CHECK IT OUT

It's the first thing a shopper sees on the shelf, but too often it's the last consideration of brand marketers. It can be a competitive edge or an albatross around a product. It can be innovative or traditional, exciting or boring. What is it? The package, of course. To experience the impact of packaging, walk through any supermarket. At its best, packaging will stand out from the other similar packaged

It's the first thing a shopper sees on the shelf, but too often it's the last consideration of brand marketers. It can be a competitive edge or an albatross around a product. It can be innovative or traditional, exciting or boring. What is it? The package, of course. To experience the impact of packaging, walk through any supermarket. At its best, packaging will stand out from the other similar packaged goods on the shelf. That's important because time-pressed shoppers racing down the aisle can have difficulty finding products in stockkeeping-unit-laden shelf sets.

In the pet aisle, for example, rows of boxes and bags of cat food are clumped together on the shelf. What stands out? Purina cat food in two different plastic jugs: one clear, one white and both recyclable. Another example is instant mashed potatoes. All the brands are in boxes -- except Idahoan mashed potatoes in a 28-ounce metal canister similar to a coffee can. Planters now sells peanuts in an upright, flexible polyester pouch that stands tall next to cans and jars from less creative packagers of nuts. And so forth. Many executives who appreciate the value of packaging gathered in Philadelphia last week at East Pack, the conference and exhibit sponsored by the Package Design Council. (Brand Marketing's columnist Elinor Selame is the council's current president.)

At the conference's educational workshops several executives shared their insights, opinions and forecasts about the marketing potential of packaging. Here's a sampling:

· Graying baby boomers will squint for more packages that bear easy-to-read labels and are easy to open. This demographic block will demand these changes and will be big enough to get it. · The emergence of premium private labels in several categories has raised the stakes in sophisticated packaging. National manufacturers can't afford to be upstaged on the shelf by snazzy-looking store brands merchandised at eye level by their own customers. · If interactive television shopping catches on, there will be more interest in packaging. Armchair shoppers will electronically take packages off the shelf and examine them more closely than they would in a crowded supermarket aisle.

· Other than icons such as Coca-Cola and Campbell's Soup, package design must change over the years to keep alive the product inside. It's the equivalent of a new suit of clothes on an old body.

· Consumers become emotionally attached to packaging, and this affects their expectations. Don't confuse them. Consumers expected Crystal Pepsi to taste like Pepsi without the color. It didn't. Ultimately, every package combines size, shape, color, typeface, material, design, function and convenience. Some enhance the brand by inviting trial and leading to repeat purchases. Too many contribute to what package consultant Greg Erickson calls "bland awareness."

The bottom line: Dress for success.