Unbox This!


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Unbox This!

By Noel Ward, Editor@Large

A couple of years back, much to the chagrin of his board, Yvon Chouinard, founder of and chairman of outdoor apparel company Patagonia noted, “You don’t need a $500 parka to climb that mountain.” In doing so he attacked rampant consumerism and the notion that purchases always match the image behind their marketing pitch.

Esko recently sent me a white paper (these are now called e-Books) on packaging trends in which the authors do not appear to have done enough independent thinking. Packaging is a large part of what Esko’s customer base does but in my opinion Esko seems to rely too much on the conclusions of research partner Mintel. I generally agree with several of the e-Book’s insights but think they should be balanced with broader thinking to provide a better perspective. In all fairness, the e-Book is the work product of a company with software to sell and a market research firm that does fine work but may not sufficiently familiar with the printing or packaging industry. Business owners should not have to read between the lines of an e-Book to determine what they should do in an increasingly competitive market. Having spent time in advertising, market research, and both the commercial and packaging segments of our industry I wanted to jump into the fray. So here’s my take.

Agility Needed.
The e-Book talked about agility but only in general terms. Print providers do need to become more agile if they wish to remain competitive. This means being able to say “yes” to increasing client demands as brand owners and print buyers react to their competitors. The market is driving this but print business owners should determine whether clients’ needs and demands are reactive or strategic, if for no other reason than gaining a better understanding of their clients.
  • Brand owners and print buyers seek to make their brands more relevant and appealing to target audiences in hopes of forging stronger consumer relationships. They forget, perhaps, that consumers’ egos are fostered by the shallow fickleness of social media that drives up the “trending” status of just about everything, whether or not it is important.
  • Whenever possible, print and packaging providers should make an effort to work as partners and advisors to clients. While you are unlikely to change overall marketing strategies, you may be able to add value to clients’ offerings by suggesting different approaches to packaging that may offer a better value for their customers.
  • Print providers and brand owners are already taking on sustainability, changing supply chains, and adopting new printing and production technologies. A growing segment of consumers and communications buyers also pays attention to these issues, so it is important to listen to client and consumer reactions. For example, canned tuna purveyor Bumble Bee recently changed the packaging on its 4-, 8-, and 12-packs of tuna cans from plastic wraps to paperboard. I don’t know the difference in cost, but some of what influenced the decision was showing the value of biodegradable packaging while also reducing the likelihood of plastic wrappers winding up in the ocean. The move is just an example of changes that may be afoot.
  • Packaging design practices will increasingly need to align with brand and consumer preferences. This is a place where package printers can become influencers. It includes the extent to which package design becomes part of the “buying experience.” This is an element packaging cognoscenti call “unboxing,” which supposedly makes opening a package nearly as exciting as the product it contains.
The Unboxing Experience
Opening a package used to be, well, opening a package. You cut some tape or unfolded a couple of flaps and to reveal the object of your desire. For some goods though, the perceived value of the product now begins before a consumer gets their hands on it. Packaging wonks call it unboxing.

Anyone who has bought an Apple product for example, will recognize the unboxing experience, from the precise fit of the top and bottom portions of the box to the assorted layers to the need to drive over the container to crush it for recycling. For what it’s worth, I have used Apple products for more than 30 years and think the company goes a bit over the top in packaging. Still, Apple is really good at marketing and the unboxing is part of this.

On social media, consumer-created ads show the “unboxing experience,” the product in use, and may even wrap up with a link to where the product can be obtained. 3D design programs provides brand-owners and package designers an advance view of a package (often used in ads) with the hope of making the opening of a package as engaging as possible. This omni-dimensional view extends to branding, engaging with consumers, and helping assure them they have made the right choice.

So far, offering an unboxing experience is up to the brand owner. But suppose you as the package printer (and possibly package designer) can show how you can cut say, 50 cents off the price of each container by using a different design approach or alternate specifications. In the case of Apple, for instance, a thinner box could cost less while not diminishing the unboxing experience. That could turn into real money fast. A brand owner will look smart—and may even remember you.

But wait. There’s more.
During the pandemic many consumers had too much time on their hands. They whined about products, delivery, packages and more. Many consumer-facing companies, desperate to retain customers in a time of slumping sales, bent over backwards to keep consumers happy. Whether or not this continues is not clear because the personalized or more complex packaging that enamored consumers adds cost, and many companies are allergic to increasing costs or trimming margins, especially as inflation eases.

Still, addressing customers’ whines did a couple of things. It helped make packaging (in particular) a more important part of the buying experience. In some cases, decreased volumes made digital printing more practical and cost-effective for both commercial and packaging applications. This has been good for print providers. Other influential trends are still in play:
  • Self-centered consumers: Self-absorbed people—aka those afflicted with the Me Mentality—are everywhere. Do they influence packaging and printing? Sometimes. Do they really matter? No. Still, the ‘sometimes’ part is at least temporarily important. Will it stay important? No one knows, but some type of upcharge for increased personalization—assuming you can effectively articulate the value–may be a good approach if you don’t do so already.
  • The expanding C-suite: There are household-name companies that now have C-level executives for customers, experiences and more. The alphabet soup includes CCO (Chief Customer Officers) CXO (Customer Experience Officers), and more. Do these job titles matter to printing and packaging providers? Possibly, but the titles are largely window dressing. It used to be that treating customers with respect and courtesy was company policy and just what you did—and probably still do—as a professional.
  • Willful spending: Consumers have always spent on what matters to them. And they can be influenced. At the retail store level packaging and labeling drives the “three-foot effect,” the influence a label or package has on consumer while residing on a shelf. This effect can be important, and few people will refuse to buy a product because of its packaging. Packaging is even less important when buying online where the product, its specifications and price drive the decision. And like it or not, online sellers are setting the prices of many items and the container something comes in is not part of the buying decision.
As seen on TV… and your device
In our multi-media world, the image of a product goes far beyond the label or container. TV and internet ads are a series of 1-3 second clips of people, products, and messaging. And no, you’re not expected to “get” the messaging in the copy that appears for a second or two on your TV screen. That’s why the same 10-to-20-second ads are shown a dozen or so times in a single show. The repetition whets viewers’ appetite for the brand, good or service and leave them anticipating the ad the next time it runs again—usually in about 10 minutes. The goal is to drive you to a website and whip out the plastic. I avoid some of this by muting commercials while I grab a beer. My millennial kids tell me they watch the ads: Somewhere, I have failed.

Packaging follows closely. And to pick on Apple again, the company’s print, TV and online ads, for instance, primarily use a white background, under the old notion that “white space is your friend.” The product you order arrives in a white box with only the name of the product it contains on the exterior. I’ve found several other products that have made packaging almost as important as the product. I love the creativity, but it’s not necessary.

Move carefully
More than a few commercial printers are expanding to include packaging. A good thing. Packaging, especially folding cartons, isn’t necessarily simple but is not rocket science, and there is nothing wrong with expanding one’s capabilities and offerings. Many commercial printers can provide folding cartons, labels and the like, but the broader packaging game is getting more complex. Brand owners can be a tad obsessive about their products and print providers will have to work hard to gain their acceptance as both printers and advisors. Once you do, you can bring more to the party because you have a broader view of consumers’ needs and can apply it to packaging. And remember one thing: although Yvon Chouinard said a $500 parka wasn’t required to summit a high peak, such a parka can still be had at Patagonia stores. Chouinard is outspoken, but he isn’t a fool.


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