Phil Parkinson, Who Dares Design | How the military influences FMCG packaging

Who Dares Design’s Phil Parkinson looks at the influence military special forces operations has had on FMCG product packaging.

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During World War 2, the inadequacy of heavy canned rations was recognised as a major logistical and practical hinderence to Allied soldiers, which led to the successful introduction of the Jungle Ration – a dry lightweight daily meal that could be stored in light waterproof bags.

After the war canned rations were re-standardized due to cost concerns about lightweight equivalents. During the early years of U.S involvement in the Vietnam war, American Special Forces soldiers on patrol were often forced to stack their canned rations in socks to minimize noise and prevent them rattling.

The use of specialized forces operating in extreme environments during this conflict, often carrying heavy field loads while on foot, meant that the use of lighter alternatives to canned rations was deemed hugely important. This led to the development and introduction of the Long Range Patrol ration, a dehydrated meal stored in a waterproof canvas pouch.

In 1975 the development of a dehydrated meal stored in a plastic retort pouch began, initially introduced as special issue in 1981, and ultimately as standard issue in 1986.

Today, British and American military ration packs and MRE’S (Meal, Ready-To-Eat), and their constituent parts, are packaged almost exclusively in flexible packaging as a result of development that has been ongoing never since the late 80’s.

This development of flexible packaging technologies for military applications, has filtered through to commercial industry and directly influences the gradual transition from rigid to flexible packaging formats across the retail spectrum.

army retort pouches

The requirements which have driven the neccessity for transition from rigid to flexible pack formats within the Military, and the requirements that those flexible pack formats must meet, differ greatly from those of the commercial world – for example, MRE’s must be able to withstand parachute drops, have a shelf-life of over 3 years, must be small in size, lightweight, portable etc – it is the logistical and tactical requirements of military operations and strategy that have driven the research, development and implementation of flexible packaging solutions.

When these flexible packaging solutions have subsequently been used for commercial food products, the neccesity for transition, and the requirements that the packaging must meet, are based on cost, production and storage efficiencies, visual appeal, brand status and position within a paricular tier or category, with companies asking ‘how will this packaging help us to reduce costs and sell more products?’

Although the primary requirements within military and commercial fields may differ greatly, many of the benefits yielded are the same – significant packaging weight reduction, increased product shelf-life, better functionality/easy to use, more convenient for the end user (soldier or consumer) etc. For instance, the retort pouch, originally invented by the United States Army in 1978, is now a standard commercial packaging application found on supermarket shelves throughout the world, being used to pack a multitude of everyday fmcg products ranging from baby food to frozen alcoholic cocktails.

New packaging innovations and effective solutions continue to be explored and developed by the Military, such as packaging made from Zein to replace the foil components in ration packs. Zein is manufactured as a powder from corn gluten meal and has a variety of industrial and food uses. It can be processed into resins and other bioplastic polymers which can be extruded or rolled into plastic products.

Phil Parkinson

Phil Parkinson, Who Dares Design


From a military perspective, the motivation behind the development of Zein based packaging stems from issues with foil based packaging being reflective, easy to puncture and conducting heat (all negatives for a combat soldier on operations in an extreme environment).

With Zein also being a potentially viable non-toxic raw material to use in the manufacture of flexible packaging, will this be another military innovation that ultimately drives commercial packaging developments and trends?

Less tangible military technologies may also continue to influence how the products we buy are packaged and sold in future. Drones were originally developed by the Royal Navy in the 1930’s to be used for target practice, with the technology evolving through to the development of unmanned ariel vehicles used in Iraq and Afghanistan to support Special Forces operations since the turn of the century. With the technology now developed to a stage where it is feasible to use within commercial industry,

businesses such as Amazon are developing their own Drones (Prime Air) as a future delivery system to get packages to customers quickly and safely. If Amazon are succesful, forecasters are speculating that within a generation it may be commonplace to see drones flying through the air delivering all our FMCG goods to our homes.

Will our food shopping be delivered to us by a supermarket branded drone in future? If so, will this transportation system affect how products are stored and packed to ensure safe transition from manufacturer to supplier to consumer? If drones have maximum weight allowances, will FMCG businesses need to prioritise packaging weight and size reduction above other aesthetic and practical considerations to win/retain listings with the major retailers? Only time will tell.

Phil Parkinson runs Who Dares Design, an agency specialising in branding, creative design & packaging management