Richard Maddox knows it's a beauty pageant.
With more than 700 brands of bottled water available in the United States, the Southern Beverage Packers Inc. plant manager knows his water will have to be the best dressed in order to stand out from the rest.
"We've devoted a large portion of our time in packaging and in what impact it has," said Mr. Maddox, whose plant in Appling draws water from the Crystalline Rock Aquifer and markets it under the brands Springtime, Flowing Wells, Crystalline and Glen Falls. "The competition is so tough out there you have to do something to set yourself apart, and packaging offers you an opportunity to do that."
Four years ago, the company began offering sports caps on many of its bottles, and two years ago it completely redesigned all of its containers.
"We wanted a bigger label panel; it's appealing, and it lets consumers identify our product from a further distance," Mr. Maddox said. "Also, on the single-serve size, we kept in mind the diameter of the bottle so that it would fit in cupholders in automobiles."
With soft drinks, water and beer struggling for eye space on store shelves, companies know that their packages serve as silent salesmen. Designers strive for a package shape, color and graphics that will send a product flying off the shelves and ensure a lifetime of brand loyalty.
The container's cost is more than 30 percent of the overall price of the product, Mr. Maddox said, but the value it has in marketing cannot be underestimated. Movement, temperature and taste can all be conveyed through shape and color.
"The top and bottom of the bottle above and below the label has a swirl affect, which makes the bottle shimmer a little bit, gives it the appearance of rippling water or ice," Mr. Maddox said. "We want the package to look cold. Our labels are blue and generally have some red on it to catch people's eye. And we have the Flowing Wells brand that is in a holographic label; it is very attractive, and we are especially proud of it."
More important than telling what's inside, packaging conveys the benefit of the product, said Mark Alison, president of Alison & Associates.
"What's in it for me has always been the main selling point," said Mr. Alison, whose company has designed packaging for Rubbermaid and other national companies.
"Some products are so simple that the package has to do all the selling. Water -- for goodness sake -- it's water. We know what water is, it doesn't require a great explanation, yet the package on the outside will show a waterfall or a spring or something that conveys refreshing, which is what the consumer is looking for. He's really not looking to buy water, he's looking to quench his thirst. It's the benefits, not the features."
When it comes to packaging design and even bottle shape, consumers see the package or the bottle and what they are buying as one thing, said Carlo Pagoda, creative director with Primo Angeli Inc., a San Francisco, Calif., design firm with notable clients such as the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Ben & Jerry's, Gatorade, Ore Ida, Nestle and Intel.
"What they see on the outside sets up the expectation of what's on the inside," Mr. Pagoda said. "If you want to communicate with the consumer that this is a high-quality product, that it's a little more expensive, what the taste is going to be, the way you package a bottle is going to have a big influence."
It's not just shape that influences the consumer, it's the shape and the branding working together that convey a single message.
"Those things working in tandem need to communicate together the message you are trying to get across -- the taste and the flavor expectations," Mr. Pagoda said. "They never work separately. It does have a major affect."
Walter Smith, an Augusta collector of antique bottles dating from the 1820s to the 1900s, said bottles initially were designed strictly for function, but, as they have evolved in shape and design, many inadvertently lost their charm. Earlier bottles typically were square so they could be boxed and shipped easily, he said, and many bottles were colored to prevent UV rays from damaging the bottle's contents. Practicality and manufacturing costs were the primary considerations in design.
But there were exceptions to the rule. A local beer and soda plant, Augusta Brewing Co., bottled beer in some very unique colors, such as amber, lime and lemon, Mr. Smith said, bottles that are now highly prized by collectors.
Todd Bohon, director of marketing for Augusta Coca-Cola Bottling Co., knows his company's rich history spins around the shape of its bottle.
The curvaceous 6'-ounce hobble skirt bottle (so named because it resembled the Gibson Girl fashions of the time), which was designed in 1913, began the legend. It's interesting to note that Augusta was a secret test market for the pale "Georgia green" bottle in 1915 before it was mass marketed in 1916. Its design was actually based on the shape of the cocoa bean.
"The people who were doing the development aspect of it wanted to find a shape such that you could pick it up in the dark and know what you had in your hand," Mr. Bohon said. "That's the founding principle behind the design effort. From an importance factor, they've never actually gotten away from that design."
All graphics of Coca-Cola today still contain a reference -- or should it be reverence -- to the 6'-ounce hobble skirt bottle. Today it has evolved into the contoured 20-ounce plastic bottle and a new 8-ounce replica of the green glass bottle the company's been rolling out since January.
"If you think about this particular bottle, it's something that's totally unique in the marketplace," said Mart Martin, spokesman with Coca-Cola Co.. "There's nothing that feels like it, you know exactly what it is. It's something you can recognize instantly, upon sight, upon feel. There's even that sound that people remember when you take that bottle opener and you pop that cap off. This is a total sensory experience by use of this package and one reason it is without question the most recognized product package in the world."
America's love affair with the hobble skirt bottle is an example of how the feelings about a product can be nurtured through design.
"It's all emotion," Mr. Alison said. "It's trying to get them to pick it up off the shelf, and that involves color; it involves the tactile experience of actually feeling the package. If we can get the consumer to pick the product up off the shelf and hold it in their hand, then we've won 50 percent of the battle."
Reach Melissa Hall at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 113, or firstname.lastname@example.org.