Strategies & Insights

Thinking Well Ahead: Sonoco Forecasts Key Design Trends

Posted: January 9, 2007 by
Deborah Toth

Think of the vast amount of different packaging solutions being sold here in the United States. Then triple or quadruple that number for a worldwide perspective on packaging design. Leading this immense market is Sonoco, a $3.5 billion global manufacturer of industrial and consumer packaging products and provider of packaging services with more than 300 locations in 35 countries, and serving customers in 85 nations. Headquartered in Hartsville, SC, Sonoco has grown from its roots in 1899 to be an inventive and award-winning packaging manufacturer offering full-service capabilities under one roof.

"As a global manufacturer of packaging products, we work directly with our customers to learn what they are going to need in the next two to five years," says Russell Grissett, director of global market consumer packaging. "Our design, marketing, technology, and sales teams seek to identify new trends in the market and find solutions to be able to react quickly to those changes. We feel that Sonoco is in a perfect position to capitalize on these trends because we offer a total one-stop solution to our customers."

Tracking the trends

To keep abreast of the new packaging designs necessary for its customers, Sonoco operates nine technical centers around the world, with three outside the U.S. in Singapore, Finland, and Germany. "Most of our new product development and design is performed in Hartsville," says Rodger Fuller, vice president and general manager of Sonoco's Rigid Paper and Plastics division, North America. "There's no doubt that our research and development is paying off with great innovations in packaging products. Last year we posted $75 million in new product sales; this year, we're already 15% above that figure. All of this can be directly tied to research and development and our technical centers. We attribute about one-third of our new product sales directly to research and development."

Sonoco constantly keeps its fingers on the pulse of the population, whether here in the U.S. or worldwide, to keep ahead of continually changing trends that affect the packaging market. "There are a number of recent trends that are affecting our packaging designs," says Jeff Schuetz, staff vice president of global technology for consumer packaging. "Health and nutrition, convenience, and mass customization are three of the major trends impacting our design. For example, people in the U.S. are looking for healthier, more nutritious products; in turn, this desire has led us to produce new 100-calorie size packages for our clients." In addition, Schuetz explains, people are seeking more natural-type products rather than the use of artificial substances in their food. As packaging product manufacturers, Sonoco has been challenged to invent new packaging to allow products to stay fresh and healthy on the shelf longer.

Now Foods LLC is launching its Rice Now instant rice dishes in Sonoco's Sonotort® Shatterproof™ microwaveable retort pouches to satisfy the growing consumer demand for portable heat-and-eat entrees.

Faced with consumer requests for a larger-sized package of its popular Olli Dry Catfood, Butcher's Pet Care turned to Sonoco to create a new one-kilogram composite can.

A convenient solution

Convenience has been an ongoing trend worldwide as the population shifts to faster, more accessible products that can be carried wherever the consumer is going. Material scientists at Sonoco have developed a new panel-less retort bottle. Suitable for shelf-stable, low-acid, dairy-based beverages and ready-to-drink coffees, it protects the product inside from oxygen, stands up to the rigorous retort sterilization process without the internal panels or ribs found in other retort bottles, and keeps contents shelf-stable at ambient conditions.

Produced using a value-added multi-layer process, Sonoco's new plastic retort bottle is round and smooth-walled and has an easy-open and re-close induction seal closure. It is available in a variety of colors, and the transparent panel-less retort bottle provides excellent contact clarity when filled.

The new bottle meets consumer demand for portable packaging with easy to open and re-close benefits. Sonoco's customers benefit by having a curved, rather than dimpled, shape that eliminates wrinkled shrink sleeve labels. The new design also protects the product from oxygen, provides less shipping costs due to being lighter than glass, and less production line clean-up than glass.

The first commercial application of Sonoco's ShatterproofTM coating used in the company's SonotortTM retort pouches, which will be introduced in early 2007 for Mississippi-based Now Foods' new heat-and-eat Rice Now! The high-barrier technology is resistant to flex cracking, an unsightly phenomenon in which the laminate becomes marked with stress fractures as a result of handling during converting, packaging, and distribution. In addition, the three-ply pouches do not contain foil, making them safe to microwave.

Shelf appeal was a major concern of Rice Now! The new product required package graphics that would immediately convey the heat-and-eat nature of the product and the type of rice dish inside the pouch while the package's eight-color rotogravure printing provided a mouth-watering realism to the package.

Serving many masters

"Mass customization sounds like an oxymoron but it refers to our much more diverse population, in which products are tailor-made for each demographic and are cost-effectively offered in different formats," says Schuetz. For example, he explains, a brand's chocolate chip cookie line may call for a 100-calorie package for those who are watching their weight, while the same brand may also be offered in a family-size package with an easy open and re-close feature. The same brand may also ask for different packaging to differentiate the line's soft, crisp, and mint cookies and a different package for easy portability in a car or away from home.

Sonoco recently won a DuPont Gold Award for Packaging Innovation for its Snack ‘n Seal patented re-sealable barrier-film package structure for the Nabisco Chewy Chips Ahoy! chocolate chip cookie line from Kraft Foods. The package provides consumers with a resealable structure that's easy to open and difficult to tear.

Unveiled nationally in June 2005, the package incorporates a thermoformed tray inserted into a horizontal, flowrapped film, the latter incorporating a reclosable top panel with a precision die-cut opening to which a pressure-sensitive label is applied. The package contains a widely used, high-barrier film structure with technology borrowed from the baby and homecare wipes market. Since the initial launch, the new package has proven to be quite popular, nearly doubling the cookie sales of the previous packaging, says research firm IRI, as noted by information supplied by Kraft.

Sonoco prides itself on being able to offer its customers packaging prototypes from as little as one to 100 to 1,000 depending on the need of the customer. "We can show our customers the design of their package wrapped with their graphic around the product," explains Schuetz. Sonoco's sample-making capabilities can produce small quantities in the exact size of their package. They can also produce product samples in small-scale production quantities of 100 for in-home consumer testing or larger quantities of 1,000 or more to test package designs in regional markets or in multiple retail stores."

Leading by doing sustainability

Environmental and sustainability continue to impact package design. According to Grissett, sustainability was a significant factor last year and continues to be a major driver in package design. Sonoco's customers are seeking packages that are environmentally friendly, able to be recycled, and leave no environmental footprint. Sonoco has watched how rising oil prices and consumers' environmental awareness have driven European package design innovations, and Sonoco believes those factors are starting to emerge as major design forces here in the U.S.

"For Sonoco's rigid paper and plastics, 2006 was an exciting year," says Fuller. "We introduced a new composite can made from our high-strength board that will be used instead of steel cans. The high-strength composite can is a significant new product because it allows our customers a cost-advantage while giving them a product with 50% recycled content for sustainability issues. A number of customers have switched from metal to paper cans due to the higher cost of steel and aluminum."

In addition, Sonoco introduced a new consumer-friendly composite can conversion from an all-metal can for Leite Gloria, a popular powdered milk beverage made and marketed in Brazil by Parmalat. The upcoming year promises to hold even further new design products from Sonoco. A new multiyear supply agreement with Abbott Laboratories' Ross Products Division to supply eight-ounce blow-molded, rigid plastic bottles for Ensure Nutritional Drinks, beginning in March 2007, has been obtained.

"The first phase of this expansion will have us producing blow-molded bottles from our existing Wausau, WI, plant by the end of the first quarter of 2007," says Harris E. DeLoach, Jr., chairman, president and CEO of Sonoco. "The second phase will have us starting up a new plant with multiple blow molders in Columbus, Ohio, by the end of December 2007. We are excited about this new business development and the further expansion of our rigid plastic capabilities."

Sonoco recently started up a new protective packaging line in Kaiping, China, for use by a large exercise equipment manufacturer and are testing development of a similar production line in Turkey for a large European appliance maker. In addition, a new five-year contract providing fulfillment services to the LEGO Group are being performed at a temporary facility in Poland. In the first quarter of 2007, Sonoco expects to be in a new leased Service Center in Strykow, Poland, where it will handle the LEGO business and European promotional packaging for Gillette Personal Care.