The right stuff

17 July 2018



Having retired in July after nearly 20 years at Unilever, Paul Howells, former vice-president for packaging, has an appreciation for good design and an expertise in how to merge the technical needs of packaging with the consumer trends and aesthetics required for brand-leading design. In the following article, he discusses design’s role in shaping packaging’s future.


Unilever’s purpose is to make sustainable living commonplace. Every day, it works to create a better future, with brands and services that help people feel good, look good and get more out of life.

Steve Jobs had a room dedicated to one thing: opening boxes. In this room, specialist engineers spent their days unpacking hundreds of designs, pursuing the perfect unboxing experience. The tactile quality of the unwrapping moment is undoubtedly important, but as someone who was vice-president for research and development packaging at Unilever, I’m of the opinion that the unboxing experience should be about even more.

In an era when humanity is having a bigger impact on its environment than at any other time in history, packaging can play a critical role in helping us manage our resources and live out a sustainable, bright future.

As one of the biggest users of packaging in the world, Unilever knows it has a major role to play in this issue. That’s why it is aiming to halve the waste associated with the disposal of its products by 2020. With a major target like that, the first thing you do is make products smaller, lighter or reduce the levels of waste created when they are made. The challenge is to do this while maintaining or improving the value your product delivers. Luckily, some of the brightest minds in the world work with Unilever. Pioneering the next-generation of packaging technology and design, it’s giving consumers the same (or better) functionality, efficiency and value for money while reducing environmental impact. Plus, consumers feel good about it – because they know it’s good for the planet.

Paradigm shift

Unilever has already managed to cut its waste footprint by 29% versus the 2010 baseline. But the improvement that brings has a ceiling. After a while, reducing waste becomes contingent on thinking in a fundamentally different way.

If the industry is to deliver the same consumer functionality with a fraction of the packaging, it needs to completely reimagine the paradigm. A task this big cannot be completed alone. That’s why Unilever’s employees work alongside supply partners and academics at universities like Northumbria, Sheffield and MIT to identify and co-develop the transformational, game-changing technologies required.

Two of these breakthrough technologies are now recognised innovations in the market. Firstly, MuCell technology, which is used in Dove packaging. This innovation – created in partnership with two of Unilever’s global packaging suppliers, ALPLA and MuCell Extrusion – reduces the density of the bottle and the amount of plastic required. All while ensuring the technology remains 100% recyclable and no difference in the packaging can Dove products now use MuCell technology, which reduces the required amount and density of the plastic. be observed.

The second innovation, which you will have noticed on shop shelves, is compressed deodorant cans. Brilliant research and development scientists at the Global Development Centre in Leeds, UK, re-engineered the spray system to reduce the flow rate. The new cans are just 75ml, half the size of existing cans, but deliver an identical amount of protection and fragrance in the same spray time as the full-sized can. These are just two examples, but there are plenty of new advancements that contribute to the goal of zero waste.

Compressed aerosols are a good example of a product that has been designed with multiple solutions in mind. Over the years, I have come to realise that when selecting packaging for a particular cosmetic or toiletry, it is not sufficient to consider just one factor at a time. The whole process, from conception to finished product, should be viewed holistically. By this, I mean that the brand DNA really informs the design. For a brand to be succesful, packaging and design need to work together to attract and seduce customers in different ways. Packaging, as Steve Jobs realised, enhances the experience, and if done well, opens up a whole galaxy of possibilities.

Emotional connection

The idea of incorporating all the senses, rather than simply sight and function, is not new, but it has not yet been developed to its full potential in packaging design. A product’s packaging might work and be sufficiently attractive, but if it falls short regarding other faculties, the item could be considered below par.

Of course, the packing must deliver the functional requirements, but it’s our job, as packaging designers and engineers, to look for opportunities to add value to packaging so that people have a deeper, emotionally based interaction with the product.

But how passionate can a consumer really get about a cosmetic’s casing? At first, it’s difficult to know what I mean by ‘emotionally based interaction’, but I believe packaging companies could learn a lot from automobile designers. Emotional interaction is a clear game-changer for customers choosing a car that’s right for them. The concept should be no different for consumers choosing which products to place in their bathroom cabinets. Making sure there is correct feedback across all senses, and not just sight, can translate into brand success.

Automobile designers think about the way a car door closes, the feel of a seat and the smell of the car – it’s all been designed holistically, and that’s what Unilever tries to emulate with regard to personal-care products and their packaging. The feel of the product when held, and the sound it makes when opened and closed, must be considered. It’s about making sure everything fits together effectively.

To me, the devil is in the details. Sometimes, the smallest innovations make the biggest difference to a consumer. One of my personal favourites of good design is Bleu de Chanel, a male fragrance contained in an elegant square bottle of midnight blue.

There is a piece of ‘magic’ in the cap: an inbuilt, invisible magnet always ensures the Chanel logo is aligned to the front of the bottle. It’s a gorgeous piece of packaging and, needless to say, very well engineered.

A sense of identity

Magic or not, reinforcing a brand’s identity is fundamental to successful packaging design. When updating the container of an established product, one feature that should not be overlooked is the brand’s heritage. Its history should be carried forward, not forgotten. Customers should be able to look at a piece of packaging and understand how it translates to the brand itself. Additionally, operators ought to take influence from the most iconic containers – brands that have enjoyed decades of success and are instantly recognisable.

You should be able to pick out a Lynx deodorant from a Dove one, for example. Just like you can look at a BMW and instantly know it’s a BMW. It’s about updating a brand so that, although you’re presenting an innovation, you can still see the product’s history.

But how do you make the correct decisions when designing packaging for a new product on the market? Does this require a different approach? With no history to draw upon, packaging designers are free to create a completely new identity from scratch, but they have to get it right.

It’s even more important to be clear about what you want to communicate in terms of brand value for a new product, because that will set the standard or the image of the brand for the future. If you get it wrong at the beginning, you’re not going to be doing yourself any favours.

These days, if you don’t make the best packaging decisions for a product’s launch, your potential customers will find out soon. The surge of blogging and social media platforms has provided consumers with an easy route for giving instant feedback about their recent purchases to a large community. The public can immediately register their endorsement or disapproval of a new product and discuss its various benefits or shortcomings. Social media keeps packaging designers on their toes, but it also hints at what the public requires from a product, and which innovations are currently trending.

In the past, you have been able to get away with a suboptimal design. Now, there’s a significant lobby that would undermine the brand equity if something didn’t work.

While there are pros and cons to this new world of instant feedback and viral messaging, one of its biggest boons is as an activist catalyst, where sustainability campaigns and good work can be expressed instantly and globally, allowing even enormous organisations like Unilever the chance to reach customers directly and talk to them individually.

While there are elements that are out of control, and most recently the debate about plastics has played a huge role in this – on and offline – there are still many actions that can be taken to improve things. Selective collection of packaging waste, better infrastructure, investment in waste management and education of all stakeholders are key areas to a sustainable, successful future. Unilever continues to work with other businesses and urge governments to implement policies that facilitate the radical shift it is advocating. Only collective action will unbox a bright future. That’s why fundamentally different thinking about packaging must extend to inspiring consumers to think differently too. In the US, like many places in the world, there’s a bias in the way bottles are recycled. While 56% of people recycle their kitchen items, only 14% do the same with their bathroom bottles. To change these numbers, Unilever is rallying people to join them in rethinking recycling – to rinse, recycle and reimagine their bathroom empties.

The surge of blogging and social media platforms has provided consumers with an easy route for giving instant feedback about their recent purchases to a large community.

Unilever is committed to transforming the experience it give consumers and the impact it has on the planet. For people who have a passion for doing things differently, who think creatively and who want to use cutting-edge technology to reinvent the industry for the better, there is so much opportunity.

Technology is great, but the human mind is the most powerful tool we have. By creating the conditions in which it can thrive, we can create the conditions in which everybody can enjoy a bright future. There is more to do, and much more innovation to encourage. And that’s where you come in.


The last product launch under Howells’ tenure

Lux Luminique is a shampoo with argan oil for damaged hair; infused with Damascus rose essence and silicone free.

The packaging is made of a custom-tooled, injection stretch blow-moulded, transparent pink PET bottle with tessellating triangular panels to the sides (five long ones in the upper part and three short ones at the bottom). Inside is an injection-moulded, dark-pink plastic pump dispenser closure with twist-up opening to prime for use and large pump actuator with embossed opening instructions to top.

There are self-adhesive, printed, clear-film labels to the front and back of the bottle body, and a circular, self-adhesive RFID tag under the back label.

There have been previous examples of decorative shampoo bottles with a premium-look feel in Japan, such as Gift Scalp and Scalabo, but this is still a rare type of packaging. The actuator can be twisted to unlock for use, and if locked, will not leak.

One of the most outstanding innovations is the eye-catching bottle design with distinctive embossed, decorative plant design, which delivers a premium feel. The multifaceted bottle shape refracts light to create an attractive visual effect, which catches the consumer’s eye on the retail shelf. The embossed plant imagery enhances the brand’s ‘natural’ image and evokes association of the plant extracts that are key ingredients of this product range. The heavyweight PET bottle, with decorative detail, imparts a high-quality feel for a premium image. The pump-bottle format allows easy dispensing without needing to pick up the bottle. The pack shape is bottomheavy, creating a stable pack format.

Dove products now use MuCell technology, which reduces the required amount and density of the plastic.
A magnet in the cap of Bleu de Chanel ensures the logo is always facing the front.
A brand’s identity should shine through in its packaging.
Companies must work hand in hand with governments to reduce waste.


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