Rigid Plastics

Forging a Legacy Bottle with Research

Posted: April 15, 2014

Here’s a case where “reinventing the wheel” was long overdue. It’s not like no one ever thought of redesigning the ubiquitous 20-oz plastic soft drink bottle before, but no one was ever so confident that they weren’t deterred by the “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it” axiom.
A convenience-store staple in the soft drink sector, the 20-oz bottle offers a significant brand-building opportunity both on shelves and in consumers’ hands. Dr Pepper Snapple Group (DPS) felt the time had come to forge a new “Legacy” bottle (as they named it internally) by going straight to the source and asking consumers what they wanted—over and over.

A different mindset
DPS’s director of packaging, Robin Utay, says that in the past the company treated packaging structure as merely an aesthetic design discipline. Now the goal was to try to address as many consumer functional needs as possible, such as the bottle’s gripability.
DPS wanted to balance the goals that would develop from the research with the goals of standing out in convenience stores, running efficiently in all manufacturing locations, and working in vending machines. The company performed a deep dive into consumer insights before any creative design work began, and it would be “functionality first, aesthetics second,” according to Utay.
DPS enjoined the R&D/Leverage research team to coordinate a comprehensive battery of upfront consumer research components to identify the design opportunities. R&D Integrated Solutions in Plastics, Kansas City, MO, is a full-service plastic product solutions company. Leverage Integrated Industrial Design is R&D’s full-service consumer packaging design component, located in a separate facility within the R&D campus. R&D/Leverage believes that defining the project goals is fundamental to gaining actionable results, asking three questions early on: 1) Where are you going? 2) Why are you going there? 3) How will you know when you’ve gotten there?

Convenience environment
Corwyn Strout, creative director at R&D/Leverage, says that the collaborative process between DPS and the research firm didn’t begin with a brief, per se, but developed from many face-to-face meetings with as many as 20 people from a number of disciplines in the room.
Tamara Christensen, R&D/Leverage’s director of research, explains that the team learned quickly that tactile aspects of the single-serve, on-the-go package were going to be as important as the visual cues. “With a single-serve package,” says Christensen, “it has to look good and feel good in the consumer’s hand. As a result, we developed specific ‘tactile tactics’ research tools to get at consumer likes and dislikes regarding how the product felt, because 20-oz bottles are held—a lot.”
Though DPS was interested in lightweighting the bottle to a degree, Utay says that the greater challenges were creating a new, dramatic shape that would outshine competitors on shelf while functioning efficiently on existing bottle lines, in vending machines, in car cup holders, and in convenience store refrigerator “glides” (the tilted, self-serve channels). The design of glides has been standardized in the U.S., and DPS felt that raising the label and branding for better visibility behind the glass doors was an opportunity. The new bottle would still be PET with a polypropylene label, but DPS was willing to adjust the graphics to make sure the same time-tested messaging came through on a smaller label, if that was the direction the research dictated.

A waist of gripability
One line of research that yielded fruitful results was “DIY” designing. Researchers asked test subjects to sketch what they’d like in a new bottle and to explain why. Strout says the DIY design studies are often most productive when they’re “co-creative” between researchers and subjects, to make the subjects feel more comfortable. Through careful sketching, showing, listening, sharing the use experience, and gleaning insights, the best ideas bubble to the surface. A next step is often tacking sketches to a wall, dozens at a time, to see if any patterns emerge. Researchers “cluster” ideas with similar characteristics and discover both explicit and inferred desired attributes.
The DIY design initiatives resulted in a strategy to move the label higher and create a better grip area. It’s almost impossible to create gripability effectively under a label, and a more gripable slanted area couldn’t hold a label well. Texture under labels is also undesirable because of the crinkling feeling and sound. Researchers discovered that consumers would often play with the label on such a design, trying to remove it, in a way.
Consumers are also sensitive to a bottle’s center of gravity, because they don’t want the liquid to pour too quickly. “We discovered that the ‘waist’ was important during drinking,” Utay says. The researchers were able to fine-tune the exact dimensions of the waist by frequent prototype development and retesting with subjects.
Corwyn notes that when you let engineers collaborate with researchers, the engineers often become advocates for the brand. He emphasizes that they would “know when they got there” with the design when it was maximally feasible in production, at retail, and in consumers’ lifestyles and habits. “It’s design from the soul of the brand and for the soul of the consumer,” Strout says. “This is truly research-driven design.”

Deep dive into texture
Once the waist was perfected and the overall profile of the package determined, a final element proved exceptionally revealing of consumer desires. Christensen explains that R&D/Leverage tested over 100 textures for the grip area, from dense patterns to more scattered nibs. “You couldn’t go to one extreme or the other,” she recalls.
One test was aimed at identifying subjects’ gut reaction to a texture. The team asked subjects what they would nickname each particular test texture. That let them know which textures were not favorably received. “People liked the idea of a texture as long as it was functional,” Christensen says.
As some textures were being refined, test subjects would handle the bottles in black bags, to separate the tactile from the visual. In cross-referencing findings, researchers found a surprisingly high correlation (0.87) between a high favorability rating of “feeling” of texture and the best-liked “visual” texture. The researchers knew they were on to something when research subjects began asking if they could take the bottles home with them. The final “bubbling up” texture has a gradient bubble density, mimicking the formation of bubbles inside the package.
Corwyn says that the mental flexibility of researchers was essential to identifying the right texture, because they had to adapt to unexpected findings. For instance, consumers had a desire for the texture to be visually “poignant” or “appropriate” to the product, above and beyond the functional and tactile aspect. It seems the visual impact of the texture could be a factor in building the tactile expectations. It had to have attributes that reflected its function.
Utay looked to the research to both explore new territory and to validate each step in the bottle’s development. The new Legacy bottle will be used for many of DPS’s “flavor brands,” including 7UP, Sunkist soda, Canada Dry, Sun Drop, Squirt, and other soft drinks in the company’s portfolio that don’t have their own brand-specific bottle designs. “The 20-oz size is central to our efforts to grow our business in single-serve formats across our flavor portfolio, so it’s got to be perfect, in many ways,” Utay concludes. “It really is consumer preferred because consumers told us exactly what they wanted.”