Sameer Talsania, PhD, perceives grocery store aisles a little differently than other people. After years of R&D leadership in the consumer packaged goods industry, he’s acquired a kind of X-ray vision that reveals the layers of innovation imbuing the materials and graphics enveloping all those goodies lining store shelves.
“I remember when, after working on this packaging innovation team earlier in my career, I was walking down the aisle at the supermarket and seeing all this stuff I’d seen a thousand times before in a totally new way,” said Dr. Talsania, Senior Manager, External Innovation at PepsiCo R&D. “All the materials science and the customer insights research that goes into the thinking of why this product does it that way, and that packaging is done this way is really mind-blowing once you understand it.”
A chemical engineer by training, Dr. Talsania left academia to get more into the application side of engineering. He has since spent years at the forefront of R&D innovation in packaging, consumer packaged goods, and industrial processing methods.
The numbers illustrate how important packaging has become to solidifying the emotional bond between consumer, company, and packaged goods. The packaging industry is estimated to reach over $1 trillion in 2020, up from $839 billion in 2015, according to a report by Smithers and Pira. A recent McKinsey report noted that since 2013, the packaging solutions sector (companies providing packaging material, equipment, services, and solutions) has generated 2.2 percent profit every year, after a long period of scant value creation. And that same report predicts additional growth.
Growth in the packaging industry is driven by multiple forces. The fundamental changes to packaging design and materials, Dr. Talsania noted, are driven by a web of environmental, market, regulatory and consumer-oriented factors, including:
Dr. Talsania has had a front-row seat and one hand on the controls of the packaging revolution since its early years when he joined the packaging innovation team at the William Wrigley Jr. Company. The very idea of the cross-functional team was itself inventive. Up to that point, Dr. Talsania’s R&D teams had been almost entirely comprised of technical backgrounds within fields of the perceived problem space.
But this team’s diversity was expansive. While he provided materials science expertise, other team members brought marketing and customer insights data to the table. That diversity opened up his thinking on the problem space and yielded clearer paths to more valuable solutions.
“I was brought in as the materials scientist, but I learned on that team that packaging is about more than just the performance of materials. We had to ask ourselves: ‘What is the emotional significance of the packaging design to consumers?”
By the time he got there, gum packaging had gone from just sticks wrapped in wax paper to also medication-like blister packs at Wrigley. Customers had become accustomed to the act of popping a gum pellet from its individual housing—the look and feel and freshness of the gum was critical, as was the sensory experience of removing it from the packaging.
The technical challenge Dr. Talsania’s team faced was making those blister packages more environmentally friendly without sacrificing the customer experience. Gum pellets pop out of the foil liner in a satisfying way after pushing on the plastic blister. Exchanging the foils and plastics with paper-based or other biodegradable materials altered that experience. Customer feedback indicated some people were OK with it for the greater good. Many others were not.
“It varies from consumer to consumer, but that’s when we learned that functionality is key– if the unwrapping experience with the packaging doesn’t work the way people expect it to, that can be kind of an outrage to them.”
Sometimes, skating around consumer expectations can entail a totally new kind of packaging. This challenge is harder in one-dollar snack foods than for expensive wine or electronics, or perfume or cosmetics. In premium CPG products, the cost of building new equipment to produce a slick new packaging design can be passed on to the consumer and is typically built into the business model as an essential component to product marketing.
But for inexpensive items like snacks and confectionary products, changes to existing packaging equipment must be justified by a clear return. For gum, taking pellets out of blister packs and putting them into recyclable vitamin-like bottles satisfied the sustainability constraint and opened up an enjoyable new customer experience with the product. Customers used the bottles in new ways and consumed gum from them differently.
At PepsiCo, Dr. Talsania’s first packaging design project was on a premium-ingredient oatmeal cup. The just-add-water, single-serve cup would replace the experience of emptying a packet into a bowl. But the cup’s packaging had to align with expectations for natural food to be both healthy and Earth-friendly. No small task, considering the paper cup would need to contain hot water without leakages. This was, Dr. Talsania reminded, back when sustainability was less focused on end-of-life recyclability than today.
The team figured it out. Since then, Dr. Talsania has been involved with packaging innovation across a wide spectrum.
“You name it, we work on it: there’s glass bottles, plastic bottles, aluminum cans, flexible chip bags, cartons for cereal boxes and granola bars… and that’s just the primary packaging. We haven’t even started talking about the secondary packaging: the cartons the cans or bars go into, and the multipack films. And the tertiary packaging: the corrugated boxes and bulk containers that things get shipped into stores and across the e-commerce channel when people order stuff off Amazon.”
Packaging design must be re-thought within the e-commerce context, which contains 25-30 product touchpoints between factory to consumer. That’s contrasts with five touchpoints for traditional brick and mortar store delivery. Not only does more packaging materials go to landfills due to e-commerce packaging, but the packaging itself is inefficient for the e-commerce supply chain. The whole concept needs to be re-thought to enable greater flexibility with how products can be repackaged for different end-users.
The e-commerce channel constitutes an exciting challenge for Dr. Talsania and his PepsiCo colleagues. They are solving a packaging problem confronting all consumer packaged goods companies.
The challenges to e-commerce packaging are legion. Packaging must be thinner and lighter to save on transportation costs; while remaining puncture-resistant to protect products. Packaging must contain fewer layers and be made from more recyclable materials; while keeping products just as fresh and sealed off from air. There must be fewer bulk packaging materials to save on landfill waste, but the tertiary packaging must still prevent product damage.
Usually, product or packaging innovations must readily plug into existing manufacturing equipment and industrial processes. That’s a major element of their commercial feasibility. If a company needs to design a whole new manufacturing system to produce a product at scale, there’s a higher bar for the product to reach with regards to its return on investment.
That’s an important difference between inventing a product or packaging from a blank slate, or retrofitting it with, say, new materials or process adjustments.
“With packaging, there’s all this infrastructure and equipment that you have to use,” said Dr. Talsania. “It’s hard to get around that. When you’re limited to using existing assets, you can change your materials and things like that to improve the sustainability aspect for instance, but when you have to make a change to a piece of equipment, then the bar is higher to justify that type of move.”
Is one better than the other? Not really, said Dr. Talsania. Creating products from a blank slate might seem more glamorous to some. But many engineers prefer inventing around a tight set of constraints.
Either way, it comes down to solving an innovation puzzle with the end-user and the business in the foreground, surrounded by many technical pieces.
Sameer Talsania, PhD, is a global R&D leader with 20 years professional experience across diverse industries. As Senior Manager in External Innovation at PepsiCo, he manages strategic global partnerships, open innovation platforms, and emerging technology scouting to accelerate innovation. His leadership and expertise in open innovation and strategic partnerships is geared to deliver breakthrough innovation.
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