In Part 1 of our 3-part Golden Age Of Packaging blog series, Sarah Mitty explores the necessary evolution of packaging design in order to survive our digital-driven times.
It is no secret online shopping creates an entirely new purchasing journey for the consumer. What was previously a physical experience of interacting with products has now become virtual as well. Nowadays, thumbnail icons are the new shelf-presence and 3-D zoom is the equivalent to picking up a product and holding it in your hands. Now, packaging not only needs to work on shelf—but also in the digital realm.
While the online shopping revolution may make some nostalgic for the days of brick and mortar, online purchasing allows for exciting new opportunities in packaging functionality.
From Shopability to Usability
When considering in-store shopping as the primary avenue for consumer interaction, the function of package design is to attract attention on shelf and enhance the experience of in-person interaction. The purpose of packaging for in store is not only to create a visual experience but a tactile one as well.
Product packaging needs to physically work in a store context. This means that a shape-shifting bag of cereal requires an upright box to sit on the shelf, a 12-pack beer needs handles so it can be easily carried and blister packs are a necessity for select products to prevent tampering.
Additionally, package design must aim to attract consumer attention. Through maximizing shelf space with attractive colors and unique designs, a product can stand out from the crowd; functional packaging accomplishes the feat of brand recognition. When loyal customers scan store aisles for their favorite product, they are looking for the distinct colors, imagery, and structures associated with the brand. Drastically changing packaging can be a dangerous gamble for in-store shopping. Failure to recognize brand packaging can send a message of inconsistency and confusion over brand personality and values.
With the imminent move to digital from all brands, we are not far from a full-blown e-commerce takeover. It’s hard to find something that cannot be purchased online, and more products are now exclusively sold direct to consumers via brand websites.
Package design now often lives on a jpeg, and delivery to doorstep is the norm. Many of those with store restraints can become non-issues if products are purchased online. Packaging no longer needs to work on shelf, which means goodbye nail breaking blister packs and hello clear plastic bags of cereal.
While it may seem like an exaggeration, is there really problem with stamping your brand name on a non-descript bag and shipping it to consumers? Brand recognition online is all too easy—simply type “Cheerios” into Amazon and up pops every variation of the product you could ever dream of. If consumers see the iconic yellow box online, is it a problem if all they receive is a translucent bag with just the product?
There are pros and cons to such an approach of online packaging. A few pros: It can be much more cost efficient; by removing the extra cardboard box, the same product can be sold at a lower price. Additionally, it is much more sustainable. Ditch the box, save a tree.
Yet, it is not quite so simple. A possible con is that the product still needs to work in the home, and even if it doesn’t have to sit on shelf in a store, it has to sit on shelf at home. So maybe the flimsy bag of cereal will have to wait.
The shipping process also brings new meaning to functional packaging. Now, it is all about facilitating a speedy and damage-free journey for the product from manufacturer to consumer. Keeping products safe throughout shipping requires massive amounts of bubble wrap, cardboard, and other environmentally-damaging materials that would not have been needed in store. So, even if we got rid of the cereal box, we’d need an even stronger cardboard box around the cereal itself to protect it during shipping.
Perhaps playing with packaging structure in this way is something that can be explored by brands selling online. Maybe boxes for shipping can become the branded packaging itself. Or packaging can move on from the traditional box structure and take a different form entirely. Without the restrictions of the demanding store shelf, brands can become creative with package design by taking advantage of the opportunities e-commerce brings.
Purely Function to Functional Experience
On-line shopping both breaks down barriers and creates new ones for package design. Of those broken down, flexibility in package structure may be the most substantial. Although shipping a bag of cereal may not work (yet), the idea that packaging can break out of traditional molds is an interesting consideration. Product structure can be altered off shelf to better-fit consumer wants, such as ease of use, cost efficiency, and sustainability. While these practical advancements would undoubtedly improve the lives of consumers, even more exciting is the possibility for brands to play with structure in a way that reflects brand purpose.
A great example is Thelma’s Treats, a small company out of Des Moines. For their deliveries, Thelma’s uses an innovative box structure that looks like an oven to reflect the fresh-baked cookies inside. This structure would never fit nor be effective on a store shelf due to its size and shape. Yet, since the cookies are sent directly to the home, the oven shaped package provides an exciting unboxing experience that emphasizes brand personality and values.
In a similar vein, Trunk Club provides online personal shopping assistants that send hand picked clothing selections to homes in a trunk-shaped package. Consumers experience a unique unboxing moment when they open their trunk, revealing the surprise clothing pieces their stylist selected for them. Trunk Club uses packaging to enhance user experience in a category where packaging isn’t even entirely necessary. When you shop for clothing in store, there is no packaging involved. However, Trunk Club uses a combination of clever marketing and inventive packaging to send clothing to consumers in a way that is both interactive and exciting.
From Excess to Eco-Friendly
There is also possibility to promote sustainability through e-commerce package design. While most brands opt to go the traditional route and ship products in heavily padded cardboard boxes, there is room for innovation to better resonate with environmentally conscious consumers. People want to purchase brands that reflect their values, so consumers who care about the environment may be more partial to a brand that emphasizes sustainable initiatives such as eco-friendly packaging. Zara, for example, recently launched their “boxes with a past life” campaign. When consumers order online from Zara, their purchases arrive in a 100% recycled cardboard box. With the parallel rise of digital commerce and environmental activism, sustainable campaigns are not only smart but culturally relevant.
While some brands are already taking advantage of the opportunities that e-commerce packaging provides, many have still not altered their in-store packaging. Although in-store purchases account for 91% of sales, on-line sales are growing rapidly and staying ahead of the curve could have major pay offs.
Expect to see many more brands playing with package functionality and structure in the near future. With the unavoidable digital revolution materializing before our eyes, it is crucial to keep up with brands that are providing a superior consumer experience through innovative online packaging.
Stay tuned for part 2 where we look at the new and and unique media and marketing opportunities afforded by smart and thoughtful packaging design.