Packaging As Innovation

Recently I have been reading through published corporate histories of such iconic consumer companies as Kimberly Clark, Procter & Gamble, and Philip Morris.  There are various recurring lessons in the histories of each consumer megabrand, but one that has stood out as particularly interesting to me is importance of innovative packaging when it comes to the success or failure of a consumer product.

One early example of this is the Kleenex tissue box, which was first introduced by Kimberly Clark in 1929.  Kleenex tissue was derived from experimenting with cellucotton, a material made from creped wadding to replace cotton, which had become hard to come by due to World War I.  The tissue itself was revolutionary for its day:  it was marketed to replace far less sanitary handkerchiefs, which often led to reinfection, and as a a beauty product as it more effectively removed popular facial creams of the time without clogging pores.

However, the boxes in which Kleenex tissues were sold were also crucial to the product’s success.  Kimberly Clark patented the “Pop-Up” box, which mechanically combined two rolls of tissues in such a way that when one tissue was pulled from the box, the next tissue would be ready for use shortly thereafter.  Here is an early ad for Kleenex and the pop-up box [source:  Kimberly Clark]:

Perhaps the greatest example of innovating packaging enhancing the image of a consumer good is the iconic flip-top, hard pack introduced by Philip Morris during the 1950s rebranding of Marlboro from a cigarette marketed largely to women to a more masculine, premium brand offering.

In his memoirs, I’m A Lucky Guy, then Philip Morris CEO Joseph Cullman wrote that:

“While PM continued to explore the matters of consumer desires and image, Clark Ames, PM’s production man in Richmond, came across a radically different kind of package, the flip-top box used in England.  It was  manufactured by high-speed machines made by Molins, a top company in a small industry.  As smokers know, the basic American soft pack has three rows of cigarettes, staggered in lines of seven, six, and seven.  The new flip-top package had two rows of ten cigarettes each.  The pack was made of cardboard and so was crushproof.  It was only a fraction larger than the standard American pack, which meant it could fit into existing vending machines and into shirt pockets.  The cigarette was 80 millimeters long, longer than regular 70s, shorter than 85s.

“Within the industry there is a saying that ‘No one smokes the package.’  But the appearance, feel, weight, size, and durability of cigarette packages have been demonstrated to be factors in preference and sales.  The package was to be important in creating that image that PM was working on.  The new red and white Marlboro flip-top box certainly looked classy.”

Without doubt, the revolutionary flip-top hard pack was instrumental in driving Marlboro from a niche filtered cigarette brand intended for women to the dominant premium cigarette around the world.

A schematic and picture of the iconic Marlboro flip-top hard pack via Beach Packaging Design.

Not every innovation in packaging has had such dramatic success, however.

In the 1980s, Minnetonka Company was described by the New York Times as ‘the mouse that roared,’ entering mature categories such as soap and toothpaste with unconventional but more efficient pump dispensers.  At the time, pump toothpaste dispensers were already common in Europe, commanding around 20% of the European toothpaste market.  But in the United States consumers had gotten their toothpaste from tubes for decades, so when Minnetonka introduced its CheckUp toothpaste in a pump (the toothpaste itself was manufactured by German firm Henkel) it was a kind of seismic event in the normally placid toothpaste market which historically had been dominated by Colgate and Procter & Gamble’s Crest.

Minnetonka marketed the new dispensary method aggressively, with ads like the one below saying, “In the war against plaque, it’s time to push the button.”

Check-Up had success initially in drawing consumers to the new concept of more efficient toothpaste consumption, but Colgate and P&G were quick to respond with their own pump products, and because Check Up toothpaste itself was not viewed as a higher quality product to the market leaders, the brand quietly receded in the minds of consumers as the brand lost money in its first couple years on the market.  Eventually, the various brands Minnetonka owned were sold off as the company exited those markets.

Interestingly, the pump toothpaste concept itself faded away from the mass market after a couple decades as consumers apparently decided that pump dispensers, while arguably more efficient in terms of taking up less space on bathroom counters and less toothpaste left unused in flattened tubes, were simply not worth the premium pricing which was often more than 20% compared to tubes.

For further reading, I recommend the following:

Rising Tide:  Lessons from 165 Years of Brand Building at Procter & Gamble by Davis Dyer, Frederick Dalzell, and Rowena Olegario

Shared Values:  A History of Kimberly Clark

I’m A Lucky Guy by Joseph Cullman