Paperboard Cartons: More than Just Boxes

The demand for greater shelf presence is spurring the use of cartons, particularly those with eye-catching graphics.

by Greg Erickson, Contributing Editor

By all accounts, paperboard folding cartons appear on the verge of increasing their present key role in pharmaceutical and medical device packaging through the turn of the century. According to a recent study by the research organization The Freedonia Group (Cleveland), the drug and device business will consume $280 million worth of these packages in 2000. This represents an annual growth rate of approximately 2.5% from 1995. (Intensifying competition from plastics, aluminum foil, and nonwoven fabrics will preclude faster growth.) One of the biggest reasons for the increase is the need for enhanced shelf presence — the marketing and merchandising power of flashy containers.


"Manufacturers of over-the-counter [OTC] drugs are constantly placing more emphasis on the use of creative packaging as a marketing tool than in the past," says Vincent Kover, vice president of sales for Innovative Folding Carton (South Plainfield, NJ). Among the elaborate design and decoration techniques coming into play, he says, are foil stamping, embossing, and holographic films. Others include matte finishes, slick varnishes, and coatings, as well as specialty inks.

All this is gradually trickling down from the retail arena to the once-mundane marketplace for prescription-only pharmaceuticals. "Cartons for prescription drugs used to be straightforward," Kover says, "using only one or two colors." Now they feature colorful graphics employing as many as eight colors of ink in order to stand out from the burgeoning crowd of competitors.

Among competitors for the consumer's dollar are store-brand or private-label product makers, whom manufacturers of national-brand drugs have accused of intentionally introducing look-alike packages. The more complex and expensive the design and printing of a national-brand carton is, the thinking goes, the less likely it is to be successfully copied.

Tom Grinnan, director of strategic planning and marketing for Mebane Packaging Group (Mebane, NC), says he believes that the movement toward increasingly extravagant paperboard packaging will continue unabated throughout the foreseeable future. One of the determining factors, he says, is the battle joined when a drug moves from prescription-only to OTC.

Cartons for Telfast display sophisticated graphics developed by package design firm Interbrand Gerstman+Meyers (New York City).

The patent on a drug runs 20 years from the date of the manufacturer's patent application to FDA. That may seem like a long life, but years can be eaten up preparing the drug for the prescription market once the patent has been granted. Therefore, a drug company generally enjoys far less than two decades of exclusivity on a formulation. Once the patent on a drug expires, it can be converted to an OTC product, following approval from FDA — ideally with a brand name and an image that present it as something unique in the crowded OTC marketplace.

"You want to do everything you can to prepare in advance for the OTC market," says Grinnan. "Basically, if you're bringing out a drug with a patent and selling it with a prescription, it's wise to plan ahead to extend its life and make more money when it moves to over-the-counter." Increasingly, he says, pharmaceutical companies begin planning for this eventuality immediately after winning a patent by designing eye-catching, consumer-oriented packages — even though OTC distribution may be years off.


Another major trend spurring change in the paperboard packaging of pharmaceuticals, whether prescription or OTC, is user compliance. Packaging can and should assist the consumer in taking a drug correctly. This is leading to new forms of unit-dose containers, which almost always involve thermoformed plastic blister cards inside a carton. Grinnan says the market for unit-dose packaging rose from approximately $230 million in 1987 to $825 million in 1997 and is expected to hit the $2 billion mark by 2000. Packaging fewer pills in each carton requires manufacturers to use more cartons.

From the drug maker's point of view, moving out of bottles and into blisters is a costly transition, but one that seems crucial as the drive toward increased user compliance goes on.

Also increasing costs for the pharmaceutical manufacturer is retailers' growing demand for some means of making drug packages theft resistant. Antitheft tags — more formally called electronic article surveillance, or EAS, tags — are increasingly being used on drug and medical device packages sold over the counter. Drugs and devices that come into a store without such tags are tagged by the retailer, with the expense charged back to the manufacturer. Says Grinnan, "You're ahead of the game if you can incorporate the tag into the carton while the carton is being converted." There are two types of tags in wide use: radio-frequency and acoustomagnetic. These tags can add 2 to 10 cents to the cost of a carton.

An additional dime of manufacturing cost seems easy to disregard if the product is pricey — a medical device or a pharmaceutical product like hair-restorer Rogaine. But what about a bottle of relatively inexpensive analgesic tablets? According to Grinnan, Bristol-Myers has found a good compromise. To cut costs, the company places the tags into a few random cartons of Bufferin tablets — just enough to cause headaches for would-be thieves.


Bob Lowery, account executive for Colonial Carton Co. (Clayton, NC), says a new use of paperboard embossing appears to be an idea whose time has come. "It's Braille," he says. "We've got some samples of cartons and have presented them to associations for the vision impaired to find out if there's any interest. There seems to be. We think it makes a lot of sense for OTC cartons."

One limitation in the use of Braille for product labeling is inherent in Braille itself: The characters require a lot of area. For that reason, Lowery says, "most cartons can carry only one or two key words." But the Braille characters can be positioned anywhere on the package, since they do not detract from the graphics as seen by consumers with unimpaired vision.

Does this add to the packaging cost? "If the Braille can be done at the same time that the carton blanks are cut and scored, then it is not a significant increase," Lowery says. "There are plenty of embossed cartons in the marketplace, so this is not a revolutionary process." Lowery recommends that a protective coating be used on the carton to prevent scuffing, which could render the Braille characters useless. And Walt Berghahn, sales representative for carton machinery manufacturer Uhlmann Packaging (Towaco, NJ), says the use of Braille represents another small and easily surmounted challenge to machinery makers and packagers: "You have to be careful when handling the carton so you don't run the Braille under a guide rail on the line." That could crush the characters.

Janet Steiner, president of Thoro Packaging (Corona, CA), also sees Braille as a viable option. "Braille overprinting is one good solution that we're promoting to meet the demand for graphics and customer needs," says Steiner. "A transparent dot is applied directly over the graphics. This allows the graphics to be easily read, where embossing tends to distort the graphics."


Less than a decade ago, packagers of all kinds of products were under attack by environmentalists and others concerned about the generation of garbage. Packaging was seen as wasteful — more burdensome than beneficial. Paper and paperboard escaped much of the criticism suffered by plastics because fiber-based materials were widely, and controversially, perceived as biodegradable.

Since then, the garbage crisis and the concept of biodegradability have all but disappeared from the minds of most consumers in the United States. But the issues remain prevalent in other countries (notably Germany), where sometimes-conflicting laws restrict the use of specific package materials. Overseas authorities are forcing U.S. manufacturers of exported drugs and medical devices to drop plastics from their packaging. This is leading to an increase in the use of fiber-based materials.

Lowery says his company is three months into developing an all-paperboard replacement for a paper-and-plastic blister pack for dental syringes. "European laws are requiring the product manufacturer to eliminate the vacuum-formed plastic insert currently in use. This is causing us to engage in a lot of packaging development creativity." Fortunately, paperboard is a material that seems capable of infinite reengineering.

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