It's not easy being green--Optimizing eco-friendly packaging

Early adopter brands have further differentiated their products and won consumer affinity by adopting green strategies in their brands and packaging. But risks are many says Affinnova's Steve Lamoureux.
Written by Steve Lamoureux,, Contributor
Commentary--On every progressive brand manager’s short list is a sustainability initiative. In just a few short years, the environmental movement has tipped and hit the masses.

Early adopter brands have further differentiated their products and won consumer affinity by adopting green strategies in their brands and packaging. But risks are many and guidance is limited when deciding what to do and how to make the most of it. Here is a primer on what you should consider and how to involve consumers to make the most green (as in profits) from your eco-packaging initiative.

Going green
As altruistic as it may be, going green is not without significant costs and financial risks. Any changes to a product’s primary package or manufacturing methods can be a huge investment. Since eco-updates are often not obvious to the consumer, additional costs for relabeling and promoting the initiative are required.

There are strategic risks as well. When launching a new product with an eco-friendly positioning, care must be taken to strike the right balance between product effectiveness and secondary environmental benefits. When adding a green feature to an existing product, consideration should be given to how it will impact the brand character. Also, green packaging often reduces labeling space (e.g. eliminating outer packaging) or printing quality (e.g. recycled paperboard) which can diminish shelf impact or quality ques.

What does it mean to be green?
There are many approaches to an environmental benefit. Options include: package reduction, larger containers or more concentrated products, eco-friendly materials or manufacturing process, product refill SKUs, and so on.

You need to ask: What are the most compelling eco-benefits that fit and reinforce your brand character? How can your chosen measures be communicated on or with the package. What is the level of consumer understanding on the relevant green issues (today and in the future) and how can this translate into goodwill and sales for your brand?

At the end of the day, the brand manager is faced with a business decision that has potentially high costs, high risks and unknown benefits. They will need to discover what eco-benefits to incorporate, how to promote them, and how to get to market quickly to maximize an early-adopter bump.

Making the right choices
The mainstreaming of environmentalism is a new phenomenon and there are precious few case studies of how to successfully position or promote green efforts in packaging. This makes the best judgment approach difficult for package designers and marketers. It is wise to explore your options with the help of consumers but beware of research limitations - especially in this area.

Focus groups and other forms of qualitative studies can help with ideation and basic response to claims and visual cues. However, reliability is always an issue and particularly so when the topic is as socially loaded as environmentalism. It is generally a mistake to ask consumers for design direction. Limit design feedback to their general reaction to fully rendered concepts.

Standard quantitative approaches are much more reliable for choosing among fully formed design concepts or environmental claims. You will need more time to execute a good quantitative study though, especially if you need to iterate and retest based on sub-par results. This can keep you in research mode while your competitors earn first mover advantage points.

You may want to explore optimization studies for your designs. These can be used to explore much broader design variation to discover optimal eco-friendly packaging and claims. New optimization technology combined with the penetration of broadband Internet access now make it possible for consumers to compare and react to high resolution design concepts. Studies using evolutionary optimization have the capacity to explore design element combinations that number in the millions. Though the added design exploration may extend the design time, finding top concepts among the expanded range brings closure and confident decision making within a couple weeks.

Steve Lamoureux is the Chief Innovation Officer of Affinnova, Inc., the global leader in optimization technology and pioneer in evolutionary optimization for package design.

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