Why am I talking about whether your packaging is fit for purpose for your export business I hear you ask? If you’ve read my article from a couple of weeks back about the job of an international business development manager, you may remember that the IBDM needs to have an overview about all aspects of the business.

Is your packaging fit for purpose? It’s a simple question on the surface but has several layers of complexity which I’d like to unpack today. And do you have packaging that fits to YOUR purpose? These are two sides of the same question.

Is your packaging fit for purpose?

Why am I asking this when my focus is sales and marketing? The package is the first thing a client sees and as you only get one chance to make a good first impression, it can be a key factor in purchasing decisions. If you are working in global sales, you need to understand which aspects of the packaging are important for consumers in your markets as this also drives brand loyalty.

I’m not trying to educate future supply chain or product management specialists here, just to give you an overview of what you need to know.

What makes packaging fit for purpose?

There are 2 main aspects to this – 1 for each of the questions I asked in the opening paragraph:
1) to protect the product
2) for your marketing purposes
Underestimating the importance of getting this right is one of the frequent mistakes in international expansion. Let’s dig into that a bit more.

It needs to protect the product

Package that is fragile

The core function of any product packaging is to protect the product between the factory & the end consumer. I know, it’s obvious. However, when it’s also a significant cost factor (materials, weight for logistics etc) then it’s important to optimise for the market in which you are actually working.

Delivering across the world usually requires a more robust package than if you deliver into your local village. Of course we’re not just talking about the primary product packaging here (the one you see on a shelf) but also the transport packaging has to be suitable for the task.

Is your transport packaging fit for purpose?

Sending goods from one side of the Netherlands to the other is less hard on your products than transporting them from Belgium by truck to Kazakhstan. Within Western Europe you can get away with slighter lighterweight transport cartons. Export markets need something more robust though if you really want your packaging to stand up to the job.

Additionally, many countries have phytosanitary regulations that your pallets or transport cartons have to meet, to prevent diseases entering the country – Australia is strict on this. That means you need the right kind of pallets and also certificates to prove they are safe.

container ship full of cargo

One additional point that’s easily overlooked, is the transport carton size. Will the goods be shipped into retail in pallet quantities or in cartons? If it’s in cartons, you need to think about the needs of your retail channels. Is your business through mostly modern trade outlets such as hypermarkets, a larger carton may be more practical. However if you are selling products through small local grocery stores in Indonesia or Vietnam then a carton with 6 pieces would be better.

To sum up the transport packaging

I know I often talk about frequent mistakes in international expansion, but there really is no need to reinvent the wheel:

  • are you working in a market with great infrastructure and relatively short distances with no changes of transport? Then you can possibly optimise your transport packaging for weight and cost
  • if your target market will be reached with multi-modal transport (eg truck, then ship, then truck again, and then last mile logistics of some kind) then don’t make false economies in the quality of your packaging.
  • if your market has special legal or regulatory requirements then you have no choice but to comply if you want to do business there
One last thing on this topic – direct deliveries to consumers
guy on motorcycle making deliveries (instead of a truck) in Sulawesi
(c) Kathryn Read

As almost everybody discovered in the past year of online ordering, so-called “last mile logistics” providers are not always careful with packages. OK, almost never…They treat your orders like airport baggage handlers ?? & you can think yourself lucky if they don’t just launch your parcel towards the front door from inside their van. So especially if your consumers are outside big cities in remote areas then the route can be arduous.

What about your primary packaging?

If the climate is tropical you also need to think about the packaging material. How well will your thin cardboard (eg designed for Sweden) protect the quality of your product on a shelf in a small grocery store without aircon in Sarawak? In my experience that package might be looking wrinkly and sad within an hour, certainly by the end of a day.

Some countries even specify the type of packaging for certain types of products. eg most of the Middle East specifies that you have to use resealable tins for infant formula.

It might not be a legal requirement in Asia, but often a practical one. The package which was originally designed for a European or US shelf is often simply not “tough” enough to protect its content in a tropical climate. The package doesn’t only need to protect against humidity, but also against insects or other creatures. Believe me, it’s a sure fire way to get “free publicity” if someone reports to the authorities that they found a beetle or a gecko in the packet of flour they bought. No consumer will consider that the importer should store the products in a better warehouse, they will claim against you, the brand owner.

Costs and sustainability

These 2 factors are often the ones which brands are focusing on primarily when we talk about functionality. In Europe packaging tends to be kept to a minimum both due to costs and for sustainability, but that isn’t always practical for Asia. And even in Europe, a study found that consumers on average threw away 41% of things that could have been recycled into the general rubbish. That is in a region where recycling is relatively easy and socially encouraged.

In Asia that looks very different. Whilst China is starting to introduce a legal requirement to recycle, and green initiatives are becoming increasingly common, there still isn’t the broad awareness or wish to have truly sustainable packaging. It’s therefore not a USP yet, except with a small niche of clients.

Packaging shows how much you care for your product. As a manufacturer if you don’t care enough to pack it respectfully, then your future clients wouldn’t respect it enough to buy it.

Sameeta Sparks

You need packaging that fits to YOUR purpose also as marketing support

All of us know that packaging is not just to protect the products but should also transport your marketing message. The only real exception to this that I’m aware of are cigarette packages in some regions.

Catches buyers’ attention & differentiates from the competition

First impressions play a crucial part in the decision (or not) to buy so it’s essential to grab buyers’ attention. That’s not always easy to do in countries with seemingly unending competition on the shelf. As the person responsible for sales in a market, it’s not so much your job to ensure that the packaging transports your company branding (that is a given) but that this is done in a way to appeal to local consumer taste. That means that the style and colours should be appealing to the local taste.

In Asia great value is placed on aesthetic presentation
(c) Kathryn Read

If you’re working in Asia, clients have incredibly high expectations of packaging aesthetics which is completely different to the attitude in Europe. In Europe a consumer usually views packaging as a necessary evil, and lots of people ask themselves the question why for example Amazon uses so much unnecessary packaging. A Japanese, South Korean or Chinese consumer on the other hand sees having elaborate packaging as a sign of quality. (It’s the same if you go to a restaurant: lavish presentation shows respect)

Stand out from the crowd

This is hard when stores group products together: you can stand out through your branding or an innovative packaging design. It may even more more important in ecommerce as it’s all too easy for a prospective buyer to scroll on by if your package doesn’t catch their eye. This is what I mean with packaging fit for your purpose.

Transports Product Information

Every country has their own ideas about what needs to be included as a legal minimum of information on a package. This usually includes the contents, net weight, country of origin, importer and/or producer. Do you need the label to be in the national language, or is it ok to add a sticker? The costs of printing & applying stickers can soon add up depending on whether you do this before the goods leave, in a customs warehouse in the destination market or in your importer’s warehouse.

You need to have a good grasp of the critical aspects of this as these affect price. What do you need to calculate for additional local packaging costs? And how much time does this take with each shipment?

Your product management team should know all the details of the label content, but it’s good to understand yourself what’s crucial. After all, you are the one who has to deal face to face with an angry partner if something goes wrong and products have to be pulled from the shelf.

Displays Product

How will your product be displayed in the store? Do you need packaging that stands up alone, that can be stacked? Or will you display it in a small tray carton? What is usual in your target market?

Communicate Marketing Messages

Various types of retro packaging

Usually any spare space on packaging is used for communicating key marketing messages. Part of the company mission, other products that may be interesting or just additional information or stories about the article inside the package.

These so-called claims should always be checked for their legality as you don’t want unnecessary headaches simply because a product manager was extra creative.

Helps to prove originality

This point is less intuitive than most of the other points I believe. I’m not talking here about the Dolce & Gabbana jeans you bought for $7 from a night market somewhere in Cambodia. Those are usually obviously fake & it shouldn’t be difficult to see it. Nor am I talking about when products are badly photographed for e-commerce platforms so that they look completely different when you receive them. That’s all “trade description law.”

What I’m referring to here is when consumers question whether your products are genuine because they detected an infinitesimal colour difference between two batches. This has happened to me several times with different products and importers in China, and often the differences were hardly even detectable with the naked eye.

If packaging is not right, in the mind of customers, it means that your procedures, QC, customer services are not under control … then how to trust such a brand?

Jean-Yves Laguillez
What can you do to try and solve this?

Firstly, obviously, you need to educate your in-house teams about the importance of consistent quality (especially for premium products). Taking care of the minute details is imperative as is having a fast and responsive customer service team, especially in mainland China, but all over Asia.

Another option is to give the consumers the possibility to scan a QR that leads back to a website confirming the authenticity of the products in question. It’s not an ideal solution but goes at least some way to reassuring clients that they are not about to buy a fake of some kind.

Having considered all of those points, is your packaging fit for purpose?

Of course when you are just starting out in a market, you can’t completely redesign your packaging to tailor it to the market. You will probably only make changes that are legally required (or even consider other markets where such efforts are not necessary).

You probably can't tailor your packaging in the beginning
Photo: Pixabay

However, if you want to be successful, especially in Asia then you need to be aware of this topic. Like I said in the beginning, underestimating the impact of packaging is a frequent mistake in international expansion and if you’re responsible for the market you need to have an overview of the salient points.

What could you do easily to improve the acceptance of your packaging in your export markets? Or do you often have complaints from consumers about damages? Let me know in the comments below!

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  1. […] Think about your packaging before you enter the market. If you are selling into lower tier cities in the south of China, having a thin paper sleeve around a product will probably end badly in the humid climate. Also there are more insects etc around in the sub-tropical climate than you would find in Europe. (See my post on the topic of packaging to learn more about climatic and other international considerations) […]

  2. […] consumers are successful brands where detailing is visible. (For example, consumers really like very elaborate packaging, as you can see in my earlier post on the topic). Consumption is often used to make a statement. That doesn’t mean it has to be a luxury […]

  3. […] means taking care of topics such as local standards, labelling and for electronics, plugs…. How can all of these processes be most efficiently carried […]

  4. […] more to this topic than meets the eye, as I already covered in this post. The bare bones essentials are that it should protect the product and be legally compliant in the […]

  5. […] fruits) This is a snack to welcome visitors and always kept in beautiful boxes placed on the table in the living […]

  6. […] you have to be a specialist here? No, but it does help to have a good grounding. When the customer is demanding to know why the product contains X or doesn’t do Y, it’s […]

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