Why Cool, Slimmer Packaging Reigns in Retail

 A “risky” move—taller, thinner packaging—has paid off for beverage firms, and leaders are wondering why. 

The beverage aisle looks different these days: beer and soda megacorporations are selling their drinks in slimmer, taller packages. The new cans and bottles seem sophisticated and refreshing in your hand—until you take a corner with one in your car’s cup holder, causing your drink to slosh all over the center console. Customers have made their ire about this known across the internet. 

Despite these unintended consequences, hundreds of companies are following the trend of producing slim, sophisticated, and (sometimes) smaller packaging. This can be a tricky proposition for leaders. “It’s risky,” says David Barnes, senior client partner in the Global Consumer Market practice at Korn Ferry. “The new design could inadvertently convey a different message about quality or sophistication than intended, or it could all cost more than any gains.” 

Consumers, who have historically rejected efforts to reduce package size, have become more open to this lately, and the new bottles and cans have become a fad. Just last year, hundreds of grocery-aisle food staples—from cookies to cereal—cut package sizes by as much as 25%, doing little apparent harm to sales. Redesigns provide excellent cover for these downsizings, says Craig Rowley, senior client partner in the Retail practice at Korn Ferry: “People can’t look at a new shape and precisely judge volume.” The standard 12-ounce size of many beers has become 11.2 ounces, with consumers none the wiser (though 7% less inebriated). 

For the last few years, beverage aisles have been awash in hard seltzers and cocktails in sleeker, slimmer bottles that differentiate them from beers. Mammoth A-list companies are in on the game now, driven by both copycatting and inflation pressures to earn more with the same resources. Packaging is often the most comfortable place for companies to make changes without jeopardizing the success of a given product. But the transition can be labor-intensive and plagued with pitfalls. The cost increments of making minor alterations can be huge. Seemingly simple changes, like moving the position of a label, can be surprisingly complex and expensive, particularly for products packaged in large quantities by a handful of vendors. 

Yet when it works, it works. Taller, skinnier cans are a hit because they look healthier—conveying a slimmer aesthetic and evoking a sense of nutrition and well-being, says Seth Steinberg, senior client partner in the Supply Chain practice at Korn Ferry. “They tell the brain ‘I’m drinking less alcohol or sugar than normal,’ even if you may not be.”

Regardless of consumer reaction, Steinberg says, thinner products are appealing to manufacturers and retailers alike. More packages of a thinner product often fit more efficiently in the same amount of shelf space—this is crucial—while also occupying the space above the product. “Retailers hate empty space,” says Steinberg. 

As to what future redesigns will look like, the slim, fun aesthetic is here to stay, says Sheila O’Grady, senior client partner in the Consumer practice at Korn Ferry: “We all want to be taller and thinner.”