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What Is Primary vs. Secondary Packaging?

Primary packaging separates your product from the consumer, while secondary packaging secures various components and/or units. Both play key roles in protecting and promoting your brand

    5 minute read

As the all-encompassing term suggests, packaging serves multiple purposes.

It protects your product from damage, extends the shelf life of food, promotes your brand to consumers, and maximizes shelf presence. Packaging isn’t just about what the consumer sees and opens, but how the product is transferred, stored, and placed.

This comes together in three parts: primary packaging, secondary packaging, and tertiary packaging. We’ll focus on the first two, as they have a more direct influence on how consumers perceive your products. (Tertiary packaging is used for shipping large volumes of products—think shrink wraps around boxes—and storage.)

Both primary and secondary packaging play a role in getting your product into consumers’ hands. They work in concert, and a defect in either will compromise the packaging as a whole.

Here’s what you need to know about each, and elements to consider, as you look for a packaging solution. We’ll give special attention to folding cartons, one of the most common forms of packaging out there.

Primary Packaging

Primary packaging is both first and last: It’s the first layer of protection for your product and the last piece of packaging the consumer opens. It’s a bag of potato chips, juice box, book of matches, or wrapper covering a bar of soap. It can also be a tray holding multiple products in place—say, as part of a beauty kit.

No matter what, the primary packaging needs to be of the utmost quality.

Think of the food industry. Primary packaging plays a vital role in extending shelf life. If it’s defective, the product can spoil. Even for non-perishable items, faulty packaging risks damaging fragile products or sending the wrong message to consumers about your brand’s quality.

There’s another element to consider as well: branding.

Primary packaging is often contained within secondary packaging (as is the case with folding cartons). In these instances, utility matters more than appearance. However, when the primary packaging is displayed, use it as a marketing opportunity.

The packaging should feature clear branding and messaging about what exactly the product is. This can be elevated with the right effects—an elegant white background with a sleek logo for a beauty product, for example, or cleverly placed windowing to give consumers a peek at the product before they open it.

For companies using tinctures, bottles, or something similar (especially those in cosmetics), supplement your packaging with a strong label that speaks to your brand and provides important information.

Finally, ask about sustainability when working with your packaging partner. They can talk you through options to limit plastic use or provide alternative materials, without sacrificing quality (for instance, within food packaging or among beauty brands).

Secondary Packaging

The box holding the aspirin bottle. The case securing the soda cans. The plastic wrap on a two-for-one deal. Or the folding carton securing your fruit snacks. All are examples of secondary packaging, which holds together individual units of products.

In this sense, secondary packaging serves a practical purpose. It organizes or stabilizes products to get them shelf ready. It also makes for easier and safer storage, so when it comes time for a manufacturer to ship off more units, you can trust they make it to consumers intact. Similar to primary packaging that’s displayed, secondary packaging is an important tool for brand marketing, particularly when it’s a folding carton.

Folding cartons are one of the most common forms of secondary packaging, and you should take full advantage of them. The paperboard they’re made of offers a blank canvas of sorts for expert physical designs and possibilities for decorative elements, while remaining strong enough to protect your products.

Abundant paperboard options exist for folding cartons, including sustainable alternatives. These might include biodegradable options such as sugarcane bagasse, hemp, cotton, and casein-based substrates. You might also consider post-consumer recycled paperboard, as well, if your brand wants to embrace sustainable packaging practices.

While paper continues to be incredibly popular for folding cartons due to its renewable nature and durability, be certain your packaging partner sources it from responsibly managed forests as certified by the nonprofit Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Sustainable Forest Initiative (SFI), or Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC).

Common paperboard grades for folding cartons include solid bleached sulfate (SBS), coated unbleached kraft (CUK), coated recycled paperboard (CRB), clay coated news back (CCNB), uncoated recycled board (URB), and thermal mechanical pulp (TMP).

The right packaging partner will work with you to deliver a well-designed folding carton (or other form of secondary packaging) that meets your goals. Every detail of the process is considered to optimize resources and instill peace of mind. You'll be confident in your product—so, too, will your customers.

Primary & Secondary Packaging for Pharmaceuticals

Like the food industry and cosmetics, where branding is balanced with instructional information, pharmaceuticals and cannabis products must also include details on both packaging. For instance, when the secondary packaging for a pain reliever has been discarded by a customer, they’ll need essential instructions on the primary packaging. Cannabis products must include similar instructions. You don’t want your product to become a liability because consumers ingested incorrect dosages, or applied it improperly.

Primary packaging for pharmaceuticals and cannabis products must also hold up over time and in different settings. If, for example, someone keeps an over-the-counter medicine near a shower, the label needs to sustain humid conditions.

Anti-counterfeiting is another feature central to pharmaceuticals and cannabis products. When you're taking something into your body, you want to be confident it hasn’t been tampered with or contaminated. For this reason, pharmaceutical and cannabis brands need to be sure their packaging keeps their products and consumers safe.

For consistent quality and look, it's best to turn to a single provider for primary and secondary packaging and labels, rather than multiple. By working with an experienced printing and packaging partner, such as Oliver, you won’t have to leave anything to chance.

So, whether you’re striving for more sustainable packaging, want to match brand colors with extended gamut printing, are interested in the benefits of digital printing, or unsure about your current packaging designs, Oliver is here to help.

Oliver is a printing and packaging company with vast experience in a variety of industries. Equipped with advanced capabilities and a commitment to excellence, we are eager to help you implement your next packaging design. Contact us today to learn more.

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