Steel packaging has many things going for it. It can retain the freshness and nutrional value of many types of food, it is potentially a very eye catching means of marketing and it is easily recyclable. But many consumers see it as old fashioned, environmenally unfriendly and associate it with cheap, flavourless, nutrionally poor food.
Pursuading consumers that the reverse is true is therefore the sector's key challenge.
This topic was tackled from a variety of angles at APEAL's International Steel Packaging Congress in Dusseldorf last week, and John Maule, director of the centre for decision research at the UK's University of Leeds, kicked of the event by suggesting that packagers need to to look at consumers in a new way.
"We need a better understanding of how consumers are buying," said professor Maule. "Packaging executives pay little consideration to consumer decision making because of their heavy reliance on focus groups.
"We need to move away from focus groups. There are two main modes of thinking Type 1, which is almost automatic, and Type 2, which is more analytical. Consumers use Type 2 in focus groups, but they don't use that mode of thinking when they are buying products."
Sitkar Gidda, market director of UK design company SiebertHead, agrees. He believes that because consumers spend little time looking at packaging, brand design is a crucial ingredient in the marketing mix. Steel packaging firms need to get across the benefits of their product in an effective and simple manner.
"Shoppers dont think logically," he said. "They find the unimportant important. 80 per cent of feedback we get from consumers is emotional." Enyo Bocca of UPPIA goes further, he says that the problem with focus groups is that people lie.
Kevin Ford, research director at INRA, agrees that simplicity and clarity are major benefits. He has devised a matrix of various steel products that shows that those with with bright colours, clear logos and simple designs score best in terms of consumer appeal. "If youve got an advantage, then tell people about it," he said.
"Make it obvious, and resist the temptation to be too tricky."
If the steel packaging industry can do this, then the advantages of the material will be easier to relay to consumers. Organisations such as UPPIA in France, which are pushing the benefits of steel packaging has a difficult job convincing sceptical shoppers that steel packaging is good.
"We cannot wake change user habits or attitudes," said Bocca. "But we can wake up consumer confidence in canned food, we can say that canned food is still a modern way of eating."
This is not going to be easy. Government funding for the promotion of fresh food and the pressure on manufacturers to decrease sodium levels have added to the pressure on steel packaged foods.
But if the steel packaging can find ways to accentuate ist advantages to both consumers and the food industry, then there are opportunities ahead as well as just threats. Gidda for example says that the technology already exists for products that do not require refrigeration. And Steve Haggarty talks about the concpet of trading up, where packaging can be used to highlight a premium product line.
Steel is being increasingly used in this manner. Warca Coffee, a premium product manufactured by JJ Darboven, uses steel to convey a distintive upmarket appearance. It also preserves the coffee well. And new sleek beverage cans are being increasingly used to convey an image of health and wellness.
The steel packaging sector there needs to show manufacturers that the benefits of the material outweigh the disadvantages. This task has been made more difficult of course because prices have been hit by high demand in the global market, which in turn has led to a constant stream of price hikes during the course of 2004.
Experts say that insatiable demand from the China market, where the economy has raced ahead at unprecedented levels, combined with a continuing rise in the cost of raw materials and energy is forcing steel companies to increase their prices, and fast.
The Congress was nonetheless optimistic that if consumers can be made more aware of the benefits of steel, then manufacturers will be in a position to capitalise on what it maintains is a safe, recyclable and flexible packaging material.