Packaging That Delivers

E-commerce puts more pressure on companies to create brand-building, environmentally friendly containers for their products

According to Edge by Ascential, 40% of U.S. internet users expect to purchase at least 40% of their shopping items from direct-to-consumer companies in the next five years. And, by 2030, 75% of consumer packaged goods companies will operate a direct-to-consumer platform, says the London-based retail consulting firm in its Driver of Change: Industry report released in January.  

As more sleep products are sold via e-commerce rather than in-store, packaging considerations are increasingly important, not just from an aesthetic and protective standpoint but from an environmental impact standpoint, as well. When shopping in-store, consumers first encounter the product itself. When ordering products to be shipped to their homes, they encounter the package first. The impact of that package can have a significant bearing on how consumers view the brand.

Yet packaging often is an overlooked part of the consumer experience, says Rich Wolfson, head of partnerships for North America at Sendle, a package delivery firm based in Sydney that has U.S. headquarters in Seattle. While brands, especially direct-to-consumer brands, rely on a wide range of “channels to capture the imaginations and wallets of customers, from social media and email campaigns to Facebook ads and a beautiful purchase experience on their websites, the slightly unsexy side of the business that can sometimes get overlooked is logistics and packaging,” Wolfson says. But consumers themselves are illustrating just how important packaging can be too.

The unboxing experience

Visit YouTube, do a search for “unboxing” and you’re likely to be shocked by the sheer number of videos that pop up. You can scroll down (and down and down) without coming to the end of the literally thousands of videos that consumers have shared — not with a focus on the product in the box, but on the box and the experience of opening it.

In fact, it is thanks to YouTube and its avid videographers that unboxing is a thing. In May 2019, Packaging Gateway ran an article highlighting five companies with the best packaging experiences. Topping the list is Apple, which is often pointed to as a prime example of a company that pays attention to packaging in a meaningful way. As the article notes, “Just search ‘Apple unboxing’ on YouTube and you will unlock a treasure chest of videos with influencers sharing their experiences with subscribers. From front-opening iMac boxes to sensory-pleasing easy-peel iPhone screen films — the tech giant has clearly figured out the art of unboxing.” The other companies highlighted in the article include beauty brand Glossier, Vive Wellness, a vitamin and supplement company; Loot Crate, which sells gaming-related merchandise through a subscription box; and women’s apparel brand MM.LaFleur.

“Today, leading direct-to-consumer brands are reframing what was once an afterthought, not an opportunity to build deeper connections with consumers. Every interaction that a consumer has with a brand and its products presents an opportunity to increase the lifetime value of a customer,” says Nat Jungerberg, a client director in the Minneapolis office of CBX, a New York-based strategic branding and design agency. 

“The popularity of unboxing videos is less a cultural phenomenon than it is an insight into the human mind,” Jungerberg says. The experience, he says, “has the potential to ignite positive feelings of excitement, satisfaction and connection to something bigger than the product that’s inside.” Even if that product is a mattress or pillow.

The brand experience

An important consideration for any brand is that, with the uptick in online shopping, consumers likely receive a variety of packages at their homes on a regular basis and, whether they consciously realize it or not, they’re forming opinions about the company, and the product itself, based on the packaging.

“There is too much competition for brands to drop the ball once a customer clicks Purchase,” Wolfson says. “They need to think about how their product arrives in consumers’ hands and how it looks and feels.” 

Still, some skeptical manufacturers and brands may point to Amazon as a prime example of a big brand that appears to care little about packaging. Shipments arrive in relatively plain brown boxes adorned with little more than the company’s logo. The unboxing experience is minimal to say the least.

But, Wolfson says, Amazon’s packaging is consistent with its brand. “Amazon’s value proposition is getting you what you want quickly and cheaply,” he says. “As a consumer, using Amazon means you’re willing to sacrifice other aspects of the shopping experience in order to receive something as quickly as possible.” Other direct-to-consumer brands, he says, are likely not attempting to compete solely on price. Therefore, he says, “investing in the packaging experience is going to be an important differentiator that helps the consumer see and feel the experience that they’re willing to pay a bit more for.” 

As brands become more aware of the power of packaging to either support or detract from the overall brand experience, their packaging choices are becoming increasingly innovative.

Leonard Ang is a writer for enKo Products, an e-commerce company headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa, that sells labels to warehouses, schools and other organizations in the public sector. He points to “concept packaging” as one trend he sees. Brands, he says, “are making use of their concept colors, icons, badge, logos and theme to be presented in their packaging.” In addition, he says, some are including facts about the product, their company and even a corporate history on their packaging. 

Another trend is packaging with high visual appeal, Ang says. “Unlike conventional retail, where consumers hold a product as part of the (in-store) purchase experience, online consumers first experience a physical product and its packaging after it arrives in their homes,” he says. So, it is important, Ang adds, that when the product is delivered it meets consumers’ expectations that were formed when they viewed the product online. 

The nicer a product’s packaging, Ang says, the more it will trigger consumers’ excitement to open it. If the packaging is unique and supports the overall brand, it will have a positive impact. If it’s not, the packaging is likely to reflect negatively on the product itself.

Finding the right balance

Manufacturers have a wide range of choices when it comes to packaging options. That can be both a blessing and a curse as they attempt to choose an option that is both brand supportive and budget conscious.

While every company selling products online should consider creating an engaging experience through their packaging and logistics, Wolfson says, “it doesn’t always have to translate into a luxury experience.” Packaging considerations should be weighed along with every other part of the brand experience, he says. Brands need to consider their “mission and values, and how they want the customer to feel when they receive the product.”

Jungerberg agrees. “Marketers, engineers and supply chain experts need to work together to perfect the consumer experience in a way that delivers what the brand is selling,” Jungerberg says. “Every tear, pull, flap and fold is an opportunity to create a positive brand experience.” Or not.

Gathering input and information from consumers can be a good starting point and a great way to gain insights into how the unboxing experience might be improved, Jungerberg says.

“Ask for feedback on how their experience between purchase and initial sleep could be improved,” he says. “Have them tell you about delivery, unboxing, assembly and disposal of the packaging. Identify where there is friction in the consumer experience and look inward to how your brand can authentically remove that friction from the consumer.” Jungerberg suggests considering the following:

  • Function: The goal here is to reduce consumer frustration about the packaging itself — everything from how hard or easy it is to open the box to disposing of packaging materials.
  • Aesthetic: What impression does the brand need to make when it’s delivered? And don’t forget about the impressions that delivery will have on others, like neighbors and passersby, Jungerberg notes. He points to Allbirds as a brand that does this well.
  • Material: Select materials that will advance the brand experience and deliver on the desired function and aesthetic, using as little packaging material as possible, while still maintaining the integrity of the product during transport. It’s a delicate balance.

When considering packaging costs, Jungerberg advises brands to “identify where supply chain budgets end and where marketing budgets begin.” Oftentimes, he says, “a brand marketing opportunity may lie somewhere in the middle.”

Environmental concerns

Clearly, packaging can send a message, loud and clear. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s not the message the brand wants. Today’s packaging options include many environmentally friendly choices.

Jungerberg shares an example of how brand messaging and product packaging can send mixed signals. Suppose, he says, a consumer makes a purchase of sustainable bedding from Brand X. Likely, the purchase decision was made, in part, because the person valued the idea that the bedding was produced sustainably. That same consumer, he says, “may be disillusioned to receive their sustainable bedding inside a nondescript, brown corrugate box that was shipped across two continents encased in Styrofoam and petroleum-based plastics.” It is this type of experience, he says, that “puts a rift between the brand’s behaviors and the product itself, likely resulting in a less-than-favorable review.” 

Contrast this experience with another consumer whose sustainable bedding from Brand Y is shipped in “a tastefully branded box made of post-consumer recycled content,” Jungerberg says. “Upon opening, the box interior is adorned with graphics, printed in soy-based inks, reinforcing the brand’s story and key product attributes. The packing materials are compostable. Also inside is a handwritten note thanking the customer for their purchase and wishing them a pleasant night’s sleep.” That’s the kind of experience a consumer is likely to be excited about — and is likely to share with others. 

Jungerberg suggests that brands consider only what is essential, and nothing more, when it comes to packaging. “Every choice made should have a reason for being, all in service to the consumer’s experience with the brand,” he says.

Importantly, Wolfson adds, “sustainable doesn’t have to equal ugly or undesirable.” Today’s packaging options include many environmentally friendly packaging choices. “Many brands are making mindful decisions around their packaging that still communicate the brand vision and ethos, serve as a post-purchase brand experience and are easy to sustainably dispose of,” Wolfson says. 

Educating consumers

While many consumers are concerned about the sustainability of product packaging and want to make a positive environmental impact with their purchasing decisions, they don’t necessarily understand the steps brands take to create environmentally friendly packaging. And they don’t understand how carefully manufacturers make packaging decisions to help build a better brand experience. Unless the brands tell them. Many are doing just that.

Sendle, the packaging delivery service, offers an example of its own consumer education about its packaging: “At Sendle, we offer compostable pouches to our sellers that have clear instructions on how their customers can easily compost them in their household compost,” Wolfson says. “There’s a QR code on the package itself with detailed instructions on how to remove the label and ensure that their packaging has as little impact as possible.”

Wolfson says he’s seeing other brands taking steps to educate their customers on the impact of logistics overall. “The (San Francisco) Bay Area-based company Heath Ceramics published a blog post during the holiday season, educating them both about the packaging the company uses, as well as the virtues and lessened carbon impact of slower shipping,” he says. 

With direct-to-consumer commerce on the rise and manufacturers facing competition on many fronts, their ability to really stand out in the minds of consumers, not just with their products, but also with their packaging, may prove to be a key differentiator and factor in boosting word-of-mouth awareness. It’s just one more element of the overall brand experience.

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