Always Test Food Package Design Changes - A Cautionary Tale

This Little Tetra Pak Box Design Improvement Was a Big Deal For Consumers

Pacific Foods mushroom broth Tetra Pak packaging
Always test package design changes with customers. Susie Wyshak

Were you one of the many people returning your soup, almond milk, broth or other foods in shelf-stable, aseptic cartons made by Tetra Pak thinking they had been tampered with?  I was.

I'd opened a Pacific Foods chicken broth box. Looked down. And there was the broth, staring back at me, no sealed film to peel back.

Took the soup box back the store for a replacement. The customer service rep gave me the eye and said that, in fact, there was no tampering problem.

This change was by design. 

And I was not alone in thinking these cartons had been tampered with. What had happened?

Good Intentions Behind the Design Change

Tetra Pak, the company that manufactures the shelf-stable aseptic box cartons used by so many brands with ready-to-eat liquid meals had a great idea for improving the package design: eliminate the need to pull a film tab to open.

The design change had very logical, smart goals:

  • Save effort for consumers.
  • Simplify opening by customers with hand mobility problems.
  • Eliminate an extra piece of packaging waste (also streamlining manufacturing).

Pacific Foods introduced its One-Step Opening packaging, made by Tetra Pak, in the Spring of 2014, explaining "not only are they easier to open and enjoy, they also use less packaging."

I started to think it was "just me"...and a few other people. Then I happened to show a friend — a brilliant strategist for packaged food companies — a box of Bone Broth.

Out of the blue, she admitted that she too had returned not one but two soup packages to a store, thinking the film had been tampered with.

Even Small Design Changes Need Blind Consumer Testing

There's a reason why websites like Ebay and Amazon have barely changed in 15 years. We consumers become habituated to a design.

We freak when one little change to improve things positions a button a bit to the right. Or a color changes. That's why web designers test for usability.

Similarly, we consumers have been trained to peel back the silver tamper-proof shield which tells us that the package has arrived to our home safely, tamper free.

Educating Consumers is More Expensive Than Advance Testing

Tetra Pak's customers embarked on a major consumer education effort to stop the flood of product returns. 

Some added informational stickers to packages. Some added a warning near the opening telling us that the spout was new and improved. 

Companies using the packaging, such as Imagine Foods, also added information to their FAQs. Stuff like that we should listen for the cracking of the plastic lid.

Eventually we will learn. And in the meantime, learn from this lesson of how important it is to test package design changes with consumers — no matter how simple and clear they seem to you.