Does See-Through Packaging Really Boost Sales?

Maybe but some things are best left unseen

Marketers are beginning to see the benefits and pitfalls of transparent packaging more clearly.

Products like tortilla chips, granola bars and yogurt are increasingly showing up in clear packaging showcasing their ingredients. But transparent packaging is difficult to make and many foods are degraded by light, affecting how long it stays fresh. Plus, as The Wall Street Journal pointed out, "Food makers also need to adjust recipes with visibility in mind, making sure fruit pieces are big enough to be seen in yogurt and tortilla chips remain intact."

JoAnne Garbe, packaging research and development manager for General Mills told The Wall Street Journal that she and her team worked for more than a year to get Larabar Uber fruit and nut bars in clear packaging. To do so, the team "tested clear films, which are layers of thin plastic fused together to control the flow of oxygen, light and moisture in and out of a package. Each version went into a climate-controlled box to mimic conditions such as grocery store shelves (dark and dry) and a convenience store counter (direct sunlight on a humid day)."

"Oil in nuts is particularly tricky because it oxidizes,"  she added.

Eventually, the efforts paid off, with Larabar marketing manager Julia Wing-Larson claiming consumer surveys found "that the bars looked like they tasted better, felt less artificial and the ingredients seemed fresher."

Now, General Mills is using more transparent packaging on other products, according to The Wall Street Journal. Wing-Larson noted that seeing "simple, wholesome ingredients" can be a motivation for consumers to purchase a product, adding, "You eat with your eyes."

Larabar is hardly the first brand in its category to adopt transparent packaging. Kind Healthy Snacks started a kind of see-through arms race in the category when it introduced clear wrappers in 2004. Earlier this year, the company sued competitor Clif Bar for adopting similar packaging. Kind's was denied a request for preliminary injunction, although a Kind spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal that the suit is ongoing.

Not all foods benefit from transparency, as some things are better left unseen. When contemplating clear packaging, companies need to factor in how a food product will look "put on a truck and shipped to a store and a 16-year-old-boy puts it on the shelf," said Ben Steele, executive creative director at brand design agency Hornall Anderson, adding that foods like oatmeal, which can get dusty, don't do well with clear packaging.

When Hillshire Farms switched its lunch meat to tubs with clear lids last year, sales dropped. Jeff Caswell, vice president and general manager of Hillshire Farms, told The Wall Street Journal that it was because consumers couldn't identify the brand without the signature red lids. When Hillshire Farm brought back the red lids six months later, he claims that sales rebounded.

Clear packaging can also be difficult to implement. A recent switch by Dannon took more than 18 months, and required the company to adjust its dyes to make the fruit chunks more visible.

While the lure of increased sales can learn marketers to transparent packaging, it's clear that brands must weigh the decision carefully. Increased visibility can be difficult to attain, necessitating difficult changes to not only the packaging but the product itself, and can backfire in certain instances.

@ErikDOster Erik Oster is an agencies reporter for Adweek.