Thinking outside the box: 9 tips for perfect packaging

Thinking outside the box: 9 tips for perfect packaging

Like it or not, packaging will eat up a fair amount of cash—even for startup brands with DIY packing and shipping operations. It’s best to do some research and know all your options before diving in, especially in the natural products industry. Finding that balance between sustainability and practicality is as much art as it is science. Here are nine considerations for developing your perfect packaging, with input from experts who had to learn them the hard way.

Less glamorous than R&D, more grueling even than production, packaging is the one area of product development most likely to leave you frustrated, confused and ready to go back to your day job. Appealing to an environmentally aware, über-health-conscious  group of consumers requires a package to do nearly the impossible: be environmentally sound, food safe, sturdy enough to prevent damage, able to maintain long shelf life, and cost effective.

“For me, the biggest hurdle to get over—and even define—was how to approach the structural aspects of packaging,” says Lucy Gibson, MD, founder and CEO of Dr. Lucy’s allergy-friendly baked goods. “When I look back at it all, it seems hilarious how little I knew then.”

Learn from the experts, with these nine tips for making your packaging journey a success:

1. Size up the competition. The fact is, there are only so many options for packaging, and the best way to start is to look at what others in your category have done. Spend time browsing shelves, surfing websites, cruising the aisles of industry trade shows. If you see a package that seems to suit your needs, call the manufacturer and ask who their packaging rep is. You may be surprised how forthcoming many of them will be.

“If it can be done, it probably has,” says Julie McGinnis, co-founder and CEO of The Gluten Free Bistro. “The packaging industry has to catch up and figure out sustainable, durable options that are still affordable. There just aren’t that many choices, and everything that’s available is out there already.” 

2. Consider a professional. If you have the money, there’s always the option of hiring a packaging professional. These range from freelance consultants to full-on branding agencies that handle everything from packaging to name, logo design and positioning. If you go the agency route, choose a company that focuses on natural and organic branding, and expect to spend some significant capital—most of these companies charge upwards of $10,000 to develop a brand that includes packaging.

A less pricy option would be to hire a packaging consultant. They’re often packaging engineers and many have years of experience in the industry. When you’re interviewing consultants, make sure your candidates are independents, not vendors or reps, so you’ll be sure to get an unbiased opinion. All the better if he or she is a member of the Institute of Packaging Professionals; find one in your area at

3. Balance sustainability with practicality. Sure, it would be great if your package doubled shelf life, halved production costs, and self-composted two days after you finished the contents. But until that happens, we’re stuck with compromises. “Sustainability is not always a black and white issue,” says Jack Acree, executive vice president of Saffron Road foods. “There are a lot of branches to that tree.”

For example, glass seems like a sustainable solution, until you consider the carbon footprint of shipping heavy containers. Or larger containers of food product seem more eco-friendly, but single-servings prevent food waste. If your packaging is recyclable, you’re assuming that your customers actually can and will recycle it. And then there’s the issue of where your packaging comes from. “If you’re making a package in Chicago, shipping it to Nashville for printing and then to Utah to warehouse, the footprint is substantial,” says Ed Soehnel, startup and growth company expert in B2B and B2B2C.

Even most compostable packages, which initially seem like the holy grail of sustainability, have drawbacks. “The ones that actually protect product while being affordable are made from GMO corn—so you have to choose between supporting the petroleum industry or supporting the GMO industry,” says McGinnis. “In the end, you just recognize that you have to make compromises, align yourself with those issues that are most important to you, and hope that the packaging industry starts to offer better options.”

4. Guard your shelf life. Whether you’re making a food product or face cream, chances are it won’t contain preservatives. That means the issues of shelf life and safety are of paramount importance. “It’s so important to get the right packaging to protect your product,” says Gibson.

For personal care products, tubes or smaller containers that minimize the contact of oxygen with the product increase stability. Modified atmosphere packaging (MAP), also called nitrogen flush processing, naturally extends shelf life of food products by replacing oxygen, which causes products to degrade more quickly, with nitrogen. The downside? “It’s not terribly high-tech or expensive,” Gibson says, “but when you’re a small company looking at how to streamline process, it’s just one more step, and that adds money.”

5. Don’t let your cookies crumble. Even as you’re trying to minimize packaging, you’ll also need to ship your boxes, pouches or packets somewhere—and that secondary packaging has to be sturdy enough that your cookies don’t crumble and your shampoo bottles don’t break.  More sustainable options for cardboard boxes use recyclable shrink wrap and corrugated pads to cut down on secondary packaging by as much as 75 percent. Or, if you do use conventional corrugated cardboard boxes, corn-based packing peanuts and shredded recyclable paper can be used for cushioning instead of styrofoam peanuts or bubble wrap.

6. DIY or farm it out? You may have dreams of sending your recipe or raw materials off to a co-packer who will use their giant machines and considerable experience to produce and package your goods at lightning speed. But the reality is, when it comes to packing you’re probably going DIY for the first few years. Most co-packers have robust minimums; you’ll also have quality control issues and, if you have a proprietary process, confidentiality concerns as well.

“It all depends on where you are in growth stage,” says Soehnel. “If you’re just starting out, you’ll be in a testing phase for some time, where you’ll produce and package your product, and figure out what works best. At some point, you’ll say ‘Okay, I think we’ve got it figured out—let’s scale this up.’ That’s when you have to get serious about finding outside resources.”

7. Grill your packaging rep. Many have a background in packaging engineering, even those who don’t have considerable knowledge and experience with what works and what doesn’t. “My piecemeal path through the process was to talk to sales people who had various different films,” says Gibson. “Through that process, I eventually honed in on the different packaging options, and their knowledge and guidance was instrumental in that process.”

Get to know your packaging reps—send them samples of your product, invite them to coffee, ask lots of questions. And an even better option—look for a big industry trade show for packaging in your region and attend for at least one whole day. Sign up for beginner’s seminars, talk with vendors, walk the booths and see what’s available. And be sure to compare companies, not only for price and variety, but also for their willingness to work with a small company.  

8. Perfect your pricing. No matter which route you take, chances are you’ll spend a considerable amount of cash on packaging. It’s a tricky piece, because your consumers don’t take the cost of packaging into account when they buy products. Some consumers are willing to pay more for a product that has all the attributes they need, says Acree, like convenience, sustainability and recyclability. One study found that one-third of respondents would pay more for “environmentally friendly” packaging.

“It comes down to a couple of things,” Soehnel  says. “First, what’s your brand? What are you about? If sustainability is a core aspect of your brand, it may be worth spending extra money on packaging, because it’s important to your customers and will help differentiate you.” And when you’re looking at packaging costs, consider the future, Soehnel says. “Can you make money on this? Maybe now you can’t, but as you grow and develop economies of scale, will that change?”

9. Emphasize convenience, especially with food and beverages. One of the main reasons consumers buy packaged foods, often at a premium, is because they’re easy. Single-serve packages, grab-and-go containers, zippered bags, things that can be resealed all add to the consumer’s ease and pleasure. For supplements, blister packs, single-serving packets and liquid formulations with droppers are options. Zippered pouches with pre-measured contents are a fast-growing trend, and have the added advantage of being easier to ship, saving on fuel and reducing carbon footprint, Acree says. From a sustainability prospective, it may seem wasteful to make single servings. But, says Acree, “there’s nothing less sustainable than throwing away food.”  

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