The pace of change is picking up in every aspect of the consumer goods business, and packaging is no exception.Speed to market has become the new way of life for package designers. As a result, partnerships are more important than ever, requiring a full exchange of information between brand marketer and designer."Everyone must be fully informed. There's no time for mistakes or to alter directions

The pace of change is picking up in every aspect of the consumer goods business, and packaging is no exception.

Speed to market has become the new way of life for package designers. As a result, partnerships are more important than ever, requiring a full exchange of information between brand marketer and designer.

"Everyone must be fully informed. There's no time for mistakes or to alter directions because there's no fat in the timetable," says Fred Mittleman, chief creative officer at Mittleman Robinson Inc., a New York-based design firm.

The quickened pace is compressing package life spans. Even as new designs are being launched, brand managers are asking, "What's next?"

With mass-media outlets becoming increasingly fragmented, there's general agreement that packaging has become more crucial than ever in delivering the product's message and grabbing the attention of today's quickly distracted consumer.

This past year a higher than usual number of redesigned packages appeared on store shelves, due in part to the nutritional labeling law that took effect May 8 and the first expanding economy in several years.

Other forces at work included growing retailer power, the need for product differentiation on ever more crowded store shelves, increased competition between national brands and private labels, consumer demand for convenience and value, and environmental concerns -- particularly mandated recycled-content rates due to take effect Jan. 1, 1995, in Oregon and California.

Although redesigns have been widespread, few have been revolutionary. Even changes that represent a significant departure for a familiar brand serve to carefully preserve equities.

"The changes I've seen in packaging have been more tweaking than drastic redos. Marketers are more cautious today," says Lorna Opatow, president of Opatow Associates, a New York-based marketing and research firm specializing in new-product development and packaging.

For example, Campbell Soup Co., Camden, N.J., added a product vignette and updated typefaces to its soup can labels without disturbing its familiar red-and-white color scheme.

Warner Wellcome Consumer Health Products, Morris Plains, N.J., retained the barbell-shape, black cap and familiar green and amber colors when Listerine switched from glass to polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, bottles in October.

Many of the packaging changes this year involve rigid and flexible plastics. There's also been a lot of interest in creative combinations of materials, especially for pouches and bags like the stand-up pouch for Kettle Creations soup mix from Thomas J. Lipton Inc., Englewood Cliffs, N.J. It uses a windowed paper-polyethylene laminate in a dual compartment pouch, with dry ingredients in the front and a foil laminate pouch of spices in the back.

Use of rigid PET containers is booming, especially for shelf-stable juices and other beverages. New PET bottles have been launched by Veryfine Products, Westford, Mass.; the Mott's division of Cadbury Beverages, Stamford, Conn., and Welch's, Concord, Mass.

Light weight, clarity and recyclability are making PET attractive for other products, too, such as 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese from Kraft General Foods, Glenview, Ill.

In addition, a new resin grade and extrusion blow-molding process make it possible to produce handled PET containers like the ones used for Kraft's Log Cabin syrup.

Transitions to plastic packaging are not limited to PET. Another familiar product, Sucrets throat lozenges from Smith-Kline Beecham Consumer Healthcare, Pittsburgh, has traded its hinged steel box for a polypropylene container with a window. Inside, lozenges are packed in polypropylene/foil blisters to give longer shelf life than is offered by the foil wrap used previously.

Since research showed about one-third of the steel boxes are reused, the polypropylene container was designed to encourage consumers to continue this practice.

"We feel we've maintained reusability and added benefits," says Frank Dzvonik, associate brand manager. The polypropylene containers are about a quarter-inch deeper and are rust-free. The window not only displays the lozenge flavor, but later shows consumers what is stored inside without opening or labeling the box.

Today's busy consumer demands convenience. Satisfying convenience needs adds value and translates into packaging that simplifies opening, reclosing, handling and use.

This can be done in many ways, but often is addressed through use of zipper pouches, child-resistant yet elder-friendly closures, dispensing closures, unit-dose or single-serve designs, and susceptor structures to improve microwave heating.

Ergonomic needs were the driving force behind the design of a patented container/closure for Aleve, a new pain reliever from Procter & Gamble Co., Cincinnati. The Safety Squease container has passed the proposed elder-friendly, child-resistant protocol -- meaning it keeps children out but can be opened easily by older adults. The package also has won accolades from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, Washington, and the Arthritis Foundation, Atlanta.

It's easier to open because finger pressure disengages tabs in the neck from ratchets inside the closure to release it. Elder friendliness is enhanced by the large-type booklet labels for 24-count and 50-count sizes.

No-mess portability and an easy-open notch are the convenience features in a single-serving foil laminate pouch for Vlasic Pickles to Go from Campbell Soup. A proprietary process reduces the amount of brine in the package, but keeps the twin pickle spears crunchy.

Microwavability is designed into a new package for Hungry Jack syrup. The squat polypropylene bottle features a stay-cool handle and self-venting closure to protect users. A thermochromic label changes color to show when the syrup reaches the proper temperature.

Designing for the environment is becoming routine as brand marketers select packages that are source-reduced, reusable, recyclable and/or contain recycled content.

"New packages tend to be lighter," observes Opatow. Using less packaging is not only environmentally positive, but frequently also can improve economics by reducing both material and shipping costs.

In Listerine's case, although exact figures are not available, PET bottles typically are about 66% lighter than glass. The shatter-resistant PET also eliminates the need for the trademark paper wrap and corrugated secondary packaging the mouthwash used, as well as shipping case partitions.

Another example of lightweighting is the new PET bottle recently launched nationally for P&G's Crisco oil. A faceted design and patented blow-molding process results in containers that are 30% lighter than their predecessors and about 45% lighter than competitors'. Annual material savings are estimated at 2.5 million pounds of PET and 1.3 million pounds of corrugated secondary packaging, due to the container's squarer and more cube-efficient base.

Switching to flexible packaging is another way to "source reduce," since it typically uses 70% to 80% less material than rigid containers for the same amount of product. It also flattens as it empties, so less landfill space is required if it's not recycled.

Although there have been flexible packages for liquid refills for some time, P&G is the first to introduce refill bags for powdered laundry detergents.

The low-density polyethylene/ high-density polyethylene laminate bags for Tide and Cheer detergents use 80% less material than the hinged and handled paperboard cartons they refill and are expected to eliminate 18 million pounds of packaging waste annually. In addition, the high-density polyethylene layer contains at least 25% postconsumer recycled content and will consume 3 million to 6 million used milk jugs per year. Since the majority of the bag is low-density polyethylene, it is coded 4. So bags are more likely to be landfilled or incinerated than recycled because relatively few curbside programs accept low-density polyethylene.

Some observers view this as a negative. But the pros and cons of recycling vs. other methods of disposal are complex and not clear-cut.

"Environmentally, people are less sure about what's good and bad because authority figures are giving out so much conflicting information," says Opatow. Recycling is not always the best option, she adds.

But recycling is popular with consumers because it makes them feel they are doing something positive for the environment. As a result, collection programs are expanding and markets for recycled materials are developing.

One of the most exciting innovations is the growing use of recycled-content PET in food contact applications. Veryfine, for example, has added a postconsumer recycled layer to its PET/ ethylene vinyl alcohol bottle for hot-filled juices, teas and lemonades. The structure sandwiches the postconsumer recycled PET between virgin layers.

In the coming year, package design will continue to be driven by the need for speed to market and product differentiation, retailer requirements, consumer convenience demands and environmental concerns.

Competition between national brands and private labels will peak, predicts Barry Seelig, president of Apple Designsource, New York. With appearances now mostly head to head, winning will depend on whether consumers believe the quality of the product matches up to the imagery of the packaging.

The pace of new product introductions also should surge as companies dust off more projects shelved during the recession.

Look for growth in flexible packaging because of its potential cost and environmental benefits.

Interest in PET will continue its steep upward trend unless resin companies unleash prices. Transitions to PET also should be helped by commercialization of cost-effective barrier coatings under development now for several years.

Use of PCR PET also will increase as superclean Supercycle resin from Johnson Controls, Manchester, Mich., begins to be used in bottles and as other companies receive letters of nonobjection from the Food and Drug Administration, Washington, for use of postconsumer recycled PET in food-contact applications.