Packaging and Merchandising

"The first bite is with the eye..." a saying in Japan that describes their obsession with food packaging and merchandising.

"Japanese consumers are the most demanding in the world, so packaging standards are high," says Neil Kozarsky, Japanese packaging expert and CEO of the US-based packaging consultancy Technical Help in Engineering and Marketing (THEM).

"Marketers and packaging professionals in Japan have different priorities; above all they must convince arguably the planet's most demanding consumers that no detail has been ignored and the quality of the final presentation is unsurpassed. The Japanese use essentially the same materials to package their food and beverage products as we do (paper, metal plastic, foam, foil, glass and wood); the chief difference is every product has to look perfect and function flawlessly," Kozarsky says.

Great products are not enough

Food products offered in Japan must to be designed to meet the discriminating eye of Japanese consumers who place great value on color and eye-catching appearance. But packaging quality also extends beyond the look and feel. One company began exporting a popular brand of American instant cocoa powder that was well-liked by Japanese consumers. Unfortunately, the product failed in Japan because there was residual cocoa powder in the sealing channel below the round metal lid. In the USA, most consumers would not think twice about finding residue around the lid of a can containing cocoa powder, but in Japan even the smallest detail can make a huge difference. In this case, the product failed because the residue caused Japanese consumers to believe that the company did not exercise sufficient care in the production of their product and therefore, the product itself must not be of high quality.

Packaging matters

"It's a fact that foreign exports to Japan frequently fail because the product or package doesn't measure up to the incredibly high Japanese standards. Any mark or registration issue on the primary or secondary package is unacceptable. If the outer package is clear, another frequent problem is imperfection (even seemingly minute) of the primary pack. This could take the form of a foil-wrapped confectionery item becoming partially unwrapped. Or, if a shaped product becomes slightly damaged (a tip breaks off a triangular unit), it will catch the attention of the consumer and be rejected," he says.

"As environmentally conscious as space-starved Japan really is, the last place brand owners or packagers can look to source reduce is in the look and feel of a container. Thin or flimsy is synonymous with 'cheap', which is a fast track to failure in that part of the world. Even transparent films and containers, widely used in food packaging for many important product categories (sushi, rice, sandwiches, fruit, etc.), are held to a higher standard of clarity because consumers demand a clear view of what they are contemplating purchasing," says Kozarsky.

Strive to "delight"

Japan can teach us a lot about the importance of packaging in general, but we must pay special attention to any product, especially food products, that may be offered to the Japanese consumer.

Kozarsky says, "Japanese products and packaging have to literally delight consumers. This means that every aspect of a product usage occasion has to be carefully thought through and responded to. If there are five components of a given product (bottle, label, closure, liner, food or beverage itself), it pays to figure out which one is most important for the given application and to perhaps spend a little more to give the consumer a little "wink" or "hug" as a means to differentiate from the competition. It's all about allowing indulgence experiences as opposed to mere consumption of products."