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MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA — The potential for innovative consumer product packaging is stunted because packaging managers have no clear direction in their own jobs or their roles within their companies, according to a new North American survey.

David Olsson, a professor in the Department of Packaging Science at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y., last year surveyed packaging department managers in 20 North American food, drug, medical device and consumer electronics companies.

Olsson said the survey showed that packaging managers at consumer products firms believe their role often is taken for granted, not highly regarded or altogether ignored. He spoke at the International Association of Packaging Research Institutes world conference, held March 24-27 in Melbourne.

The lack of long-term planning, which sees packaging managers working on a short-term, project-by-project basis, means companies are not getting heavily involved in innovation.

Most packaging managers said they do not have a strong set of goals or sense of mission, and report in an inconsistent way to corporate management.

Such circumstances often lead companies to undervalue their packaging function and underutilize its potential contribution to market-share growth, he said.

He said a coordinated management approach to packaging, backed by long-term development initiatives and greater staff resources, would see more innovations and, ultimately, a better use of finances.

The survey showed there currently is no definitive management slot for packaging managers, with most reporting to a broad range of departments, such as marketing, engineering or quality control.

``There are very few high-level packaging managers in U.S. corporations ... [therefore] packaging's function and relationship with other corporate divisions is not well-understood,'' he said.

Olsson said packaging departments should have their own vice presidents and access to high-level management personnel for communicating their needs and goals throughout the organization.

Packaging departments generally respond to short-term needs of marketing or production departments. Long-term initiatives, including evaluation of new materials and containers, is not typically part of a packaging manager's activities. Olsson said most large North American consumer product companies have only a small number of staff involved in the development, application and management of packaging. The average is 13.

``Considering hundreds of millions of dollars is spent annually on packaging materials and containers, a few individuals wield significant influence over corporate resources,'' he said.

Janet Macdonald, packaging development manager of Australian food manufacturer Unifoods, a division of Sydney-based Unilever Australia Ltd., said coordinated development and investment in packaging innovation is a basic requirement for a successful consumer products company.

She said a good packaging policy can drive category and margin growth, and provide competitive advantages in saturated markets.

Household cleaners are an example of a highly developed category that achieved continued growth through packaging innovation. Macdonald told the conference there is no single answer to how consumer products companies should best use packaging to grow market share. Companies need a range of strategic and tactical approaches for different categories and markets, she noted.