The age of packaging as “just a box” is long gone. Today’s product packaging is one of the three most important channels (along with marketing materials and web presence) that brands use to get customer engagement. While this is true for all consumer brands, it is especially important for brands that rely largely or solely on ecommerce, as they have to find a way to make up for the inherent disadvantages of ecommerce- the inability to touch and where appropriate, smell the products before purchase.
Packaging has grown beyond functional necessity or shallow advertisement to become a medium for all kinds of messaging, from social awareness to entertainment in a way that appeals to the modern, informed, connected consumer. These days the best packaging is designed to not just attract, but to tell a story .
Brands strive to sustain consistency of the message across their brand stories across their brands, packaging, and the industry goals to come together in unified expressions that resonate with audiences. That said, stories are hard to create, and harder to tell effectively. Packaging therefore needs to tell the brand story through clever verbal and non verbal cues, in two distinct phases- attraction, and engagement.
Choice is good. It reflects the diversity of people and fosters competition. However customers on eCommerce sites or huge warehouse-style supermarkets often experience an overwhelming feeling, as hundreds of individual brand “shout-outs” blend together to become sensory cacophony. As a result customers often leave without making a purchase. Scientists call this phenomenon the “Choice Paradox”.
Figure 1: No matter how attractive a package, it can get lost on the supermarket shelf unless it can attract from afar.
eCommerce sites started countering this problem using technology like layered filtering and AI-driven recommendations. Physical supermarkets went to great lengths to redesign store layouts that did not overwhelm buyers, but did make them spend enough time to improve the likelihood of making some purchase. However, that approach doesn’t help brands much as they need to get consumers to pick THEIR products.
This is where story-driven packaging approaches make a difference. While color, font, themes and packaging shapes are still very important, brands increasingly strive to maintain consistency across their packaging and marketing materials while intelligently using color, fonts and shapes which contain meaning for potential buyers outside the context of that shopping experience- for example, in 2020 you might see brands featuring the Pantone color of the year, Classic Blue- “…a solid and dependable hue we can rely on…to expand our thinking…increase our perspective…”. Thematic representations of currently emotive themes like diversity, environmental awareness etc. also get packaging noticed.
The objective of the story-telling packaging approach is to create “unboxing experience”, i.e. to reintroduce delight akin to the anticipation and excitement of opening Christmas presents in the brand experience, triggering it with the packaging, and telling the story through three principal elements- the Brand Personality, Brand Promise and Brand Perception.
Figure 2: Does the packaging delight the consumer? Does it create anticipation and excitement? If yes, then the brand experience is likely to begin on a positive note.
Brand personality refers to a set of characteristics, usually associated with humans, that are associated with a brand to become relatable to a particular target set of customers. Brand personalities generally fall into one or more of five categories: “Excitement”, “Sincerity”, “Ruggedness”, “Competence” and “Sophistication”. When customer think of brands as “sophisticated”, “youthful”, “tough” etc. they are really forming impressions about the brand’s personality.
Great brands go to great lengths to know their own personalities, which target segments find them appealing, and why. Brand personality is not always communicated by the advertising imagery, but inevitably is hidden somewhere within the ad. So a “youthful”, “exciting” brand might choose a new, exciting packaging that contains sassy, witty blurbs, while a “competent” brand will choose packaging which exudes quality and confidence.
Today’s consumers make purchases based not only on the product and price, but also on a large set of value-influencers, like politics, environmental consciousness, supporting local communities, etc. Therefore brands weave in specific, tangible promises about the product or in support of a cause that target customers care about, if the customer purchases that product. The brand promise is can be a direct message, like a promise to give a share of profits to a particular charity, or a product experience that is verifiably better than the competition. It could also be action-based. For example, the cosmetics brand “Lush” promises “environmental consciousness” and acts in accordance to that value, creating shampoo bars that need no single use plastic bottles, or encouraging users to return containers to stores in exchange for free goodies.
Therefore an impactful brand promise, like any promise, has to actually be kept to be believable. That means brand promises aren’t about how slick the marketing copy is, but how committed the company and its employees are about living a certain set of values, because conscious consumers want partnerships with firms that care what they care about.
Whereas a brand is largely in control of the personality and promise it communicates, its perception is something it earns. For example, the car brand Volvo has earned a perception as the car brand that values passenger safety above all else, through a hundred years of consistent commitment to creating cars with excellent safety records, and marketing copy with safety as a standard element.
If a brand, or its product belong to a category with controversial associations, the brand requires careful perception management. When it comes to the packaging, a new perception can be created by staying far away from the controversial topic associated with the product to create associations with a different category. For example, in the past dessert food companies always promoted the “fun” aspects of their products. However, when they started facing a backlash about the health aspect, they subtly began including calorie counts on their products’ “lite” and “sugar free” versions to create a perception of health consciousness and transparency.
Modern consumers seek products that match their lifestyles, life choices and philosophies. Brands which vie for their business would do well to adopt engaging, authentic stories that attract as they please, engage as they enthral. Today’s brand-consumer relationship is one of honesty and partnership, and those brands which tell their stories best to the customers that find them the most appealing are likely to get long, fruitful associations and stable shares of their customers’ wallets. From the post-processing experts’ point of view, this means becoming adept with new methods, technologies and materials that help brands build those connects with their consumers.