Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Are We at the Dawn of a Refill Revolution?

Over the past 10 years we’ve seen a recurring ambition from clients — wanting to ‘do a Nespresso.’ This is because it’s a refill system that premiumised their brand, redefined their category, elevated user experience, drove consumption and built brand loyalty whilst delivering profitable growth. More recently clients have begun adding environmental reductions and sustainability goals to this heady mix of ambitions. So are we at the dawn of a refill revolution?

Refills: Revived & Redefined

The refill system concept is neither new, unique nor limited to a specific category, but they require the right conditions for success. Many of us grew up with fizzy pop and milk bottles being ‘returned & refilled,’ albeit not by the user. This wasn’t called a sustainable closed-loop system, it was just the norm. It was a product system for a society largely brought up to ‘waste not, want not,’ a pre-disposable culture. Tackling sustainability today may need a cultural shift back to a less wasteful society in just this way.

One of the pioneers of the branded refill system was K.C. Gillette. Over a century ago ‘refill’ safety razor blades were patented and used with a durable handle that users keep. This new system improved safety and convenience (no sharpening) to the incumbent cut throat razor. The product redefined a category and formed the blueprint for others. Gillette’s razor blueprint today includes four key elements:

  1. A durable device you keep (handle)
  2. A disposable refill (razor blade unit), often a multi-pack purchase
  3. A unique attachment, an ownable junction between the two components that means other products can’t be used or substituted for the brand in question
  4. A sales strategy where the handle is free or a loss leader and the re-purchase units generate the main revenue

This refills blueprint is forming the basis of more and more brands entering the marketplace. From air fresheners (Ambi Pur, Air Wick, etc) to detergents (iQ, Replenish), from hand wash (Dettol — No Touch, Method) to soft drinks with the nostalgic revival of Sodastream. Premium brands such as Chanel No5’s Purse Spray and Dior’s L’Or de Vie face creams are also adopting this approach. Whilst two or three of these examples are obvious sustainability champions, others have failed to build environmental benefits into their products and strategy.

Unpacking Refills

There is a distinction to be made in these types of refill systems: manual versus cartridge. Manual refills involve transferring consumables from one vessel to another — for instance, soap from a pouch being transferred into your elegant, ceramic dispenser — which can be a messy, wasteful and frustrating experience. We’ve seen research evidence concluding that consumers see this as ‘trading down,’ a value proposition with eco benefits. In comparison, ‘cartridge’ refills are clean, self-contained units that deliver convenient and satisfying loading like those from Gillette, Nespresso, etc.

My first experience designing a refill system was nearly 15 years ago — the Pampers baby wipe tub. The system is still going strong; ours at home has lasted nearly five years of daily use with two kids. It involves pre-loading a ‘cartridge’ (flow wrap) of wet wipes into the tub, and a one-handed button press, automatic flip lid, one handed/easy-grab wipe dispensing all provide convenience — leaving you a free hand to avoid getting kicked and remain in control of the gruesome job in hand.

Recipes for Success

Delivering successful refill systems is not straightforward, with the challenges of consumer comprehension and adoption, married with technical, business and manufacturing complexities. In our experience there are three key considerations to stand a chance:

  • Open to new business models? Refill system solutions cannot be equally compared to existing, disposable packaging and products. The value equation is entirely different as is the cost of the parts required. Some brands opt to give away the component or device you keep, or sell it at a loss, knowing the revenue relies on the repeat purchase of refills. Adopting the right business model is key.
  • Shared vision & agile approaches! Marketing, Design, Research, Manufacturing & Sales are all pivotal to success — a team is only as strong as the weakest link. Commitment and innovative thinking are vital; project leaders may need to consider new processes and forge new partnerships to make the concept a successful product particularly if your infrastructure and factories are set up to do one thing, one way. This is why the most agile businesses and brands no longer own factories, leaving them free to outsource where and when required.
  • Right brand, right consumer, right time? This area is less tangible — do your consumers flirt between brands? If so the loyalty-based refill system may not be the answer. Is the consumer looking to trade-up or shift behaviour or is it just a commoditised, auto-pilot purchase? Finally, patience and persistence are crucial; just because something wasn’t an instant hit when launched doesn’t mean it will never work. Economic conditions and cultural attitudes at a given time play a big role.

Coming full circle back to Nespresso: First patented in 1976 and launched in 1986 it took nine years to break even! With 27 years and counting of continued design and development, there’s a lot of hard work and perseverance behind this perceived ‘overnight success.' Is the time right for more brands to join a refill revolution, making better products with less impact the norm?

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