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Packaging observations and prognostications

Posted by: Dyfed "Fred" Richards on July 07, 2010

First published in Shelf Impact, July 1, 2010

“Write an article about trends,” the editor said. “Think about the future of package design and consumers. Look into your crystal ball.” Easier said than done. I don’t own a crystal ball, and if I had believed everything I watched on the television show “Tomorrow’s World” when I was growing up, we all would be vacationing on the moon by now!

I could take the easy way out and wax poetic on the much-dissected topic of consumer opinions, the cliché of recycling and, of course, the 600-pound gorilla in the room—sustainability. Yes, they all are important issues, but hardly groundbreaking. In fact, here’s what I see developing in these areas:

  • Packaging will have to work harder than ever to compete at shelf. However, this could be a positive trend that results in package designs articulating fewer and more concise messages, not more claims and louder “screams.”
  • The weekly online grocery shopper will increase his or her influence and importance as the technology behind ordering and delivery becomes more sophisticated and convenient. This will become an important factor in brands’ package design, as packaging will play a totally different role online versus in the home.
  • Category language will shift as a brand’s role evolves from mere shelf competitor to that of helper, advocate, enabler, and cache demonstrator within the home.
  • Being “green” will continue to drive innovation in package design. This will be evidenced by package structures that are created from vegetable materials and product containers that consumers can bury in their garden and turn into compost. The biggest and most dramatic “green” achievement, however, will be the creation of a sustainable brand model that truly resonates with consumers. This will become a marketing tipping point, as consumers thereafter will demand sustainability from brands in all sectors to offset global resource scarcities.

My advice to brand owners: Start working on your sustainability model immediately, before consumers or governments mandate it and you are forced to play catch-up at the expense of lost sales and a deteriorating brand image.

Now that we have gotten the “predictable” predictions out of the way, what else does packaging’s future hold?
First, I see a movement to smaller portion sizes and a “feel good” factor at shelf around more responsible purchasing. The warehouse giants of mass consumption and volume buying will become a thing of the past, viewed as an opulent waste of time, energy, goods, and money. Did we really need that five-gallon drum of pickles? Talk about wasteful!

Bottled water will be the first victim of this “less is more” trend. Why on earth are consumers in New York and Paris drinking water from Fiji anyway? Remember the anti-fur coat campaign; a similar backlash may be in bottled water’s future.

Food safety and its role in packaging will continue as a front-burner issue. In the wake of ongoing salmonella and e-coli outbreaks and other dietary disasters, consumers will demand more detailed information about the products we eat. Who made this, what was the process, and what will it do for me and to me?

Consumer advocacy groups will join forces with government agencies, ala the anti-tobacco model, to demand end-to-end transparency around the packaged foods production process. Large global manufacturing companies will become the newest target of boycotts and other reform efforts. Who knew that detergents, soda, cereals, canned fruits, and vegetables could be so harmful?

On the positive side, this wave of consumer awareness and activism will spawn the development of exciting and new mass-market natural food stores, and these shopping destinations no longer will be viewed as places where people wearing hemp clothes and flip-flops go to buy beans. Everyone will be there, exchanging product information, trying new brands, and widening their culinary vocabulary.

Conventional product categories will blur, allowing more brands to enter areas they traditionally had no right to be in or win in. As some dominant brands become static within their established category, they will begin to explore alternative avenues for market and revenue growth. These brands will be forced to look deeper and harder at their core brand attributes and align them to other, more tangential categories.

Of course, these forays into the new and unknown come with the usual words of caution: Expansion is always an “iffy” prospect, and efforts to leverage and grow your business should never be to the detriment of your key assets—your brand’s visual equities in the mind’s eye of the consumer versus the mind’s eye of the junior brand manager, design agency, or advertising executive hell-bent on winning the latest and greatest design award.

However, as we are talking about the future, let’s be optimistic and positive. Those brands which are able to truly understand their key equities and how best to leverage them will find that they can prosper in new, innovative, non-traditional categories. Could we see a breakfast energy drink from Duracell in the juice aisle, Gillette in the power tools section at Lowe’s, Olay sponsoring and supplying facial products to the Red Cross (no longer just hope in a jar but meaningful hope for the world), and Starbucks dispensing healthy tea along with knowledge exchanges (we used to call them libraries!)? Why not? All things are possible, even vacations on the moon.

So when and where will these branding and packaging revolutions begin? Some are already in motion, but my crystal ball reveals only a tantalizing glimpse of the others’ future. Of one thing I am sure: Consumer opinion will continue to shape the future of packaging. Like water flowing downhill, consumers will always find a way to make their wishes known. Sometimes their desire for change is demonstrated drop by drop, one purchase at a time, in a slow and gradual wearing-down process.

On other occasions, their demands hit with the force of a tsunami; a wall of water powered by the collective strength of Internet-savvy advocacy groups. It’s the ultimate sink-or-swim situation: Those companies that want to protect and grow their brands need to effectively monitor, understand, and cultivate consumer opinion. Their future depends on it.

Read more about packaging trends here!

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