appear to be reducing differences in packaging. In fact, there have been some notable Japanese packaging technology transfers, such as the stick pack, which have gained mainstream acceptance in the U.S. The question remains: Will U.S. brand owners be willing to go as far as their Japanese counterparts to satisfy—and indulge—the consumer? Only time, or perhaps the lack thereof, will tell.

Article co-author Neil Kozarsky has many years of experience in marketing and brand positioning in the Japanese market, with nearly 100 trips logged and several commercial technology-transfer successes. Neil is president of Technical Help in Engineering and Marketing (T.H.E.M., Division Universal Synergetics Inc.), and can be emailed at neil@them.net.