Making a Case For Freshness

April 1, 2006
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Making a Case For Freshness
By Tamara E. Holmes
CPGs seek to show consumers that packaging and freshness go hand in hand.
It used to be that people would shop like packrats, looking for canned and packaged goods they could store in pantries for consumption at a later point in time. But that has changed in recent years, as Americans are becoming less concerned with storing food for their families and more interested in sourcing foods that are organic, local, healthy, and, ultimately, fresh.
Shifting perceptions
The move toward healthier eating has been a steady process in recent years. According to the Organic Trade Association, organic food sales were about $10 billion in 2003 and were expected to double by 2007. Stores such as Whole Foods Market are proving that consumers will pay more for natural foods. And even mainstream retailers are getting in on the act: Safeway, for instance, unveiled its O Organics line in January.
Experts say part of the allure of such foods is the idea that they are fresher in some way, which leaves an interesting challenge for packaged foods marketers: how do you communicate the “freshness” of your product to a group of consumers who might perceive your goods as anything but.
“The fresh moniker is incredibly important today, more than ever before,” says Harvey Hartman, chairman of The Hartman Group, a market research firm in Bellevue, Wash. “It’s in the minds of the consumers that fresh is healthier; it’s better quality, it’s tasting better, and it’s more flavorful. Packaged goods are really becoming less relevant because they’re not perceived to be fresh by consumers.”
Indeed, consumers have very strong opinions on freshness. According to a recent survey sponsored by DuPont and conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs, 60 percent of U.S. consumers ranked taste or freshness as the most important factor when buying food at the grocery store. (Survey results at www.scienceoffresh.dupont.com).
But how do consumers gauge freshness? Donna Visioli, a scientist with DuPont, says consumers are relying mostly on appearance. As a result, “Packaging companies are focusing on the clarity, gloss, and stiffness of packaging,” she says, because the public associates these features with freshness.
Some beverage manufacturers are taking that tact and packaging their products in glass containers, rather than plastic, because they believe glass conveys an orientation toward health. That was the reason the Solana Gold brand decided to house its organic apple juice in 48-ounce and 128-ounce glass containers.
“On an intuitive level, there’s not a lot of science that has to convince people that glass is pure and clean and has longevity,” says company president John Kolling.
Kolling says the label also works hard to convey that message: The word “organic” is prominently displayed, and a dominant image of an apple is surrounded by rays of golden light, which, he says, conveys that the product is good for the consumer.
“It’s the glass, the colors and the message we’re conveying on the label that sells the product,” he says.
Like Kolling, many other CPG executives stress the importance of labeling when it comes to communicating freshness. John Faulkner, director of brand communications for The Campbell Soup Company, says that when the company wanted to differentiate its organic line of Prego spaghetti sauce, it sought to do so through the labeling.
“The challenge on the whole spaghetti sauce shelf is to differentiate between the different varieties out there. So you’re trying to call out the ‘organic’ to consumers looking for organic options but who are comfortable with brands they’re familiar with,” he says.
The new label does not vary drastically from other Prego offerings; like the others, the main image is that of a tomato, or a mushroom in the case of Prego Organic Mushroom. But this new label also prominently features the word “organic” in green lettering. “Green communicates that it’s healthy,” Faulkner says.
As a result, the jar still manages to look like the other offerings in the Prego family of products while effectively conveying that it is different, in that it is organic.
Packaging priorities
But when it comes to packaging and freshness, manufacturers must address more than appearance. Sure, the package must appeal to consumers’ sense of what fresh looks like, but it also must actually work to keep food fresh.
Campbell’s does it with its chicken broth, for instance, through the use of aseptic packaging, which locks out light and air and, because it avoids heat-intense filling methods, allows for more delicate processing of foods. The format is said to offer a taste advantage. And because it is resealable and reusable, Faulkner says, “customers are willing to pay a little more for the product.”
Eric Bartholomay, product development manager with Toray Plastics, agrees. “If the foods are not fresh, then the consumer clearly notices,” he says.
Bartholomay develops packaging films that address the ability of products to breathe and maintain their freshness, which can be short-lived in some categories. Vegetables, for instance, take in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide, so lettuce that’s housed in a package that doesn’t breathe will quickly rot.
One of the biggest challenges Bartholomay faces is identifying “the right gas composition, the right kind of barrier or breathable structure and making sure this structure maintains the advantages of traditional structures, like good resistance to puncturing and good sealing.”
“We’re always working to try and make things better from a barrier standpoint because barrier is one of the things that not only conveys freshness but delivers freshness,” he says.  
Another concept Toray is working with is that of replacing foil in pouch packaging. “One of the issues with foil is it deforms relatively easily so that pouches can very quickly get a shop-worn appearance to them because of the crinkling,” Bartholomay says. “There also is the phenomenon called pinholing, which can happen as the package flexes, [creating] some issues in terms of freshness.”
Whether it impacts the actual freshness of a product, there’s a danger than the worn appearance of a package can negatively affect perceptions of freshness and, ultimately, the brand. To address that, Bartholomay says Toray has developed an ultra-thin, puncture-resistant metallized film designed to replace foil in pouch packaging and to act as a better barrier to moisture and oxygen.
Product placement
There are also other ways to convey freshness—namely the location of your products in-store. Shoppers are trained to look for the healthiest and freshest items around the perimeter of the store. Some stay away from the inner aisles altogether.
Experts say CPG companies whose products are relegated to the center of the store may have to change their marketing strategies to combat perceptions that the freshest foods are on the perimeter.
“If you took cookies and placed them on the perimeter, and if they had cellophane on them so customers could see through the package, and if you marketed those next to milk, then all of a sudden consumers would perceive that cookie as fresher than that same package in center store,” says Hartman.  
Displays also make a difference. Signage that promotes healthy living or freshness has a way of catching the consumer’s eye.
Hartman says CPG companies may have to target their products not to the person looking for the freshest food that was just prepared in the back of the store, but rather as fresh products that will stay fresh in the refrigerator once they’ve been taken home.
In fact, therein lies an opportunity to increase customer loyalty, says DuPont’s Visioli. “Most people report that they throw out food on a weekly basis so there really is an issue for waste,” she says. If CPG companies can give consumers food that lasts a little longer, a recognized need will be met.
Looking ahead
As more and more companies continue to roll out organic offerings, consumer awareness of issues surrounding health and freshness will only increase.
Brands that offer products that match consumers’ perceptions about what ‘fresh’ looks like will gain customer loyalty, despite an increase in product offerings, experts say.
But it bears repeating to say that companies must make sure their packaging delivers on its promise. The DuPont survey on freshness and packaging found that 77 percent of respondents said an experience with inferior packaging would impact their decision to buy that product again.
“There’s a need to make sure the packaging does what people expect it to do,” says Visioli. Reclosables, commonly touted as prolonging taste and quality, are a good example of that, she says. “If a zipper doesn’t work well, it’s actually worse than no zipper at all because the consumer is disappointed.”
And once you disappoint consumers, you may lose them forever. Says Visioli, “They might buy that item again, but not that brand.”  BP
Where to go for more information...
Market research. At The Hartman Group, contact Harvey Hartman at 425.452.0818 or visit www.hartman-group.com.
Consumer survey. At DuPont, contact Donna Visioli at 800.628.6208 or visit www.scienceoffresh.dupont.com.
Foil replacement. At Toray Plastics, contact Eric Bartholomay at 401.294.4511 or visit www.torayfilms.com

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