How to Manage the Packaging Development Process

The packaging development process is complicated. There’s just no sugar coating it. Even the largest organizations struggle to define workflows. It requires a lot of time, energy, and practice, and many fail because packaging is often siloed within an organization. Techniques and guidelines for researching, designing, testing and manufacturing (small or at scale) packaging are hard to find. In this blog, we’ll define eight key phases you can customize and adapt as your own packaging development process.


Phase 1: Kickstart the Project

Starting off on the right foot is key to any project’s success. The #1 recommendation to improve the success of packaging development projects that we hear time and time again at packaging conferences is to get all of your stakeholders in the same room right from the start. We can’t stress this enough. Projects have delegated objectives built in, but with no formal start, these objectives have less chance of being fulfilled. Thus, a packaging development kickstart meeting is critical. And while an internal kickstart meeting is better than nothing, a combined meeting with all stakeholders who will be involved is ideal. Internal team members need to be aware of supply and logistics chain, as well as production constraints. Co-packers, fulfillment representatives, preferred suppliers, logistics coordinators and 3PLs, and relevant plant managers should all be in attendance at the packaging development kickstart meeting.


Phase 2: Comply with Regulations and Ensure Sustainability

Before you get too far down the rabbit hole, make sure you know your corporate sustainability goals. Take time to establish your personal/project team’s stance on the environmental-friendliness of the package and its overall lifecycle from sourcing to production to end of life, or hopefully, rebirth. Leverage trusted sustainability frameworks to ensure the product and packaging combination you create will do more good than harm for our world. At this stage, you will also need to determine the applicable regulatory agencies that impact the product category you are working with. Understanding package labeling and structural legal requirements early on is key to designing your packaging right from the start.


Phase 3: Design Your Primary and Secondary Packaging

Primary packaging, or the bottle, container, wrapper, box, or component closest to the product itself not only works to protect, preserve, contain, and inform the consumer, but also tells the story of your brand to consumers. Secondary packaging designates the packaging used to group various pre-packaged products together. As secondary packaging is not in direct contact with the actual product, its use and application usually differ distinctly from those of primary packaging, although the purpose of both types may converge at times. Secondary packaging plays a vital role in the marketing strategy surrounding the product, which is especially relevant in the case of point-of-purchase packaging. At this phase, you will select your packaging materials and ideal structures. For inspiration, surf the web, use Pinterest, or take your talents to the local store to snap a few pictures.  


Phase 4: Compose and Apply Visual and Brand Assets

If you work for a large and established organization, you’ll most likely already have an arsenal of visual and branding assets. However, for many small businesses, this is not the case. Sometimes, even large organizations do not have accessible retail-and packaging-ready visual assets, so this phase is used to create, assess, and organize those files. A brand style guide should be composed of logos, brands, approved fonts, colors, and proper use of imagery. You may choose to compose this yourself or submit an RFP to a packaging design agency for assistance. The Packaging Design Workflow course will help.


Phase 5: Select Package Labeling and Finishing

The role of labeling has become quite significant as it helps to grab the attention of the audience. A product’s label can communicate many things, from what the product can do for your customers to your company’s core values. The most effective and profitable brands are those that stand out distinctively—and package printing is one critical element for effective brand recognition. Be sure you have a fundamental understanding of artwork, color theory, and printing processes before beginning this phase. There are a lot of options to choose from and understanding which print process to select for your packaging can be daunting. Check out the list of high-level package printing pros and cons below.


Phase 6: Engineer Case Packs and Unitized Loads

Setting shipper requirements and developing a unitized system for your packaging is an essential aspect of the packaging development process. You will need to consider all of the marketplaces (regional, national, international, D2C, eComm, retail, wholesale) which you sell within to design the most efficient case packaging. Though you may not initially build unitized systems, it ensures that your packaging is ready to scale with your sales. When you’re unable to fulfill your orders internally, the unitized system specifies who will fulfill your orders (i.e. Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA)) or selling through physical marketplaces like WalMart and Whole Foods, who have their own unitized warehousing and distribution center processes.


Phase 7: Decide on Manufacturing or Co-Manufacturing

Will you manufacture and package your product internally or will you outsource to a co-man? Some suppliers can only produce so much product at a time, or your co-packer is limited by speed, material, process, etc. In this phase, you should take a five-year outlook on sales, and make a plan to grow. Ideally, this time is used to think through the steps required when sales hit a specific limit, so you have a plan ready when Supplier X or Machine Y is unable to meet your demand. Many companies choose to outsource their production for cost savings. Rather than invest in capital equipment upfront, why not select an established manufacturing company to produce your product and packaging to your specifications? Our friends at the Contract Packaging Association can put you in touch with qualified manufacturing partners.


Phase 8: Finalize Supply and Distribution Systems

Although distribution packaging may not be the glamorous boxes and bags we see on retail shelves, it is of vital importance to our industry. When functioning as intended, distribution results in the safe and efficient transport of goods from the manufacturer into the outstretched hands of the consumer. Mapping this system and defining requirements for storage times, loading methods, pallet IDs and security or anti-pilfer measures are critical to the safety and efficacy of your products. Evaluate 3rd party logistic companies (3PLs) like USPS, UPS, FedEx, DHL, and regional carriers who transport your products. Before you finalize your supply and distribution plan, take a moment to consider the various test and check protocols that exist to help you reduce issues. ISTA laboratory testing can simulate trucks, planes, and sea container forces, so you can test your packages in a lab to ensure they withstand the rigors of your distribution channels.



Once you have completed all eight phases, your packaging development plan is ready for implementation. It should be noted that the phases of the packaging development process we outlined above may not go in sequential order. Often times, the key considerations of packaging development happen simultaneously and undergo many iterations and improvements as your plans evolve.

The biggest takeaway is that due to the complexity of the packaging development process, you need to define a project management plan at the outset. If you’re interested in developing a detailed packaging development plan for your own products or your customers, consider applying for the Certificate of Mastery in Packaging Management (CMPM). The CMPM is a Clemson University Center for Corporate Learning initiative with The Packaging School to provide tailored education to professionals looking to master the packaging development process. It’s 100% online and accomplishable in just 12-weeks.


Have you experienced the packaging development process first-hand? Share your biggest challenge or success in the comments below.

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