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Vicki Strull

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    StrategyCreative DirectionPackaging DesignBrand Identity DesignSpeakingOther

    Packaging in a Pandemic Paradigm


    How many ways has your life changed during the pandemic? For me, a short list includes how I work, shop, travel, celebrate, mourn, gather with others – not to mention the health, safety and school decisions for my kids. Like you, the changes I’ve experienced are numerous, in both my personal and professional world. As a design strategist specializing in packaging, I have been considering how – or if – the role of packaging has changed in the Pandemic Paradigm. And I’ve come to this conclusion: even within a Pandemic Paradigm, I believe the primary role of packaging has not changed.

    From a marketing and design perspective, packaging’s job in the customer’s journey remains the same: to encourage the shopper to touch a product, pick it up and put it in their cart – whether during an in-person experience (taking it off the shelf at a store) or during an e-commerce experience (selecting it online from a line-up of products). Either way, the packaging sparks a sale. As for the multitude of other roles of packaging, those also remain the same: to protect a product during shipping; to educate, inform and engage consumers; and to extend and align with the brand’s story, mission and values.

    “Your packaging doesn’t get a second chance to make a first impression”

    However, what has changed is consumers’ buying behavior. Globally, we’re still not going into stores as often, and we’re continuing to shop online more frequently than we did pre-pandemic. Importantly, brand loyalty has taken a dip and consumers’ sense of trust has been shaken.

    So while packaging’s role has not changed, its need to support these shifts in consumer behavior has. As packaging designers, marketers and converters, we have three immediate strategies to lean into these behavioral shifts with our packaging: leverage the trustworthiness of packaging as a physical touchpoint; step up personalization; and ensure packaging is shareworthy.

    1: Physical touchpoints

    If you’ve seen me speak or read my articles or followed me on social media over the years, then you’ve heard me say that packaging is a brand’s most important touchpoint. While that declaration sounds simple, its meaning runs deep and has many layers. In addition to the sensory impact and its effect on our emotional connections and memories, physically touching an item that is an extension of a brand – such as packaging – also increases our trust in that brand.

    According to researchphysical touch helps create a connection between consumers and the product they’re holding. Physically touching a product creates a sense of psychological ownership, and even drives up the value of the object we are holding. That phenomenon is called The Endowment Effect.

    Studies reveal that tactile elements, weight and firmness also influence the way we assess the quality of the product, and that assessment transfers to the brand itself. Understanding the impact of physical touchpoints is essential to connecting with shoppers in today’s new paradigm.

    Further, physical touchpoints are a way to cut through the online noise. Recent reports from the United States Postal Service (USPS) highlight the physical touchpoint of direct mail, particularly at a time when going to the mailbox was the high point of our day! USPS reports that ‘92 percent of consumers said they prefer relying on direct mail for making shopping decisions, and 67 percent said they feel mail provides a more personal connection than the internet.’ Many retailers and fashion labels launched highly-successful ‘lockdown’ catalogs, with unprecedented ROIs and sales.

    The opportunity goes beyond direct mail, magazines, and catalogs, of course; the packaging itself and the materials inside the package are physical touchpoints and create an emotional connection with consumers at a time when their only physical encounter with a brand may be the packaging.

    Brands are beginning to embrace the value in physical touchpoints that they may not have recognized before the pandemic. As the pandemic spurred a surge in virtual events, we also saw a rise in the physical swag bags and custom kits, mailed to attendees who tuned in online. For example, when Bloomingdale’s hosted a virtual Jimmy Choo event, customers who signed up early received an exclusive kit that held a complimentary cocktail and macarons to enjoy during the livestream. In addition, the first 50 people who purchased a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes received a limited-edition fashion sketch that became a keepsake. The added physical touchpoints helped attendees feel more emotionally connected to the brand, as well as to each other, creating that all-important sense of community.

    From online industry conferences to business webinars, graduations, weddings and more, kits and keepsakes bring a connecting, physical element to a virtual experience.

    Consumers’ brand trust has also declined during the pandemic. However, research reveals that a physical touchpoint can increase trust because it’s real; consumers can feel it, see it, hold it. When you buy a product online, for example, you have an expectation of that product based on the image, description, reviews and other details. But if the item arrives on your doorstep and the packaging doesn’t meet your expectations, you’re deflated, disappointed and you just lost your trust in the brand.

    Your packaging doesn’t get a second chance to make a first impression. For many shoppers, a product’s packaging is their first or only physical touchpoint of that brand. It absolutely has to match expectations and make consumers feel confident and excited about their purchase. In other words, the right packaging rewards the consumer.

    In a Pandemic Paradigm, when receiving a box on our doorstep might be the highlight of our day, packaging provides new opportunities to build consumer trust, connection and brand loyalty. Many brands are adding materials inside the package, such as samples, a personalized thank you, and instructions for sharing on social. These are strategies that brands can leverage as e-commerce remains strong.

    And while we may be seeing a pendulum-swing back to the importance of physical connection, I’m not talking about an either/or model. It’s not a choice between online marketing or physical engagement; rather, it’s a holistic strategy for marketing and design, taking into account how online and physical touchpoints complement each other to drive a brand’s consumer engagement, loyalty and revenue goals. The power is in the integration and combination.

    “While packaging’s role has not changed, its need to support these shifts in consumer behavior has”

    2: Personalization

    Brands are continuing to recognize the correlation between personalization and consumer loyalty. Simply put, we feel a stronger connection when products are personalized or customized. That doesn’t just mean having your name on something. With AI, retail tracking, search data and other methods, brands can analyze purchasing patterns and create customized experiences as well as tailor products to specific audiences and communities.

    For example, when Harney & Sons Fine Teas delivers customers’ orders, tucked inside the package are samples of other teas the consumer might like, based on their current or previous shopping. It just makes sense, doesn’t it? We experience personalization and customization throughout our brand experiences, so why not in our packaging and point of purchase? I see it as an extension of what brands are already doing in personalized online marketing, with unique landing pages, recommendation engines, and all those targeted ads that show up in our feed.

    Another example is PepsiCo’s Mountain Dew brand, which created limited-edition bottle labels representing all 50 states. The brand’s ‘DewNited States’ campaign was a chance to make its messaging personal to consumers, developing more than 400 physical and digital marketing assets customized to each state. Mountain Dew then extended its campaign into its point of purchase materials, and offered a $100 gift card to those who collected all 50 labels.

    Personalization like this not only helps consumers feel connected to a brand or community, it builds brand loyalty and drives sales, giving brands a competitive advantage.

    3: Shareworthiness

    So if you trust something and feel connected to it in a personal way, you want to show it off and share it with others, right? Right. All you have to do is look at the billions (yes, with a ‘b’) of brands, influencers and everyday consumers sharing product posts and videos across YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and more. This is another unique aspect of the Pandemic Paradigm, as social media use and views increased beyond expectations. TikTok usage grew 800 percent from its pre-pandemic days; Instagram saw the number of brands using live broadcasts and Stories increase five times in 2020.

    A product’s packaging has a significant influence on shareworthiness. The unboxing experience has become a popular and highly-anticipated subject of consumers’ shared videos. When you consider the roles of packaging that I listed earlier, I’d say now there is an additional goal: to make sure it’s shareworthy.

    It’s important for brands to look at packaging and its shareworthiness from an ROI standpoint. If I’m sharing my delight in a product and its packaging, the ROI of my purchase and my value as a customer just went up. I’m endorsing a product and my friends and followers trust me. In fact, research shows that friends trust another friend’s recommendation more than they trust a celebrity, a paid influencer or the brand itself. The outcome? A brand may get more customers simply because of its product’s fabulous packaging.

    When brands look at that from a financial perspective, there should be a metric in place to measure a packages’ shareworthiness. How many views did it get? How many shares did it have? If brands have that metric, they can connect it with the ROI of the package design and materials, and it starts to affect what they put into and onto the packaging; how they print it, coat it, and finish it; and what substrates they specify.

    As I’ve pondered the role of packaging in a Pandemic Paradigm, do I still think the role of packaging hasn’t changed? I do. And yet, these three strategies show that packaging’s role has grown in importance, with new opportunities to connect with and engage consumers; build trust and loyalty; and of course, to influence buying decisions and drive sales. We will continue to see how brands, designers, marketers and converters respond to these opportunities, knowing that one thing remains constant: packaging is still a brand’s most important touchpoint.