Facebook replaces traditional focus groups for customer feedback on packaging project

RIT packaging students help business owner re-design paleo meal packs to be more sustainable

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provided by Catherine Burke

RIT packaging students helped business owners Robert Morton and Patrick Smith to re-design packaging for their company, Power Supply. Morton and Smith asked the students to develop packaging that would be more sustainable and enhance the company’s brand. Student-designers provided multiple prototypes that used easily recyclable or reusable materials.

Social media became an integral part of a packaging redesign project, connecting student-designers in Rochester with clients nearly 400 miles away in Washington, D.C.

Graduate students in the packaging science program at Rochester Institute of Technology used social media and an alumni connection to bridge the distance between themselves and Robert Morton, co-owner of Power Supply, a prepared-meals company in the nation’s capital. It was a chance for the packaging students to provide consulting work within the context of a graduate seminar, and for Morton to explore new, more sustainable packaging options for his health-conscious meals and customers.

The project was part of a spring quarter class led by Deanna Jacobs, professor of packaging science and graduate program chair in RIT’s College of Applied Science and Technology. But the working relationship began several weeks earlier when RIT packaging alumnus Derrick Lawrence, senior packaging engineer with Seventh Generation, a national green cleaning products company, introduced his former professor to Morton.

“You know what rocks? Networking,” says Jacobs, who built the seminar class around Morton’s project. “I was intrigued. I thought, what a great, cool experiment, to actually have the opportunity to use social media to design a system for a confined geographic region, but keeping in mind long-term applicability to urban areas across the country.”

Since opening two years ago, Morton’s company has provided more than 250,000 packaged meals to members at CrossFit and other gyms in the D.C. area. Clients pick up the meals weekly at the gyms. With such a large volume of packaged products, even small changes to materials can make a big environmental impact, Jacobs adds.

Popular among active fitness communities, the paleo lifestyle emphasizes nutrient-dense, high quality vegetables, animal and seafood proteins along with fruits, nuts and healthy fats. Currently, Power Supply’s prepared meals are packaged fresh in individual containers then wrapped together in 2-, 3- or 6-meal sets. The redesign project entailed finding a sustainable alternative to the cling wrap being used to bundle meals, developing a more sustainable overall packaging system and customizing the packaging to enhance Power Supply’s brand.

“Sustainability was a big driver and the original spark for the project,” says Morton. “But we also asked students to consider this idea of ‘opening joy.’ You eat with all your senses, so thinking about usability and the experience from a customer’s perspective of interacting with this package was a key factor, in addition to production realities.”

The first series of designs was posted to a private networking space, built by student Catherine Burke, located on the company’s Facebook site. The students, separated into three working groups, sent photos and drawings of prototypes with information about the advantages of stacked or sealed packages with different models of handles on the primary containers or with special lids that held together multiple containers. Other designs included reusable bags accenting the logo—a hand holding a bunch of carrots—as the actual handle design. All options had details about materials used and the environmental impact.

Customer feedback included questions about reusing the current packages, the ability to microwave containers and recycling options. Using Facebook provided immediate and important feedback for the students from customers invested in the lifestyle and supportive of the company, says Burke.

Her classmate, David Goldstein, agreed. “They see what you may not. This was one of the first times I have used Facebook for feedback or had customers so involved in the process.”

Over the past few years, the RIT packaging science department has worked closely with corporations on re-design projects like this one, and the students learn about how clients and designers work together on product development teams. It is a real-world scenario, but also an unpredictable and interesting one, says Jacobs. “Didn’t we discover that it was just as complicated to work in a confined area with boundaries, as with larger multi-national corporations and a huge geographic area? It was a fascinating learning experience for us.”

Both Morton and co-owner Patrick Smith participated in a design review with the students over Skype on the last day of class. All the data about materials used, the environmental impact statements, and the design dimensions were submitted to the company; Morton and Smith plan to carry the design research further with customer advisers later this year.

“Introducing change for packaging at the core of your product is a big thing that has to be done with care,” says Morton. “So getting actionable suggestions on everything from short-term improvement steps to pursuing one of these completely new ideas in the medium-to-longer term is hugely valuable and core to what we’re doing around sustainability and the customer experience. ”