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Glass is facing stiff opposition from rival materials in the bottle sector but manufacturers are fighting back as Steve Thomas-Emberson reports

Bottles are big business. They come in a variety of materials from plastics, particularly PET, through to glass and now even metal. On top of this there are a multitude of shapes, textures, colours and the ubiquitous cap to top it all. It is a veritable feast for everybody concerned, be they the brand owner, designer or manufacturer.

All this has given rise to some absolute classics over the past 100 years, both from the contents of the bottle to the actual bottle itself. In 1916 Coca-Cola developed its uniquely contoured bottle with a brief to the designer that “even when the bottle is smashed on the sidewalk it must still be recognised as a Coke bottle”. Since that time the bottle has gone through nearly 200 changes that reflected the American culture of the day, a more flamboyantly contoured shape when Jayne Mansfield was wowing the cinema going public to a more slim-lined variety during times of puritan influence.

Europe, even before the Coke bottle birth, had developed its own iconic bottle with a true European flavour. In 1903 Perrier, although a French company, had its distinctive green bottle designed by an Englishman, John Harmsworth, brother of the newspaper tycoon Lord Northcliffe.

The message in the bottle, however, is that global soft drinks sales can vary tremendously. Weather is a dominating factor. A wet period be it in Spring or Summer dramatically affects consumption. Also the key market sector for soft drinks is the 10-24 age range and this is a globally shrinking group. As a result, large global drinks manufactures are developing more specialised products built around taste and emotional values led by innovative packaging.

Brand owners are continually stretching their own brands in a variety of innovative ways. Who would have thought that a Mars bar would actually end up a drink or a Lipton tea bag a bottle drink? This is not just down to the creative talents of the companies marketing teams but also has a lot to do with the continuing product innovation shown by bottle manufacturers. Size, or the variation in size, provided by plastic bottle makers such as RPC and Rexam have helped expand the global drinks market into countries where, for whatever local reasons, size does matter, the wrong size and there may not be a market opportunity at all.

Technical innovation

Peter Kay of the Design Bridge consultancy explains: “Drinks companies have definitely benefited from the increase in both bottle materials and also the technical innovation shown by bottle makers. This has enabled drinks brands to expand a single product through a combined use of glass for one size, PET for another range of sizes and even pouches for a quick short drink. This packaging has been able to facilitate the drink product being sold to the widest possible global consumer markets. For us it makes bottle design a very challenging job and as a trend it will only grow.”

While plastics have broadened the potential for mass delivery of drinks products, glass – that traditional bottle material – has to a certain extent taken a back seat. In fact, it has been hit quite badly in global terms, especially in the USA. But as Coca-Cola has returned to glass, from plastic so are other drinks manufacturers both for soft and alcoholic beverages. It has the support of the public who see it as a ‘friendly’ packaging material together with a subliminal feeling of authority over plastic. After all what material are perfume bottles made of? This is a market where prestige, one-upmanship and quality can be more important to the consumer than the contents.

Opportunities for glass

Rockware is a major glass bottle producing company and as such spends a lot of time assessing both the consumers’ needs as well as its own client requirements as Nigel Keenlyside for Rockware comments. “We are encouraged by a number of factors at play in the marketplace. The growth in the off trade for the alcoholic beverages sector has created opportunities for glass. We estimate that the off-trade now accounts for over 30% of alcohol consumed compared with 24% in the mid 90s. In Europe it has already reached 50%. Premium packaged lagers have driven the beer sector, growing from less than 500M units in 1993 to approaching 1.8bn units in 2004. Our research also shows that when consumers eat out they are becoming more experimental.

“Premium packaged soft drinks in well designed, non-returnable glass bottles are adopting the trend set by premium beers and lagers that brand distinction is all-important in packaging. Brand owners now recognise the opportunities for premium offerings in soft drinks for the high end dining out occasions.”

Rockware is a typical glass bottle company that has had to invest in innovation in order to keep in a very competitive marketplace. Taking a standard 330ml bottle, over the past 10 years the glass weight per bottle has been reduced by 40% therefore allowing 10 more bottles to each layer of the bulk pack, two more layers per pallet and four more pallets to each load. Increased productivity has seen a 200% increase in manufacturing speed in parallel with a 14% increase in manufacturing efficiency. Filling speeds have also increased by 30% together with improved quality, which has led to a filling line breakage reduction of 1000%. Filling line efficiency has been improved by 160%.

All these figures are hugely important for it is here that the direct comparison with plastic is made and one that historically it has fallen well short of.

What is interesting is that brand owners of both soft and alcoholic drinks are quite literally paying their money and taking their choice and, in some instances, it is a case of mix ‘n match with the use of both plastic and glass for differing purposes or sizes.

And, if the competition is not already hot enough, on comes another player – metal. We now have metal bottles produced by the likes of aerosol manufacturers – a good move because of their light weighting ability, as well as tin can manufacturers and it is these companies that are playing their cards very close to their chests. But close or not, the metal bottle is very much in development by a number of players.

There is one company, Cebal in France, that has taken great pride in its aluminium Heineken bottle. So much so that it won an Oscar de L’Emballage in 2002. This was all about Heineken producing a premium pack that was sold exclusively in night clubs and music bars and the bottle actually entered both the UK and the USA last year. Jean-Luc Tavenier, Cebal’s marketing manager, beverages, explains. “Aluminium bottles are chosen for their distinctive and outstanding look. They shine out of the shelves and, as a consequence, consumers like their metal touch and freshness feel. In short the consumers see the drink brand packed in an aluminium bottle and they remember the pack. It is a self-advertising pack. The very nature of the material makes the bottles highly visible as well as giving the brand owner something that cannot be copied. We are now enlarging our range of standard bottles to enter new markets so it is a working partnership with our clients as well.”

Aluminium bottles remain a niche market when compared to the mass market of glass, beverage cans or PET bottles, but one which will grow as brand owners see the potential. Heineken have not been the only drinks brand to choose this route as Danzka Vodka is now also offered in a metal container.

While innovation, as we have seen in the choice of material, production abilities and sizes is critical to the bottle marketplace, design holds the key to the consumers’ heart.

In March of this year Rockware created for Diageo the new Smirnoff Vodka packaging designed by Landor Associates. The bottle incorporates embossing of a ribbon and crown around the front of the bottle below the red and silver label. This re-design continues the innovative packaging that has always been Smirnoff Vodka.

Function and form

What we see in bottle design terms today is quite breathtaking. Hark back to 1973 when one innovative bottle not only looked fabulous but was ripe for the drinks market then. It was a sherry bottle designed by Kenneth Grange, of Kenwood Chef, Kodak Instamatic camera and the 125 train to name but a few of his accolades. He enthuses: “All the client actually wanted was a label but the person I was working with at the time thought the bottle a little commonplace so I designed a bottle for the client. The bubble fills with sherry or any other liquid and produces a glug sound when poured. The fuller the bubble, the deeper the sound. Noise was the cue. Today a drinks company could build a whole advertising campaign around it – a drink that sounds good. The drink sounded cheerful and chirpy. These kinds of cues are absolutely critical to good bottle packaging design today. There is much room for improvement, but what is needed is to invest in function and then put form to it.”

Wise words for, as has been stated, it is a highly competitive business. Other packs are entering the marketplace. Boxes, for instance, now account for nearly 50% of all wine sold in Norway. Pouches are extremely popular with children and are now in the drinks market in a big way. Lucozade is an excellent example. These different packaging products are a way of drink manufacturers expanding their market and it means that the traditional bottle containers have their work cut out to keep and improve on their market share of this most fascinating business.