ATLANTA - Makers of packaging materials and end users of those packages must work together to develop an understanding of what the consumer wants. That is the sermon being preached by George Gourlay, senior vice president and manager of technical operations for one of the most successful consumer products companies - Coca-Cola Co.
Only when a company knows what the consumer really wants can it be successful in differentiating itself in a customer's mind, and delivering the right package at the right time, he said.
In an interview last week in his Atlanta office, Gourlay said he feels consumer products companies and their package-making partners have turned their backs on the consumer and focused on the price, production and technical sides of their businesses, only to cheapen their overall product, and make it boring.
``A product only has value when the consumer picks it up,'' he said. ``And we have learned that they won't pick it up as much if it looks like everything else.''
Coca-Cola learned the hard way, he said, by loosing touch with its signature ``contour'' bottle, and became just another soft drink on the shelf.
``We forgot that packaging is a tool and that the contour was one of the things that differentiated us from our competitors,'' he said. ``We learned that if we strictly went for the easy answer of taking cost out of the packaging, it would not work as well as if we attached value to the product and the package in the mind of the consumer.''
Coca-Cola brought back the contour bottle recently after being without it for a number of years, and Gourlay said it has been a marked success. However, the return incorporated several changes made with the consumer in mind. The new contour bottle holds 20 ounces, larger than the original 6 1/2-ounce glass container that became emblematic of the soft drink giant, and it is made of PET instead of glass.
The company has said that sales of the contour bottle have been very good. Coke has moved to capitalize on its success by returning Sprite, its lemon-lime drink, to a PET version of its original ``bubble'' bottle.
Nor is Coke happy with simply presenting the familiar-shaped bottles in PET. Gourlay said the company does extensive work to determine what consumers want in all forms of packaging, and will use what it learns. Already, the company has tested a refillable bottle in Uruguay made of polyethylene naphthalate, which has been touted as a potential replacement for PET because of its ability to be hot-filled, and its superior barrier qualities. The company also is marketing three-layer contour bottles in Australia, Sweden and Switzerland that feature a core layer of recycled PET sandwiched between virgin PET layers. The recycled-content bottle will be introduced soon in Belgium, Gourlay said.
Nor has Coca-Cola forgotten the ubiquitous metal can. It soon will introduce a metal ``contour can'' to capitalize on the brand identification factor afforded by the design.
``Disagree with anyone or any industry that says it is totally satisfied with a material or a process as it is,'' he said. ``The glass bottle improved over the years and look at how the plastic bottle has improved over 20 years. We go by the words of our founders that `The world belongs to the discontented.' ''
While he was not at liberty to discuss specifics, Gourlay said the company has devoted a great deal of time to developing the single-serving sizes of products, and that within the next calendar quarter Coke will introduce another new package, which he described as a small single-serve bottle. It will be introduced outside the United States, but he said he could not comment on where.
``The main weakness with PET in small sizes is its carbonation retention,'' he said. ``Single servings are sold for certain drinking occasions, and if the consumer needs that package, it is our job to get it to them.''
The company also is participating in Europe in development of containers using a PET repolymerization process, in the hopes of coming up with containers made from recycled plastic feedstocks that are essentially made of virgin polymer.
All efforts to establish differentiation, however, still depend on economic restraints.
``We want everyone to understand that we are a marketing company,'' he said. ``But even with the contour bottle we are working very hard to get the cost down.''
Overall, Gourlay's advice to packaging manufacturers is the same as it is to his own company - to find out what the consumer wants and to work together with packaging makers to produce it.
``Sometimes users and manufacturers don't communicate as much as they should,'' he said. ``We constantly preach to our suppliers to look for ways to help us and themselves.''