For a look at where packaging is headed, look no further than the Clorox Bleach Pen.
So says Washington-based futurist John Mahaffie, who described the portable, wand-shaped stain removal tool as having the right mix of portability, performance and convenience. Clorox accomplished this by creating a package that's as important as the household cleaner inside.
Products like the Bleach Pen and battery-powered nozzles are blurring the line between the product and package, Mahaffie said. "Packaging is becoming recognized as a strategic aspect of the product itself," he said.
Along with playing a more integral role in marketing, the package of the future will be more valuable in other ways, from helping marketers better advertise their brands to improving the function, freshness and shelf life of a product. Convenience will continue to be a top characteristic, but other factors will be equally as important, including taste and quality.
Likewise, retailers will increasingly rely on packaging to distinguish themselves from the competition. In doing so, Mahaffie predicts a rise in "mass customization," where marketers will produce different versions of packaging for one product to offer retailer exclusivity in certain markets.
"This will give retailers something more along the lines of what they get from a private label," he said.
In the years ahead, food manufacturers will turn to packaging to communicate the freshness of a product. While this trend will be seen in all areas of the store, it will be especially prevalent in the hard-hit Center Store, said Mike Richmond, president and chief executive officer of Packaging and Technology Integrated Solutions, a Kalamazoo, Mich.-based consulting firm.
This shift could lead to more packaged goods that have zippers on the package and "windows" that allow shoppers to see the product itself.
"Everyone is trying to make products appear fresher," he said.
More and more, marketers will use packaging to get their products noticed in the store - an imperative at a time when 80% of the roughly 30,000 new packaged goods introduced each year fail.
A product's package can greatly affect the success of a new product.
That's because media fragmentation has forced companies to find new ways to reach their target audience. Since a whopping 70% of purchase decisions are made at the store, packaging can be a factor in whether a product lands in the cart.
"Packaging is becoming the new sales medium," Richmond said.
One way this will be achieved is through the use of attention-grabbing colors, coatings and foils.
"There will be more effort to help the product stand out on the shelf," Richmond said, citing Folger's plastic coffee canisters and Campbell's Soup at Hand microwavable soups in easy-to-grip containers.
While packaging helps get a product noticed, the quality of the ingredients inside will determine whether there are repeat purchases.
"Taste is and always will be No. 1," Richmond said.
Companies will improve taste by developing new delivery systems, such as beverages that can be enhanced with the release of an ingredient stored under the cap.
Tom Vierhile, executive editor of Productscan Online, Datamonitor's new-products database, pointed to Dave's Gourmet Adjustable Heat Hot Sauce, which Productscan named one of the best new product introductions of 2005.
The bottle is divided in half, with one side holding mild sauce; the other, zesty. The user can adjust the level of heat by turning the cap.
"Packaging is going to help products be customized by the consumer," Vierhile said.
Food and beverages that deliver on this theme could dominate their respective categories, much in the way that Apple's iPod digital music player does, he said.
Richard Gerstman, co-author of the book "The Visionary Package" and chairman emeritus of Interbrand, a brand consulting firm, anticipates growth of products that are fun and easy to use, like Heinz Easy Squeeze, an upside-down ketchup bottle.
"Heinz turned a bottle into something that kids could play with," he said.
Gerstman foresees squeeze bottles extending into new categories, like vegetables. Along with its kid appeal, such packaging will also cater to aging baby boomers, who will seek products that are easy to open and use.
Gerstman also sees technological advancements creating new roles for packaging. RFID tags, for instance, could transform shopping by making it possible for products to be scanned as consumers take them off the shelves, thereby simplifying the checkout process.
Today, RFID is used mainly on the supply side of the business to track inventory. It could take years for it to be fully embraced at the item level.
Until then, plenty of other improvements in technology will shape the future of packaging, especially in the form of shelf life.
Tetra Pak, a Chicago-based packaging firm, for instance, announced the launch of what it says is the first microwavable aseptic package. Chef Creations, Orlando, Fla., is using it for several prepared sauces.
"It provides a new level of convenience in that it's microwavable, and you can serve the product right out of the package," said Jeff Kellar, vice president of strategic business development for Tetra Pak.
The company is introducing other packaging types, including a clear aseptic stand-up pouch for juice drinks.
"Convenience continues to be a primary driver for people's purchasing behavior," Kellar said, "so we want to do anything we can do from a packaging standpoint to help make meals easier, including reducing the need for some utensils and dishes."
Products that deliver on this have the potential to attract new users to categories. Take wine, which has experienced significant growth, due in part to packaging innovations.
No longer confined to glass bottles with corks, wine is now marketed in everything from aseptic containers to vacuum-sealed bags and bottles with screw tops.
Ball Corp., a Broomfield, Colo., metal and plastic packaging supplier, showcased its new polyethylene terephthalate wine bottles at a recent wine conference.
PET bottles have created new wine-drinking occasions by making the beverage suitable for travel and outdoor events where glass is prohibited.
Ball designed a custom 187-milliliter PET wine bottle for Sutter Home Winery. The winery launched four wine varieties in select markets last fall and continues to expand distribution, the company said in a statement.
"We already had a single-serve size in our 187-milliliter glass bottles and believed that adding PET would only increase the level of convenience for consumers and expand our package mix in line with market demands," Wendy Nyberg, senior marketing director for Sutter Home, said in the statement.