The future of packaging

Let’s face it: The shelf is dead. If a brand isn’t creating an experience that connects with consumers at every interaction—online and off—it risks being another commodity that just shows up at the doorstep.

But how exactly do you package old-school staples like chocolate, bacon, beverages, or fried chicken for the future? The packaging of tomorrow requires bold, agile, visionary thinking beyond the aisle. It requires designing for the experience, and not just shelf impact.

Brands need to be relentlessly clear on their purpose in order to adapt flexibly to new consumers, expectations, and markets. That means tapping into the five fundamentals of great design—insight, perception, story, experience, and courage—in imaginative new ways.

Whether uncovering game-changing insights, challenging category perceptions, telling contagious brand stories, or delivering unexpected experiences, creative risk-takers are breaking the status quo and nimbly leading the pack.

Insight

With the millennial set driving the retail and communication scene, stellar packaging that works effectively across media, experiences, and platforms is more crucial than ever. Second only to the product itself, the packaging of tomorrow doesn’t just make or break a sale; it touches social campaigns, reputation, consumer loyalty, and beyond.

With packaging so vital to the branding mix, nailing the best design is nonnegotiable. But with so many elements to consider—from positioning to target markets to materials—where do you start? The answer: All design and branding begins with insight.

More than an observation or statistic, an insight reveals the motivation behind behaviors. It sheds light on why people do what they do. If we dig deep enough, we can uncover potent ideas that fuel viral campaigns and skyrocket sales.

Rom, a classic Romanian chocolate-bar maker, was experiencing unusually slow sales a few years back. It sought the “why” and discovered that most Romanians were not feeling particularly patriotic. Romanian youths, especially, felt at odds with their country’s politics. Since Rom’s packaging is emblazoned with the Romanian flag, this national lack of pride posed a huge problem for the chocolatier.

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Using this insight, the brand sought a proactive approach to redefine its future. Overnight, Rom redesigned its wrapper from the Romanian flag to the U.S. flag. Staged to look like an American takeover, the controversial stunt sparked a countrywide debate about what it means to be Romanian. From flash mob protests to national news, Rom—and its drastic packaging makeover—was suddenly all the rage.

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Seizing the multichannel opportunity, Rom invited people to join the debate on its Facebook page and website. Consumers went to the Internet by the thousands to defend the Romanian chocolate. After a week, Rom returned to its original packaging, but its game-changing insight and willingness to brave such an irreverent course resulted in a 79 percent increase in market share. This made Rom the country’s most popular chocolate bar—not to mention reigniting Romanian loyalty. Talk about sweet success.

Perception

As Einstein once said, “Creativity is seeing what everyone else has seen, and thinking what no one else has thought.” This is where perception comes into play. Perception, the root of great design, is not only interpreting the things we encounter, it’s where all our imagination and creativity begin.

Experience, however, can alter our perceptions: Where the new and novel fire up our synapses, the commonplace can make our eyes glaze over (hence, we go on autopilot in the grocery store). How then do we make the familiar fresh again so it stands out from the mundane and gets consumers to take notice?

Oscar Mayer’s Butcher Thick Cut Bacon is a prime example of how great packaging can flip perception on its head. The brand’s high-quality, expertly cleaved meat stood up to its premium price, but its packaging did not. Not only did it lack shelf distinction when consumers did stumble on it, they couldn’t tell what made it special. Knowing they needed to alter strategy smartly and swiftly, the brand team members focused on how to challenge the consumer perception that mass-produced pork, in fact, can be just as artisanal as a handcrafted butcher’s cut.

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The creative team was also challenged to see beyond category constraints: It couldn’t change the packaging shape or colors and had to show the meat like every other bacon on the shelf—a porker of a challenge when the goal is differentiation.

With a shift in perspective, inspiration hit. By flipping the bacon over and using the stark white back panel as the front, the label space tripled and instantly made the packaging pop out from its red-, black-, and yellow-hued competitors. Bringing in a bygone era of craftsmanship, hand-lettered typography and butcher-style paper completed an eye-popping look so traditional it felt new again.

While it was a risky leap to nix category convention and visually disturb the norm, taking the lead enabled Oscar Mayer to break all paradigms of what it means to be a mass brand. Since the packaging hit shelves in August 2013, sales have been sizzling hot and opened up new distribution opportunities. Moreover, Oscar Mayer is using the new packaging to inspire better design across the company’s entire product portfolio.

Story

Once upon a time, humans craved a good story. And you know what? We still do. Where dry, factual information bores us to tears, an engrossing tale can rock us to our emotional core. This is why storytelling makes such a killer marketing tool (and why we branders can’t stop talking about it!).

In fact, the importance of story in packaging—and branding as a whole—cannot be overstated. It has the power to instill brand trust, inspire consumer loyalty, connect with audiences, and even transform water from an everyday commodity to an über-trendy luxury, as it did for Bling H2O.

Bling is bottled water that comes from a spring in Tennessee. But the brand successfully positioned itself as the most desirable, upmarket water and persuaded consumers to pay its whopping price tag of 40-plus dollars for 750 mL. How? With packaging, story, and being crystal clear on what the brand stands for.

Created by Hollywood writer-producer Kevin Boyd, who comes from a world where image is everything, Bling was designed to make a statement—and that it does. The wine-inspired, frosted glass bottles are cork-sealed, handcrafted, and encrusted with genuine Swarovski crystals. No two are alike.

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The water inside is claimed to have gone through a nine-step purification and filtration process. It’s described as “couture water that makes an announcement like a Rolls-Royce Phantom … the ‘Cristal’ of bottled waters.”

The way Bling was introduced into the market was, well, it wasn’t. Innovating a marketing niche all its own, Bling departed from the norm and ignited a following exclusively by word of mouth. The bottled water was gifted to hand-selected athletes and celebs and spotted at A-list Hollywood events like the MTV Video Music Awards, Emmys, and Grammys. Jamie Foxx, Ben Stiller, and, allegedly, Paris Hilton’s dog have been spotted “blinging it.” The story goes further in that it’s been used to give stars facials because of its “good 7.3 pH balance.”

The chatter of news media, YouTube videos, and influential bloggers increased Bling’s global reach, enabling the bottled water to become synonymous with its luxury brand promise and score distribution at the ritziest nightclubs, restaurants, hotels, and high-end boutiques such as Louis Vuitton Paris. That’s the magic of tomorrow’s best storytellers—they can turn water into gold.

Experience

Experience is the holy grail of branding. It notches up the story element and fully brings a brand’s personality and promise to life. It’s the sum impression of every interaction from the ease (or difficulty) of reaching a customer service rep to the helpfulness of product instructions to a commercial that makes you laugh. The most agile brands are using forward-thinking packaging as just one of the many essential ingredients to create rich, immersive brand experiences.

While enjoying a few glasses of wine (when all great ideas come, of course!), Cave Garibaldi owner Jérémie Normandin was pondering the European wine-buying options: Either consumers must pay top dollar at the grocery store due to the many winery production costs—from shipping and distribution to foil-wrapped caps and label inks—or they can go the cheaper route, lugging their gallon jugs to a local vineyard and filling up plastic containers in a way that feels utterly un-special. Seeking a better way, the Less brand was conceived—a concept that’s all about removing the superfluous, keeping the essential, and making fine wine accessible to all.

Through a full-bodied experience that communicates refined quality and craftsmanship at every touchpoint, wine lovers are invited to the Less shop to get hands-on with quality vintages by personally filling bottles direct from the oak barrels (thereby nixing the middleman and reducing costs).

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The bottles are beautifully etched with the Less logo—an elegant mark that forms the word Less within the negative space of four vertical lines and quietly nods to providing only what is necessary. The etching also serves a functional purpose: The bottles can be washed, reused, and still remain branded—a key component of the Less experience that encourages customers to return and refill for a fraction of the cost.

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Furthering the artisanal experience, customers can also get nonrefillable gift bottles that do have labels (die-cut with the Less identity that appears only by removing label material) and that Less then customizes with a droplet of wine for a wholly bespoke touch. Business cards double as handcrafted drip-savers, while wine bags are hand-stenciled by local craftspeople.

Remaining true to its less-is-more brand promise at every corner, Less uses wine pigments instead of inks, recycles materials, and minimizes sulfites for a luscious organic product. With Less’ innovations, wine that would normally retail for 15 euros can now be sold for about five. That’s what Less is all about: a quality wine made affordable by changing the rules of the bottle and challenging the standards of the wine industry.

Courage

It may sound like a no-brainer that courage is a fundamental of great design. After all, haven’t brands always needed to push limits to stand out from the competition? Tomorrow’s aggressively changing marketplace requires a whole new realm of thoughtful risk-taking. Opportunities to seize trends and take the market lead come and go in a blink. If you lack the courage to attempt the radical and different, you risk losing out on key moments to connect with consumers.

On the other hand, if you act too quickly and the messaging misses the mark, it could turn into a viral flop. It’s a tricky balance, which is why bang-on strategy and breakthrough design are more crucial than ever. Whether it’s crowdsourcing a new potato-chip flavor and producing its limited-edition bags in an insanely short timeframe like Lay’s Do Us a Flavor campaign, or Coca-Cola jumping on the personalization trend and swapping its iconic logo to custom-print 250 popular names on its bottles, design that dares to be first and bravely break from convention reaps the rewards.

In one of the most epic displays of fearlessness, KFC challenged everything we hold true about branding. During the summer of 2013, Cricket Australia’s archrival England was visiting for a legendary match, with its red-and-white-adorned fans in tow. However, as a major event supporter, how could KFC show its Aussie pride when the fast-food chain’s own branded colors of red and white favored the English?

Well, imagine the conversation when KFC’s creative agency broached the idea that, in just a few short days, it could completely throw off KFC’s equity colors, transforming every logo, billboard, store, and chicken bucket packaging across the country to Aussie green and gold. From a branding, agility, timing, and logistics perspective, it was a heck of a crazy concept.

KFC boldly went for it.

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 15: KFC unveils its national green and gold makeover to support the Aussie cricket team this summer as KFC stores Go Green & Gold at KFC Clayfield on November 15, 2013 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Marc Grimwade/Getty Images)

In a mad feat completed in fewer than three days, KFC went green-and-gold nationwide with its packaging, becoming a major power player in the cricket event. Hundreds of thousands proudly donned chicken buckets on their heads as they paraded down the streets and cheered from the stands. Fans even created their own #buckethead hashtag, tweeting and instagramming countless photos of themselves in their foodie headpieces. KFC succeeded in starting a social movement.

By courageously nixing its strict brand guidelines in favor of Australian pride, the brand made a point that resonated. With the new team colors, KFC went from plucking away on fried chicken to becoming top-of-mind in the Australian and British media, selling out all 333,000 buckets, increasing sales by 178 percent, and finger-lickin’ the competition.

Packaging is no longer just about touching consumers at the shelf, but also about making a one-on-one connection at every possible point along the journey. It’s about broadening our view of what packaging can do and how it can better support, promote, and fuel the entire brand experience—a notion that should be applied to every brand element.

Although new competitors, consumers, and markets will always be entering the space and turning established industries upside down, our greatest weapon is not letting others define us but having the guts, courage, and willingness to go where no brand has gone before. That is how creative risk-takers are using the fundamentals of great design and agile thinking to reimagine the future of packaging—and beyond.

This article was first published as “Off the shelf” in the Hub  (29 December 2014).

© 2014 Landor. All rights reserved.