Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Outside the Box Thinking

Have you seen them yet? Those incredible easy-open stay-fresh seals on the new packaging for Oreo cookies… aren’t they cool? I think they’re an amazing little feat of engineering.

This handy invention started with baby products, as manufacturers used resealable plastics for packaging sanitary wipes. They kept the moisture in and the dirt out. But since I’m neither a parent nor obsessively sanitary, I didn’t know this neat idea existed.

In 2006, Kraft launched new packaging for their Chips Ahoy! cookies, and they incorporated the resealable plastics idea but in an innovative food-preservative kind of way. However, since I think Chips Ahoy! cookies taste like brown sugar glued onto cardboard, I didn’t notice it then either. It wasn’t until Nabisco, owned by Kraft, started incorporating it with the updated Oreo packages that this splendid little invention got my attention.

Fresh is Good

What’s so great about it? If you don’t eat Chips Ahoy! or Oreo cookies; well, first, boo-hoo to you for being so health conscious! What is great about this new packaging is the resealable top that Kraft engineers have designed to help keep the cookies fresh. The design is called “snack ‘n seal” and for the first time in what seems like a long time, a food processor has hit upon an idea to actually keep their stuff from spoiling on you.

Although folks in the baby products industry had used the idea before cookie people caught on to it, Kraft’s repurposing of resealable plastics was so innovative that it won an award: DuPont’s 19th annual Gold Award in packaging for 2006.

What makes it unique isn’t just that it’s used to keep the cookies fresh. Any number of ziplock bags could handle that task. Kraft took the packaging a step further and actually incorporated the resealable feature into the only layer of wrapping that holds the cookies in the container. This reduces excess packaging material, and therefore creates less waste when the cookies are all gone.

But Kraft faced another problem besides freshness: stores can’t sell cookies after the package has been opened. These days, one has to take into consideration the idiot who might tamper with the packaging and douse the cookies with e-coli or something. How could they ensure the cookies stay sealed in their packaging until the customer gets them home?

We Can Put A Man on the Moon...

Did you know an entire packing industry has developed out of our consumeristic society? There exists a thriving community of people who live and breathe cardboard boxes and plastic wraps. Colleges offer degrees in package engineering and design. Virtually everything we purchase comes in some sort of container, box, package, wrapping, or other sealed component that has been designed not only to appeal to potential customers, but securely hold and support the product inside. A lot of art, math, and science go into what many of us simply discard in our attempt to reach what is being contained. Do you ever stop and marvel at the thought that went into the box you’re ripping apart as you open your latest gadget, toy, or appliance? It’s all part of the wonderful world of consumerism.

Anyway, back to the Oreos bag that needs to be both tamper-resistant and resealable. When you pull the “easy open” tab, you’ll notice that the cutout for the resealable, sticky part of the top has two flange-type bits that scroll off to the sides. Those two thin strips of plastic break off as you pull the tab open to reveal the cookies inside, and you can’t get to the cookies without ripping off the thin plastic strips. Ingenious, huh? That way, when you look at a bag in the supermarket, you can easily determine if some bozo has already tried to break into it.

When you’re done accessing the cookie compartment of the package, you simply fold the top back over the opening. You don’t even have to make an extra effort to make sure the top settles back down evenly across the opening to securely close – the plastic usually folds down right in place. Now it’s all sealed up until the next time you crave an Oreo fix.

The Bigger Picture

So, what’s the big deal? New packaging for cookies: check. Keeps cookies fresh: check. Keeps bioterrorism crooks out: check. Keeps lots of creative people employed: check. Um, that’s it, right?

Well, not exactly. If you think about it, Kraft could have kept the old wrapping and avoided the year and a half – plus the expense – it took to develop this new packaging system. Remember the old, crunchy plastic package? It ripped so easily that it was impossible to re-seal; a separate zip-lock bag was your only solution for keeping the cookies fresh. Kraft could have stuck with that and few people would have been the wiser.

Instead, what Kraft did is take a risk that a lot of companies decide not to take. What is the one thing that would make you lose business selling stuff like Double Stuff Oreos, other than an insane national strike against junk food? A greater supply of fresh cookies, right? Kraft could have kept selling their products in packaging that increased the chances of cookies going stale, and consumers would have just bought more and more to keep a fresh supply. About the only other way that pattern could be broken would have been for a Kraft competitor to put two and two together after cleaning their baby’s bottom for the tenth time that day.

So, why not go ahead and do something beneficial for the customer that may cost a little money in the short run but actually build brand loyalty in the long run? Get some of those engineering grads down in packaging to tinker with increasing the freshness duration, obtain buy-in from retailers and the FDA, and even pacify the wonks over in finance, legal, and distribution with its simplicity. Remember, there’s no “I” in “team”.

No, it’s not rocket science. It won’t win the Nobel Peace Prize, or save a life. Sure, it’s still plastic, which means every wrapper will be around long after the Internet is obsolete. And it’s only marginally better than sliced bread.

But if you think about a corporation like Kraft actually doing something to benefit their customers without anybody telling them to, what might our country look like if more companies took such a proactive approach to their businesses?

As They Say, "Good... Works"

Now, I don’t own any stock in Kraft or Nabisco. I have no relatives or close friends working for these companies, or for DuPont, who awarded the prize. Nor do I hold any other ulterior motive.

I’m just pointing out how sometimes even those things that seem like part of the natural evolution of business, commerce, marketing – and even the obscure world of packaging – can point to themes larger than themselves. Sure, maybe Kraft was trying to beat a competitor to market with their resealable idea. Maybe some executive at Kraft had a freshly-graduated kid at home from engineering school whose thesis had been on sticky plastic. Maybe some employee was smuggling cookies home in an old resealable babywipe package.

You guys think I’m cynical enough already, so give me a break when I try to credit a corporation with something as altruistic as the resealable cookie bag! I know I can’t eat an Oreo without marveling at that easy-open feature.

After reading this, you probably won’t, either.

2 comments:

  1. Women have also known about the "resealable" genius for quite a while, as it relates to makeup remover cloths and cleansing wipes (second or third cousins to baby wipes, perhaps?).

    When the airline industry adopted the less than 3.5 or 4 oz. liquids rule (or whatever it is), a lot of us femmes had to look for a non-liquid alternative that would take off the makeup and NOT have to fit into a plastic, quart-sized baggie and take up valuable real estate (along with all of our other liquid-y lotions and potions that we had to show the screeners). TRES annoying!

    Anyway ... VERY thankful for the resealable genius which means there is a product that is non-liquid that I can pack in my suitcase and not have to jam into a quart-size plastic bag and show-n-tell every time I travel.

    Whew.

    And, yes, hurrah for Oreo lovers who can now seal and reseal to their hearts' content. Fig Newtons have had this technology, too (at least I think they do). It's the only packaged cookie I ever buy. But I just rip open the bag as soon as I get them and dump them into one of my Ikea plastic containers and call it a day. Sorry, Figgies.

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  2. Lol... Yes, Laura Mac, being a single guy means I've never had to worry about how to remove my makeup aboard an airplane... of course, my helicopter-pilot-brother likes to joke that we're a nation protected by Baggies. I guess I'm just a sheltered Golden Double-Stuffed Oreo person...! Thanks for elucidating.

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