On-shelf impact, convenience, shelf-life, brand loyalty and increasingly environmental credentials all factor into the packaging choice for soft drinks brands. Moreover, writes Annette Farr, when it comes to launching new products, manufacturers look to packaging innovation to provide a point of difference.

Consumers form an emotional bond with packaging, whether it's with glass's enduring premium image, carton's convenience, PET's on-the-go flexibility, or the slim energy drink can. So for a soft drinks brand, choosing the right pack is crucial.

Recent developments in barrier system technology aimed at extending shelf life continue to drive PET's dominance of the soft drinks category which stands at 57%, according to market analyst Canadean. Innovations include SIG Plasmax vapour depositioning equipment which coats the inside of a PET bottle with a thin transparent layer of glass and Sidel's latest version of its Actis system, Actis 48, which deposits a thin layer of hydrogen-rich amorphous carbon to reduce carbon dioxide ingress.

Advances in lightweighting also make PET more cost effective. Paola Tamagnone of Italian-based PET Engineering says that over the last 15 years there has been a overall reduction in weight of PET bottles, of 30% for still drinks and 25% for carbonated. The company has now managed to reduce the weight of a 100g single-shot PET bottle, popular with functional dairy-based products, from 7g to 5g.

Wellman Inc., the largest producer of PET resins in the US, has launched a new titanium-based resin, specifically designed for carbonated soft drinks, called PearmaClearTi. "Titanium based PET resin is Wellman's strategic technology platform and we believe the industry will follow," explains Jim Bruening, Wellman's director of PET resins research and development. "Using titanium resins will allow our customers to raise filling temperatures, reduce injection cycle times by up to 10%, and provide lightweighting opportunities, while increasing clarity."

Meanwhile, the carton segment has become the staple pack for juices and nectars in markets across the world.

Tetra Pak first introduced the tetrahedron-shaped carton in 1952. Nowadays the cardboard comes in all shapes and sizes. Although closure developments, such as ring-pull and resealable screw caps, have resolved the spillage problems of old, Tetra Pak maintains its new Tetra Top Carton bottle is even easier to open, drink and pour from. The pack combines a carton material sleeve that is crowned with an injection moulded polyethylene top and, says the company, offers myriad opportunities in pack design.

Elopak has enjoyed success with its Pure-Pak Curve carton which features a curved fifth panel. Among its prestigious customers are Valio, the Finnish dairy manufacturer of 'berry soups' (a traditional Finnish beverage), and Pepsi Americas Central Europe Group, which used the pack for the re-launch of its juice brand Toma across the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

New shapes introduced by Elopak last year include the 'Slim' carton aimed at "healthy liquid food products tartgeted at healthy, active people", and the 'Icone', a gable-top shape in an easy-to-hold coned body. This is for on-the-go consumption - think drinks holders in cars.

Eye-catching innovation comes from Italpak with its new see-through pack. Ocean Spray has chosen this new carton format for the relaunch of its Cranberry-based fruit juices. The 1-litre gable-top carton features two windows on opposite sides, one showing the product at the mouth of a drinking glass, and the other being a vertical window two thirds of the depth of the carton, which is graduated to measure 250ml, the volume of a single recommended portion. 

According to Italpack managing director Giuseppe Adinolfi, "the window carton is a big step forward, particularly for companies marketing premium products, who see this is an excellent vehicle for adding value and brand differentiation".

On the can front, Tony Woods, director of the Metal Packaging Manufacturers' Association, says that soft drinks cans have shown "great innovation in terms of imaginative new developments pushing into emerging markets or new product areas".

The 'Fresh Can' from the Ball Corporation offers something truly different and gained a Silver award for technical innovation at the 2006 Best in Metal Awards, sponsored by the Metal Packaging Manufacturers' Association. The can has been designed specifically for wellness and sports drinks, which contain specific functional ingredients that can deteriorate over time in aqueous solutions. The idea is to keep these sensitive ingredients both airtight and watertight until the can is opened. The supplements are kept in a free-flowing plastic capsule called the wedge. Once opened the pressure inside the can drops causing the wedge lid to spring open and allowing its contents to mix with the liquid.

Winner of the soft beverages category at the awards was the 250ml aluminium energy drink can, manufactured by Rexam Beverage Can Europe & Asia for Coca-Cola's Burn energy drink. Made for the relaunch of Burn, the can combines a technically challenging printing technology using UV-sensitive ink, and a coloured tab with laser engraving.

Elsewhere, a foaming ink technology developed by Crown Holdings Inc. has enabled the American energy drink Bawls Guarana to replicate the raised surface of its signature cobalt blue bottles onto a 16oz can.  Crown achieved this tactile effect by spot-applying a special ink in small circles all over the can, thus creating a velvet feel for consumers as they grip the package.

"Being the first to commercially apply the foaming ink technology in the North American beverage market is a fun, creative way to increase consumer interaction and appeal," says John Corelli, manager for graphics planning and customer and technical service for Crown in North America.