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Material boost for beverages

Versatile materials that aid design and practicality are helping to fuel the burgeoning soft and alcoholic beverage sectors. Steve Thomas-Emberson reports

Beverage packaging is a serious business, a market that is so competitive that a single mistake can spell doom for a brand at a time when sales should be plentiful. Occasions such as Christmas, the World Cup and the Olympics are a beverage marketing heaven and innovative – or not – packaging can make all the difference.

It is also a market that is no longer just a pre-prandial affair. With a choice between soft or alcoholic, beverage consumption is almost 24/7, kicking off with breakfast beverages that are more than fruit juices, sports drinks that promise performance and a bewildering variety of alcoholic ‘swig-from-the-bottle’ brands for the sub-40s.

The market and its many sub-sectors just keeps on growing. What all the sectors must have from a packaging perspective is shelf appeal – a design, shape and, increasingly, packaging materials that shout “I’m different, try me”. Even the most cursory of glances at a supermarket beverage aisle will tell you that it is a highly charged atmosphere.

In order to provide beverage packaging solutions for its clients and market intelligence for brand managers and the like, Rockware Glass recently undertook a significant piece of market research into the growing and affluent group it euphemistically calls ’empty nesters’, the 50-65 age group. Sharon Crayton, marketing manager at Rockware Glass explained: “Our research objective went beyond a need to understand how 50+ consumers relate to products and their packaging. We wanted to learn about the lifestyles and aspirations of this age group and explore their attitude to recycling and the environment.

“We found that this age group has changed from a peripheral consumer to an active and important pacesetter of immense interest to any marketeer. This group typically is more willing to experiment, purchase more indulgent products that are both premium and exotic and is more ecologically aware – it hates waste! Its packaging answers were comprehensively practical – easy to open and use, stackable, resealable and recyclable.

“From a positive standpoint it liked plastic milk bottles with handles, microwave containers and optical devices on some bottles – the ability to ‘see through’ from a design input was also mentioned favourably. On the negative side, plastic wine corks were mentioned amongst the relatively few critical comments. Small beverage packs were also singled out as desirable as there are a lot more single homes within this age group.”

Just-in-time deliveries and the requirement for small run, highly targeted products are now commonplace in serving both the supermarkets and the consumer. In the beverage sector, the requirement for specifically time-conscious products is seen as an important marketing tool, a way of lifting sales on the back of an event. Rexam Glass has developed several solutions in order to resolve what marketeers want over a wide range of beverage lines, from soft to alcoholic.

One such development is its own advanced steam shrink sleeving process which wraps the entire bottle in a printed PET or PVC sleeve. This allows Rexam to provide added value to existing clients who would ordinarily use a traditional or bespoke glass bottle. It can now produce memorable solutions for brand owners who want to create promotional versions of their standard bottle on a limited production run.

Allied Domecq’s first promotional sleeve bottle has recently been produced for Malibu, the Caribbean coconut rum. The PET sleeves depict photographic images of snowboarding manoeuvres along with the name of the manoeuvre and a recipe for a Malibu cocktail of the same name.

PET shrink sleeve was also used on a Pepsi promotional bottle to coincide with the Euro 2004 Championships in Portugal. Traditionally, the bottles are decorated with screen-printing or pressure sensitive labels (PSLs). However Pepsi was seeking a totally new look to maximise the brand’s impact during the championships. Rexam Glass produced an effective look by applying a full coverage PET shrink sleeve that still retained the look and feel of the Pepsi swirl bottle. The images incorporated football heroes running the full length of the bottle.

Another of the firm’s innovations is its Kaleidocoat, a spray coating technology that utilises environmentally-benign organic paints to produce a whole new spectrum of colour solutions as well as tints. Colours can even be overprinted with text and combined with PSLs. One stunning example of this technology is Rexam’s limited-edition luminous bottle for Chivas Brothers’ whisky brand Clan Campbell. The aim was to boost its presence in trendy bars and increase its appeal to a younger market.

Not all beverages have to display lurid on-shelf presence. Milk is one such drink that must have health and hygiene as its packaging bywords, together with a high element of practicality to its containers. It can also be a product where packaging material innovations can be applied without the usual visual marketing requirements.

For example, since July 2004 a comparatively small dairy in Brescia, Italy has been bottling UHT milk in PET bottles instead of traditional cartons and Centrale del Latte di Brescia is now the first firm in the world to fill milk with an extended shelf life of 90 days at ambient temperature in 1-litre PET bottles soon to be followed by 0.5-litre containers.

The dairy company carried out exhaustive tests on PET bottles and cartons and says the PET bottles had a superior performance in terms of oxygen barrier and pressure stability as well as light permeability.

The aseptic filling technology has been supplied by Krones in the form of a compact-sized PET-Asept line, while the plastic bottles are produced on a Krones Contiform S stretch blow-moulding machine.

The dairy company was keen not to upset its consumers by a sudden change and simply marketed both PET bottles and cartons together at the same price to let consumers decide. Within three months of the launch the PET bottle succeeded in replacing 90% of the carton packs.

Convenience and design flexibility

According to Amcor PET Packaging’s marketing manager, Communications, Europe and Asia, Frans Van Dooren, “PET has long been recognised as the friend of the drinks industry. Its convenience benefits have been crucial factors in this success, as has its design flexibility”.

The Tropicana juice brand in France is a top seller in 1- and 1.5-litre sizes and for these Amcor developed its AmGuard bottle incorporating its pioneering Bind-Ox barrier material. A material specifically suited for juice products, it prevents oxygen ingress to give an ambient shelf life of around nine months. Product quality is further protected and maintained by the incorporation of a UV protector in the material’s outer layer.

The lightweight properties of PET are also particularly beneficial for bottles of this size, allowing a far greater volume of bottles per truckload for distribution to supermarkets and a reduction in wear and tear on the filling line; while the shatterproof qualities benefit the working environment, ensuring the bottles are both easier and safer to handle.

Meanwhile cartons continue to extend their reach, crossing over from beverages such as milk and juices to soups, sauces and even vegetables, as Heike Thevis of SIG Combibloc GmbH comments.

“Because of the success of cartons and beverages we have been able to open up new fields of application for the beverage carton. You may have seen creamy deserts and sauces with chunks of meat but the beverage carton is particularly suitable for sensitive products like liquid baby drinks and feeds.

“Here the carton is extremely practical. What we can do is offer the traditional beverage carton to the food and beverage industry as a whole and provide it with additional marketing opportunities.”