Slim beverage cans gain ground against their squatter cousins

January 8, 2022

The squat, 12-ounce aluminum beverage cans that have been ubiquitous in stores and vending machines for more than half a century are getting competition from a slimmer, taller model that marketers say evokes sophistication, reports The Wall Street Journal.

Companies including Molson Coors and PepsiCo have put some of their beverages into taller, thinner cans that still hold 12 ounces, although they are keeping the barrel-shaped cans for other brands. Meanwhile, drinks such as Sanpellegrino and Heineken are switching to slim cans from the squat kind.

Once used primarily for energy drinks, the skinny cans are meant to stand out on crowded store shelves and suggest attributes such as quality or healthfulness.

“The shelf is the sea of sameness, and just being different makes a difference,” said Dave Fedewa, a partner specializing in consumer products at consulting firm McKinsey & Co.

In addition, thinner cans also tend to sell better and help save on freight costs, he said. The slim cans take up less space than traditional barrel-shaped cans, both in a truck or container and on store shelves, according to Fedewa.

“One of the biggest challenges for retailers and their suppliers is keeping stuff on the shelf—especially in this age of Instacart,” he said. “If you can get 10% or 20% more on display, that could turn into 3% to 5% growth.”

Nestlé SA soda brand Sanpellegrino Italian Sparkling Drinks is one of the latest beverages to skinnify its packaging, phasing out its squat cans that came with a layer of foil that kept the top of the can clean.

Some fans of the old packaging have grumbled about the new skinny shape of the can and the loss of the foil layer. One Twitter user tweeted at Sanpellegrino’s U.K. brand account to complain that the new slim can rattles around in car cup holders designed for wider cans.

“We have moved to a sleek can and a completely new visual identity, with the aim to delight consumers by offering a more premium and more sustainable drinking experience,” the brand replied on Twitter.

The new shape is meant to visually communicate that the drink inside, which has been reformulated to eliminate artificial colors and sweeteners, is healthier than the typical fizzy beverage, said Thomas Conquet, marketing director of Sanpellegrino in the United States.

“Consumers feel it’s a bit more elegant, a bit more upscale, a bit more adult when they have this can in their hands,” he said, citing testing conducted by the brand.

Beer brands are narrowing and lengthening cans, too. The U.S. unit of Heineken —the world’s second-largest brewer by sales after Anheuser-Busch InBev—last year tested selling its flagship Heineken beer in slim cans in Florida, in response to demand from younger consumers. The test worked: Sales grew, and in March the company began rolling the slim can out to the rest of the United States, according to Borja Manso, vice president of brand marketing for the Heineken brand.

Slim cans are particularly popular among brands that advertise the relative nutritional benefits of their drinks. Canned versions of the hard seltzers White Claw and Truly, whose labels highlight their low-carb, low-calorie contents, hit the market in the 2010s in skinny packaging. Anheuser-Busch’s zero-carb beer Bud Light Next, which was released in January, also comes in a slim can.

That same month, PepsiCo and Starbucks  launched their Baya energy drink in a slim can.

About a decade ago, Pepsi got flak when it rolled out a “skinny can” Diet Pepsi during the 2011 New York Fashion Week. The accompanying ad campaign was criticized by the National Eating Disorders Association for equating style and beauty with thinness. Diet Pepsi is no longer sold in skinny cans, a company spokesperson confirmed.

But not all beverage companies are shifting to slim cans. Doing so means reconfiguring filling lines and other manufacturing processes, which can require large capital investments, Fedewa said.

Molson Coors said that in the past few years, it has funneled millions of dollars into new production lines that manufacture slim cans, including an overhaul of its Golden, Colorado, facility—where it churns out more than 750 million sleek cans a year.

Research contact: @WSJ