They say you can't judge a book by its cover. The same argument would suggest that you can't judge a food product by the way it is wrapped. This perception has meant that in the past, not as much attention has been paid to the look of products as might have been expected. But companies are waking up to a missed opportunity and starting to exploit the marketing aspects of packaging, as Hugh Westbrook reports

Time and expense has been spent on developing the functional aspects of packaging to ensure food safety, while providing innovations such as plastic trays that can go in the oven, microwave and freezer. Now, consumers are now being faced with increasing changes in the way that their favourite products look on the shelf, as companies undertake sometimes large operations to update packaging.

Companies are however careful not to alter the look of familiar products too much, for fear of alienating those loyal to the brand. The reaction in the UK when Nestlé announced that KitKat would no longer be wrapped in foil, leading to public outcry and editorials, demonstrated that consumer attachment to products can be just as much about the way they look as the way they taste.

Ian Crawford, a senior lecturer at Cranfield University, is unlikely to be surprised by that reaction. In a recent paper prepared for the Campden & Chorleywood Food Research Association Association, Crawford argued that product packaging is "the most important point-of-sale merchandising tool." He cites in particular familiar and iconic shapes, such as Heinz Tomato Ketchup, Nescafé Gold Blend and Coca-Cola in glass bottles. Shapes "give a brand personality, add value, give aesthetic qualities and serve as a point of differentiation between competing products."

In America, Mr Crawford points out, producers have occasionally even brought attention to the new look of a product. He cites Lay's potato chips and Ovaltine, which have recently carried the line: "New Package, Same Great Taste!"

Hang on to the good, let the bad go

So when companies look to repackage, what should they be aiming for? In terms of appearance, they told that they seek to retain elements of what a product has looked like in the past, while giving it a more "contemporary" feel. This indeterminate but much-used term is summed up by David Walker, the marketing operations and media controller for Kellogg's in the UK. He said that contemporary means "modern and of today, but not modernistic, because things can date very quickly."

Walker is well positioned to discuss such ideas after Kellogg's repackaged all of its cereal products in the UK last year. The new designs are now gradually spreading across Europe. The main changes are a large 'K' which bleeds from the front to the side of packets and a uniform

"Product packaging is the most important point-of-sale merchandising tool"
'Kellogg's' logo which appears in the same place on all boxes. Walker said the goals of the repackaging had been to find a look that stood out on shelves, had clear identity as Kellogg's was consistent across all packages and provided designs that could be copyrighted.

A number of changes to Nestlé lines also seek to promote products in a "contemporary" manner. Gold Blend uses "warm coffee beans" to communicate "the smooth and rich product taste," the company told Smarties have developed a twisting pod or tetrahedral pack shape to appeal to "a younger, more media and brand aware audience which expects new developments." However, the flip-off lid has been retained as it has been integral to the brand for many years. Other changes have a functional leaning. The Kit Kat change "keeps the product fresh three times as long as the previous design."

The UK brand manager of Nestlé flavoured drink Nesquik has summed up some of the decisions that need to be taken with packaging. Matt Day told that with two products on the market, ready-to-drink and powdered, messages on the packets have to be different as the drinkable version is marketed at children and the powdered one is aimed at adults buying for children. In addition, "we use lots of primary colours for instant recognition." Marketing messages differ slightly in different countries while legal implications mean that information panels may have to change. However, it is largely true that most international brands seem to carry the same look.

There are some general international differences of which Day is aware. For example, he said that in England, all-white packaging suggests an economy line, while in Germany, white is associated with premium products.

Some of the most interesting packaging stories come when companies seek to do something radically different. Ian Crawford notes how Dry Blackthorn Cider saw their sales increase when they repackaged their product in black and produced a number of new sizes. In Germany, he points out that Onken sold fromage frais packaged in plastic building blocks to appeal to parents and children.

In the UK, Kellogg's launched the World Temptations cereal line last year. It is sold in containers whose shape resembles boxes of chocolates or popcorn buckets rather than cereal. David Walker explained that this decision was made to reflect that this is a premium product which might be eaten in a different way from normal cereal. "People won't eat the same quantity, and they may just dip into the box for a snack or sprinkle it on something else, rather than having a big bowl with milk as they would for traditional cereals."

Western Wines has been successful with metallic bottles of wine. The gold and silver bottles of last year have been followed by a shiny pink Pendulum Rosé bottle. The company told that the innovation was aimed at the young, but it was more than a gimmick and they have worked hard at sourcing good wine. "If the wine is not top quality, the unique packaging may entice the customer to buy one bottle but they won't continue to buy it on this basis."

So it is clear that the choice of packaging appearance is becoming increasingly important as products vie for our attention on our supermarket shelves and the range of colours and shapes increases. To succeed in a crowded marketplace, it seems companies will increasingly have to worry not just about how their product tastes, but also about how it looks.