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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
How Research & Insights Help Brands Meet Consumer Desire for More Sustainable Products

Assessing how products resonate with consumers and using those insights to refine them is a critical part of product development — and just one way that strategic insights add value for brands.

When leading paper and packaging company WestRock developed a new paper-based produce package, everyone was excited about its potential. The innovation was backed by both customer demand and our own consumer research, which indicated that today’s buyers are prioritizing sustainable packaging — and twice as many consumers associate sustainability with paper versus plastic. While the team had high hopes for the product’s performance, testing it in the marketplace with the help of a consumer brand ended up being pivotal to the product’s development.

Assessing how products resonate with consumers and then using those insights to make modifications to refine them is a critical part of product development — and just one way that strategic insights add value for brands. Insights can be instrumental at every stage of the process — from inspiring ideas to guiding the evolution of products so they align with consumer and market demands.

When we saw that consumers weren’t connecting with the first iteration of our new produce package, the designers turned to WestRock’s Insights Advisory team to understand why. Our team conducted robust research to gauge consumer response to a variety of produce packaging configurations and styles.

The research uncovered an important insight: One of the top purchase drivers for produce is product visibility, which was obscured by the package’s design. Consumers want to be able to clearly see their produce in the package to check the freshness and ensure it’s not bruised or spoiled. Based on these insights, we knew we needed to make some changes.

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The design team got to work on the next iteration of packaging — adding larger die cuts on all four sides of the container and removing printing on the cover film, ultimately increasing visibility of the produce inside. When we reintroduced the EverGrow paperboard produce container, it performed more competitively against the typical plastic alternative.

WestRock’s product team was also able to leverage our insights to renew conversations with both retailers and customers. By demonstrating how the new design made the paper package as or more desirable than plastic, the research reopened doors that had previously been shut.

The power of insights is undeniable — and can be used by all brands to drive innovation.

Insights to action

Strategic insights are integral to how WestRock approaches innovation — from the initial design concept to the final product on the shelf. Like many major brands, a deep understanding of current preferences and needs enables us to continually adapt and respond to evolving consumer, customer and retailer preferences — so we can stay at the forefront of the industry. Our insights team uses a wide range of research tools to accomplish this, including custom online surveys to measure consumer reaction to concepts and designs, foundational surveys to gauge marketplace demands, visual attention software to predict what viewers are likely to see at first glance, and usability testing to assess how products function in real-life scenarios.

By utilizing a cross-section of tools, we’re able to uncover insights from both the consumer and corporate perspective and put them to work in how we ideate, develop and execute our packaging solutions. Research such as our Pulse Packaging study helps build a picture of today’s consumer and what’s important to them.

Market research continues to broaden this picture by shining a spotlight on important industry trends and regulations. For example, years ago when we saw early signs of changing market regulations around eliminating PFAS from the coating of food packaging, we acted quickly to develop a product to meet that need. The result was the innovation of Enshield — our grease-resistant, paper-based food packaging that is free of fluorinated chemicals.

Meanwhile, customer research helps us identify specific challenges that our clients face in the market when transitioning to paper-based packaging. Customer demand for recyclable paper packaging for wet environments was the inspiration behind WetTech — a new moisture-resistant, recyclable, paper-based alternative to waxed boxes.

How to ensure insights are influencing your products and packaging

As we all work together toward a more sustainable future, insights can be a powerful way to drive your brand’s innovation. Here’s what we’ve learned through our work that can help you deliver products that truly resonate in the market.

1. Keep your strategy human-centered.

Put yourself in your consumers’ and customers’ shoes and immerse yourself in their problems, so you can be inspired to solve them. This can be as simple as finding ways to shake up your regular routine so you encounter different people and situations.

Participate in activities that are common for your target audience, such as shopping at the same stores or using the same modes of transportation. Take advantage of that time to observe those around you. And talk to people: friends, family, even strangers. Ask them about relevant topics and products to help broaden your own way of thinking. At its core, innovation is driven by a deep understanding of people and what they want and need in their lives.

2. Incorporate research — on any scale.

Even small-scale research can uncover insights that have the potential to make a large impact. There are many ways to incorporate research without a big investment. One easy but effective way is to send product samples to users so they can put them to the test in everyday life. Their feedback can help you refine and optimize your products to best suit the needs of those who will be using them.

Communication with both customers and end users is another powerful research tool. By fielding online focus groups and surveys, you can give yourself a window into consumers’ values, needs and preferences.

Social media is another channel where you have consumers at your fingertips. By keeping an eye on blogs, forums and social media accounts, you can be privy to consumers’ unfiltered opinions and see how you might be able to solve some of their challenges.

3. Be flexible.

Since research strategies are by nature bespoke and tailored to each unique case, they can resonate at every stage of product development. If you start by considering what questions you have about your industry, products and designs, you can nimbly adapt your strategy and tools to help find the answers.

The key is to think about insights as actionable discoveries. Our goal is always to gather information that can spark thought and action. By letting this knowledge serve as your North Star, you can develop sustainable products that meet the evolving needs of the end user – which, ultimately, strengthens customer partnerships.