Packaging’s Tricky Target


Packaging’s Tricky Target

When it comes to creating effective packaging, lubricant marketers may feel like they are aiming at a moving target. How can a package hit the bull’s eye in the center of sustainability, product differentiation, performance claims and many other priorities—all in a format that consumers and other end users can easily understand?

Being aware of potential stumbling blocks can help marketers design packaging and labels that land dead center.

Gone are the days when an SAE 10W-40 would cover all engine oil applications. Modern engines require an increasingly complex balance of chemistry to keep them in optimum condition, which has led to a wider range of lubricants being required to service different equipment. This means a higher product count to manage, increased stockholding and higher costs for both marketers and end users.

To help lower product counts and stocks, marketers want to make products that can claim as many specifications as technically feasible.

This presents a chemical headache for formulators, blenders and marketers that need to balance the needs of the consumer with meeting their legal obligation to make valid specification claims.

Packaging must appeal to its end user, from workshop mechanics to motorists. Marketers will want to demonstrate their product is the best choice—superior to alternatives, including those that may be cheaper. But ultimately, what the consumer wants to know is whether it’s the right oil for their vehicle.

The product’s brand, label and packaging are often the main points of interaction between the company and the customer. The packaging is the company’s shop window, reinforcing its brand values and communicating the benefits of using the product. It assures the end user that a lubricant is suitable for its stated application by reference to market standards and original equipment manufacturer specifications.

These days, most marketers prefer to keep the front of the package fairly clear, focusing on the viscosity of the product, such as SAE 5W-30, its base oil, such as semi- or fully synthetic, its ACEA rating in Europe or API or ILSAC rating in North America, and any specific OEM recommendations.

Realistically, the first thing users will do is turn to the back of the pack to try and decipher the myriad letters and numbers in order to find the desired manufacturer specification as listed in the vehicle handbook, such as a VW 504 00/507 00.

Oil Info at Your Fingertips 

In an increasingly digital age, online lubricant databases can play an important role in helping consumers make their purchasing decisions. These databases are powered by the technical knowledge and expertise of large companies such as Netherlands-based Olyslager or Oats in the United Kingdom. 

These companies spend many thousands of hours each year ploughing through numerous owner’s manuals and service documents to identify the right products for a vehicle just by entering the registration. Depending on the database, these recommendations sometimes offer a choice of brands so that workshops or consumers can make their own selection, depending on local availability or their personal preference.

Yet vehicle handbooks don’t always give clear or helpful recommendations. They may recommend one particular brand, but what if an end user’s local retailer or distributor does not stock those specific products, or they want to use another brand? It can be difficult to decode the ACEA or API references and OEM specifications required, and even harder to find those on a crowded packaging label.

But while the marketer tries to deliver packaging that appeals to the consumer, aids their decision-making process and includes all the required legal information, the product must not fail to meet the claims that appear on the label. This has proven to be a stumbling block for some.

Missing the Mark

In the U.K., independent trade body Verification of Lubricant Specifications has investigated several cases in which claims made on packages were not substantiated or accurate.

While the number of cases per year has varied, VLS has investigated 65 cases since 2014, including five new cases last year. In the rigorous and anonymous investigation process, products are procured and tested at an independent testing house. The results are analyzed anonymously by VLS’s Technical Review Panel, made up of experts from across the industry.

Investigations showed that in some cases the product couldn’t meet its own performance claims or stated technical specification. Marketers had to remove claims, withdraw stock and update packaging to reflect the correct information.

For example, Case 160 involved a complaint against a fully synthetic SAE 5W-30 engine oil making conflicting claims on the product that were not technically feasible. The claims concerned industry standards such as the ACEA engine oil sequences as well as various OEM specifications. VLS worked with the company to resolve the conflicting claims, remove reference to obsolete claims and present the product’s technical information in a compliant manner.

In a more serious instance, VLS escalated Case 154 against Kerax Hyperdrive (now Hyperdrive Lubricants Ltd) to Trading Standards, the U.K.’s authority departments that enforce consumer protection legislation. The complaint, received in 2019, involved the company’s fully synthetic SAE 5W-30 C3 passenger car motor oil and alleged that the product failed its own technical specification for high-temperature high-shear viscosity and Noack volatility properties. 

Independent testing confirmed that the product failed to meet both the HTHS and Noack test limits for the manufacturer’s specification for Mercedes-Benz 229.51, which was claimed in the product’s description.

Following discussions with VLS, the company reformulated the product, which was again tested and found to meet the specifications. But in April, testing for a six-month case review showed that the product met the minimum standards for Noack volatility but again failed to meet the minimum specification for HTHS viscosity. Given the potential adverse effect on fuel economy and engine durability, VLS escalated the case.

Hazardous Complexities

While the situation is most complex in the highly competitive automotive engine oil segment, confusion exists even as far afield as metalworking fluids, causing potential reporting violations and throwing up other obstacles. 

For example, stock of metalworking fluids must be correctly labelled. But when the fluid is in use, containers such as fluid sumps are not required to be labeled under the European Union’s Classification of Labelling and Packaging regulation.

CLP is based on the United Nations’ Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals. As a trans-national regulation, GHS aims to standardize the way products are packaged and classified in trade, including a requirement for hazard labelling if a product is known to be injurious to health.

In Europe, CLP does not stop there. It also includes a requirement for labels to be in a local language where the product is placed into the market. If a product is marketed across more than one country, then the use of multiple language labels is required. A folded label, which offers a practical solution to multi-country marketing and the need for multiple language labels, is not officially sanctioned. Marketers continue to grapple with limited label space on products sold into multiple country markets.

CLP requirements carry through from labelling and packaging to a product’s manufacturer safety data sheet. The MSDS, which should always be made available throughout the supply chain, provides information on chemical products that help end users make a risk assessment. It describes the hazards present in chemicals and gives information on handling, storage and emergency measures in case of an accident.   

Information contained in an MSDS is often used by National Poison Centers to ascertain risks relating to chemical use and inform the emergency services of the hazards these products present. In Europe, Poison Centers provide a service for health professionals and emergency services in dealing with chemical incidents. 

Recently, the EU has introduced a harmonizing regulation for poison centers with the intent of developing a common approach throughout the continent for dealing with chemical hazards. This includes requirements to notify poison centers about the constituent elements that make up a product’s formulation and the requirement to report if a product’s blend exceeds a stated or given formulation tolerance.

The requirement to notify is a particularly difficult issue when dealing with metalworking fluids, where the formulation might change frequently in operation depending on environmental conditions such as heat or humidity, operating temperatures of the equipment used, and the presence of bacteria, and hence biocide, in the metalworking fluid.

As with many business decisions, the successful marketer is the one that manages to find the best balance between the needs of the industry, the company and the end user. This means working with everyone involved, including legal and technical departments to ensure that packaging is factually accurate and as clear as possible for end users, whilst still presenting an attractive pack.   

Andrew Goddard is chairman of the Verification of Lubricant Specifications (VLS), an independent U.K. trade association established to validate and verify the technical specifications and performance claims made on lubricant products. Contact him at +44 (0)1442 875922 or

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