How Packaging Design and Production Provide a Brand's Foundation
Fulfilling a promise to the consumer is at the core of establishing a successful brand, explains Brian Wagner, co-founder of PTIS, a consulting firm specializing in creating strategic improvements along the packaging supply chain. And while there are several key components of a brand’s identity, packaging, which so often provides the first interaction between consumer and product, has historically been overlooked.
But as brands continue to gain a better understanding of consumer desires, behaviors, and tendencies, a fresh perspective on packaging has emerged, and the importance of the full packaging value chain is being recognized for its ability to bring a brand promise and purpose to life.
“If you define the promise and you can provide the consumer with reasons to believe that it’s true — real and perceived — then you can take that messaging and you can utilize it on all your assets,” Wagner says. “That’s in your advertising. It’s in promotions. It’s on your website. It’s also on your package, and your package is set in a way to help communicate the brand promise.”
Consumers Drive Packaging Innovation
Throughout consumer packaged goods industries, it’s common knowledge that a product on a shelf only has a few precious seconds to attract a consumer’s attention and be convincing enough to drive a purchase. Wagner estimates that time window averages out at around 4.6 seconds, which might seem to be a minuscule amount of time, but it is enough for a consumer to process a great deal of information.
For example, during those few seconds, consumers are assessing whether the product is what they’re searching for, while interpreting the graphics, text, and structure of a product, and considering their past experiences that led them to the point of purchase in the first place.
With all these factors in play, Wagner explains that when studying consumers for the purpose of packaging design, it’s important to gain an understanding of their entire experience with a product and brand, rather than asking them directly about the packaging. By asking consumers about the full product lifecycle, including where it was purchased, how it was stored in their home, and what the opening and usage experience was like, Wagner says packaging stakeholders can extract the details they need to develop a successful package.
“[Consumers] start telling you about the product in more honest terms,” he says. “If you ask them about the package experience, they generally try to become engineers and help you come up with solutions, leading to bad information.”
According to David Lukshus, CEO of Cog, a Cincinnati-based company that serves as a facilitator throughout the packaging supply chain, it’s important for brands to recognize how consumers turn to packaging to justify their purchasing decisions. For example, he says that developing a luxury or premium aesthetic is an ongoing trend for several brands. But, he cautions that instituting excessive embellishments on commodity items in an attempt to add a premium appeal could have an adverse effect. Rather, he says that focusing on functional innovation and improving ease of use are a better use of resources for certain product categories.
Cat litter, for example, is a product where luxury-style embellishments are largely unnecessary. Lukshus explains that making that package easier to open and pour would be a better way to connect to a consumer’s needs in this segment, rather than trying to enhance its premium appeal with a foil substrate or decorative finishes.
“Cat litter doesn’t require a luxury premium aesthetic. It’s as commodity as you can get,” he says. “There are products that are going to continue to be luxury premium or utilize an appropriate degree of luxury materials, some even in the pet food category. In a lot of cases, if you think about cosmetic, fragrance, and high-end spirits, the package is so nice, the consumer has a hard time getting rid of it.”
Because packaging design trends may not be applicable to all market segments, it’s important to recognize where certain design trends fit best.
As the calendar flipped to 2020, Shelbi Sturges, director of strategy for PKG Brand Design, a Chicago-based packaging agency, says she couldn’t help but be amused by some of the packaging design trend reports she read. One day, someone said to expect more subdued colors. Then, another person forecast more neon and bright colors would appear on packaging.
Sturges explains that each market segment has a different target audience, so applying a single set of design parameters across the board isn’t always a wise decision. For example, packaging that grabs kids’ attention is very different from packaging that appeals to a health-food consumer, so it’s best to understand and implement effective design strategies for each segment.
“When you go to the health food snack aisle versus the regular salty snack aisle, it can be two totally different places,” she says. “The salty snack aisle is all bright colors, bold photography and fun illustrations. When you go to the health food aisle, you see more muted colors, clean and simple design elements and matte substrates to give the package that all-natural look and feel.”
Connecting the Supply Chain
As brands face increasing time-to-market pressure and more competition on shelf, they’re often in need of a solution for developing enhanced packaging under a tight deadline. Having all packaging stakeholders operating as a cohesive team is an important step in the right direction.
Sturges explains that one of the worst-case scenarios when developing a package is going through the entire process of designs and revisions with a brand-owner client, only to be told by the printer that the submitted design can’t be produced on press. Even a small alteration to a design can have a significant impact on a brand’s messaging, so it’s best to have all the necessary conversations about print and production feasibility up front.
“I think if you’re all in lockstep, hand in hand from the beginning, that’s how a successful package comes to fruition — making sure everyone knows what is happening,” she says. “Too many times we hear stories about a company sending a file to the printer and the printer calls them and says, ‘you can’t do this.’ It can totally change a design.”
Having all packaging stakeholders and potential contributors involved as early as possible can also help drive conversations toward possibilities, rather than limitations, Wagner says. To help drive this process, PTIS has developed Holistic Packaging by Design, which is defined as “The purposeful synthesis of brand ambition, design disciplines and technological possibilities to create better brand advantage and business value through packaging.”
Rather than going through several steps of the packaging development process just to be told that something can’t be done, Wagner explains that the concept of Holistic Packaging by Design gives the entire team the opportunity to establish the feasible potential for a package early in the process.
“We don’t want constraints, we want to know possibilities,” Wagner says. “You can save months and months by doing that and you get a different answer. We’re not asking what we can’t do. We want to know what we can do and how to do it.”
At Cog, Lukshus explains the company’s business model positions it as a support mechanism throughout each step of the packaging development process. As a partner to all stakeholders, Cog provides assistance and guidance during the design-to-print stage, facilitating the design-to-print process with production feasibility, speed to market, and cost reduction and avoidance as main priorities.
Because Cog supports brand development, packaging design, and packaging production, Lukshus says the company is positioned to provide expertise throughout each step of the supply chain. By understanding the design needs of several market segments and maintaining a knowledge of all print processes, he explains that Cog is able to advise all stakeholders on packaging feasibility and produce accurate prototypes that will satisfy both the brand owner, design agency, and converter.
“We service more stakeholders within the design-to-print supply chain than the typical comp house or prototyping shop,” he says. “As a result of that, we gain and share knowledge from various industries to the betterment of the end client and their other stakeholders. As well, this knowledge helps to contribute to better packaging outcomes.”
Tracking Evolving Trends
While each market segment maintains its own trends and best practices in packaging design, there are some seemingly universal consumer trends impacting packaging across all industries.
At the consumer level, interest in living a more sustainable or environmentally-conscious lifestyle is a top-of-mind priority. There are many aspects of a consumer’s daily life that impact the environment, but packaging — particularly plastic packaging that cannot be recycled via curbside pickup — has often taken the brunt of the backlash.
Wagner explains that the images consumers have seen of plastic packaging polluting oceans and other waterways have caused a sense of alarm among the buying public. And while plastic pollution is undoubtedly a problem that deserves the industry’s attention, he says that it will be important for consumers to increase their understanding of the sustainability benefits that packaging provides.
“I really think factual information is going to rise up, and people will realize that in the world of food packaging, food waste is a much bigger problem and more packaging can reduce food waste,” Wagner says. “For packaging to become more of the hero and less of the villain, that could be huge.”
One way for packaging to become the hero in the sustainability conversation is for it to be used as a billboard to extoll its environmentally-friendly virtues. Sturges explains that in recent years, brands have focused on placing healthy lifestyle or natural ingredients claims prominently on their packs. However, as sustainability has become increasingly important in the minds of consumers, sustainability claims are taking over that top billing.
“If the packaging is truly sustainable, some clients want that to be a more prominent feature on pack,” she says. “And it resonates with consumers, it makes them feel good about buying it. It makes them feel good about the product, the brand, and the company.”
Another growing force impacting the consumer’s shopping experience — and with it, packaging design — is e-commerce. Not only has the growth of online retail increased the need for corrugated shipping containers — many of which are becoming increasingly decorated — it has also impacted brands’ priorities for primary packaging.
For example, Lukshus explains that as brands and online retailers like Amazon work together to improve the consumer experience, those conversations are both driving innovation in shipping boxes, and changing design priorities on primary packaging. Because consumers have already made the decision to purchase the product, these retailers are explaining to brands that enticing a consumer toward the moment of truth with primary packaging does not need to be as much of a priority. On the flip side of that however, Lukshus says that brands are driving innovation in shipping packs, helping online retailers understand how this form of packaging needs to up its game from a product protection standpoint. For example, if an order of multiple products is purchased, and a heavy item damages a lighter item in transit, it can diminish that brand’s reputation in the mind of a consumer.
“Amazon is challenging CPG companies to rethink the packaging formats that are being sent to Amazon for fulfillment,” Lukshus says. “[CPG companies] are also helping Amazon create a better unboxing experience.”
As the world of retail changes and consumer preferences and desires change alongside it, Wagner says the importance of the value of a brand in the mind of a consumer hasn’t changed. And by maximizing the full packaging value chain to the best of its abilities, brands will undoubtedly benefit from a fully-optimized final result.
“Fundamentally, the most valuable thing that’s out there from a FMCG standpoint is the value of the brand and the brand purpose,” he says.