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The dispensing element of anything from milk to shoe polish, until quite recently, has been an appalling affair, says Steve Thomas-Emberson

In the 50s the criteria was angled towards stopping the contents from coming out rather than aiding extraction. Remember the milk bottle? Did you put your thumb through the foil in sheer desperation, thereby spraying the gold top all over the breakfast table?

What about filling your car engine with oil, pouring the sugar out, dispensing the Persil? I could go on and I will! Soft drinks, tomato ketchup, pet food, you name it and it was dreadful!

Even today, with all that talented packaging and structural design about, the consumer has a battle on his or her hands just to get at the essential ingredient.

A cursory glance at both the pharmaceutical and confectionery marketplaces will show that there are still many products that are in urgent need of innovation in dispensing. How the aged or less physically adept consumer must curse.

With all this negativity being brought to the fore there is one product that innovative dispensing would absolutely ruin. Indeed, sales would plummet.

Yet, just by opening it, this product has the potential to blind, break a window, not to mention ruin that silk dress or carpet.

What product are you talking about, I hear you asking? Why champagne of course. Now we could not have that in a bag in the box could we?

So, if this is the historical backdrop, what is being done to aid the now very impatient consumer? Nick Verebelyi, of Design Bridge Structures, explains how today’s mundane products can be given a market lift by the use of excellent dispensing that serves both the product and the consumer.

“Good dispensing solutions have tended to impinge on most structural design, despite the fact that they give a product added value. It is difficult to simply take the existing pack and put a good dispenser on the top or side.

“What is critical is the pack shape and the dispensing system being seen as a whole rather that two separate entities.

“The shape aids the dispensing and, in some instances [such as shoe polish or deodorant] also aids physical application of the pack contents.

“It is a matter of ergonomics and, from a brand point of view, gives added value and the visual ability to stand out on the shelf at point of purchase.

“Our work for the Kiwi shoe care range is a good example of this holistic approach. This is a product category that people purchase only occasionally so it is important to raise the brand awareness through innovative packaging solutions.

“There were two packs that both dispensed polish. The first was the little bottle with the ubiquitous sponge on the end. It worked but it didn’t give added value. We improved the pack structure by making it feel and look like a gear stick with the sponge as an integral part of the container.

“The design did not stop there because we specially shaped the sponge to enable it to get into all the nooks and crannies of the shoe itself. This sponge also had a clever valve device that both sealed the outlet for the polish as well as keeping the hole open when needed.

“The other Kiwi product was a quick fix shoe shine – a sponge with a silicone liquid. We reformed the pack into a triangular form that has a point on the sponge to get into the shoe shape better. The user holds the shell with the sponge underneath.

“Another element to these quick fix shoe shine products is that you never know when the liquid is running out until it has so, as part of the dispensing element, we created a window to show the user how much silicone was still there. This element alone increased the rate of sales and helped build the brand as the shoe product to buy – a legitimate purchase.”

What is quite clear from both Nick Verebelyi’s design and the added value given is that functionality – in this case innovative dispensing – and form are key elements in building brand value. Ergonomics are also important. Is it dispensed as a slow trickle or a quick blob? Again this has to be built into the dispensing element as a subliminal feature that is taken away from the consumer.

Consumer psychology is critical here as the purchase of the pack with its dispensing process may not seem appropriate. ‘Over egging the pudding’ could very easily be seen as over packaging and sales would fall.

One category that has exceeded the consumer threshold for packaging is the mint market. Mints have gone from humbug size down to a couple of grains of rice. This sub-category even has its own name – Supermints.

The Supermint delivers a big punch ‘just when you need it’, to quote Jeremy Clarkson.

As a result, a small plastics pack that delivers a single mint at a push of a button can command the consumer’s respect as well as being priced at over £1 a pack. It is quick, it is functional and it fits into a pocket or briefcase.

Design Bridge Structure also developed a roller ball deodorant stick for the Lever Fabergé range of products. While pack ball dispensing remained very much the same, it was the clever angle at which the ball was designed that greatly aided the actual dispensing function.

Another subtle change of dispensing was seen when the Impulse body spray actually did away with the cap piece altogether, with the spray action being facilitated by a twist of the neck.

A product that used to be the backbone of all home garages – oil – has seen value drop and large market segmentation of product. Halfords had a 20% share of motor oil sales and sold three times more than any other retailer but, in essence, they were competing with other retailers with their own brand rather than proprietary brands. There was a need to reposition the brand to take on the likes of Shell and Mobil but without losing its traditional market.

One of the elements in the design brief for the 5-litre and 1-litre packs to the designers, Pentagram, was that the packs should have value advantages such as ease of pouring. Critically, the packs were to cost the same as the old ones.

As one can imagine, holding a 5-litre pack full of oil presents problems from a weight point of view as well as dispensing. A short list of three packs was presented by Pentagram to Halfords and the most radical and progressive pack was chosen.

To aid dispensing, the overall shape had an undercut behind the top handle and a hand-hold recess at the base of the container. An oil container should not resemble a pack that simply holds and presents a product until it is discarded. It should always be a functional part of the product, enab-ling it to be used.

Ease of use therefore is critical. The handle is situated on the pack’s broad side or front, enabling the user to position the integral telescopic spout much nearer to the filler in the engine before the oil begins to pour.

This makes a difficult process easier by effective shape, enabling good dispensing and eliminating the possibility of an oil spill over the engine, garage floor or driveway.

The emergence of mineral water in the late 80s as a lifestyle choice has now changed into a basic household product and carried by virtually everybody.

A change in French law on drinking water that previously had not permitted water to be bottled in larger packs than 3 litres enabled Volvic to develop a new 5-litre product designed to fit in the refrigerator or stand on the kitchen work surfaces.

The weight of the pack when full makes dispensing by press tap essential. In their brief to World Wide Dispensers, Volvic specified an air return system to enable smooth dispensing.

The air return press tap allows the water to be dispensed from the rigid container at the push of a button, eliminating the normal kick back of air. The tap is also self-closing, thereby avoiding drips or spillage. Once again the pack structure plays a key role in the dispensing process with the bottle being placed on its shoulder.

As the neck is facing downwards, the contents can be fully discharged without the need to tilt the container manually. The pack’s weight distribution and shape keep the container stable, even when almost empty.

All this pack innovation virtually guaranteed that the product had to be a brand in its own right so Volvic came up with the Fontaine identity.

  “In France there is huge demand for large bottled water in packs up to 10 litres so the structural design and dispensing are fundamental to Volvic’s success in the marketplace,” comments Keith Moor of World Wide Dispensers.

A recent promotion called ‘Stay Cool For Summer’ by Glaxo Smith Kline set out to encourage both loyalty and repeat purchase of Ribena among parents during school holidays.

The pack was essentially the original Ribena brands of Original, Toothkind and Light Ribena which came complete with a 2.5-litre PVC fridge jug fitted with a World Wide Dispenser smooth flow tap.

These compact air returning lever taps are designed for single opening containers. “This product grew market share and the category overall by using an old idea cleverly,” adds Keith Moor.

“The jug had a measuring scale on it so the parent had the added value element of knowledge – just how much to pour. It was a winner on all counts.”

One would be forgiven for thinking that the only dispensing elements are to be found on packs that sit on a shop’s shelf but what about at the checkout?

This is where dispensing can get really fraught, as 3S managing director Martin Smithson explains: “A key shopping criteria for today’s consumer is to be able to shop quickly and easily. Checkouts and counters busy with people opening and loading bags hinder sales and return trips.

“Packaging innovation is one of the main motors of success in the retail industry with new designs in fruit and vegetable, delicatessen and carrier bags. It benefits both the retailer and the customer alike.

“Bespoke bag dispensing systems like the Cascade range, which are both easy to load and easy to use, ensure a faster through time for the customer at the checkout. The fast throughput of consumer traffic at the checkout can be made a lot less painful by making the process a lot quicker.”

Why should the consumer have to struggle when the answers are there for the taking? Conversely, is the dispensing packaging industry articulating the advantages strongly enough? I don’t think it is. A lot more knowledge on this packaging phenomenon has yet to be dispensed!