3 Trends Towards Plain Packaging & What To Focus On Now

Look around. Consumer packaging looks good. It is the promise of reward. And the expected benefit is often bigger than reality. Now imagine change. Uniform packaging. Your favourite products all packaged in plain, white, standardised boxes. A plain packaging world. What are the trends that might take us there? And how to best prepare now?

For many years, packaging design has played a major role in the marketing mix. It is a powerful component in reaching your marketing objectives. Impacting many facets from building your brand to almost every stage of the shopper funnel.

Apart from obvious functional benefits, packaging is the key carrier of your brand’s logo. Few things serve better in anchoring a brand’s identity than a logo. It is a well-known, easy to remember representation of what your brand is about. And it lives on packaging. Hence, packaging has been key in establishing brands in the eyes of consumers. It is often the first thing consumers see. And it can make the difference between a sale or missed opportunity.

From guiding consumers through the funnel to building loyalty, packaging, if done right:

  • draws attention through eye-catching design
  • displays your product and benefit in the best light
  • conveys a sense of worth and price positioning
  • communicates promotional information
  • differentiates your brand from the competition
  • helps consumers remember your brand
  • represents your brand’s personality and values
  • forms part of consumer’s experience with your brand

In a way, packaging has been the eyes of the consumer. Yet, there are signs that this might change soon. There are trends that lead to a world with less branded packaging. Online and mobile are transforming the essential role of packaging. The growing desire for sustainability disapproves current packaging solutions. And the evolution of regulation might further prescribe how products are presented in the future.

Trend 1) From leading actor to sidekick; the new role of packaging in an online world

If packaging were an actor, the shelves of the grocery channel would be the big stage. This stage is shrinking. And with it the importance of branded packaging. Consumers are more and more shopping online. It is a journey of different paces. Consumers are more likely to buy their headphones online than their honey, eggs or cereal. But, sooner or later online will draw sales from all categories. And online channels transform the role of packaging. It becomes a functional consideration. A support of the experience. The focus moves away from the outside to the inside. In a journey from seduction to core benefit. In the past persuading and enticing consumers to buy a product used to be a role of packaging. In an online world, the consumer has evolved. With the combined knowledge of the Internet at hand, the shopper is in control. Peer reviews, social marketing, online research – all influencing the sale. Often buyers only engage with packaging after the sale. How effective is a well designed, ‘buy me’ box if a consumer only discovers it in the mailbox? Pre-boxed in a second box for shipping. Every layer of packaging adding to a product’s cost and decreasing its margin. Standardised, plain packaging, optimised for an online world reduces total cost of material and costly design features. It frees up investment locked into creative resources. And makes it easier and cheaper to ship goods through the mail. In the end, it is also less wasteful which brings us to the next trend working against branded packaging.

Trend 2) What a waste! Packaging vs. increasing landfills and conscious consumption

Society is more aware of its impact on the environment. In an attempt to minimise their footprint consumers seek accountable brands. Brands showing that they are eco-friendly, transparent and responsible. Your common, non-recyclable packaging does not meet this description. Instead of triggering a sale it might prevent one if it is associated with wastefulness. Consumers might start to reject overtly branded packaging altogether. Shoppers have already started to bring their own recyclable shopping bags. When will they start bringing their own reusable containers, nets and bottles? To fill them with products of their choosing. This idea might seem far-fetched, yet there are examples. A supermarket in Germany (Orginal Unverpackt) is already trialling unbranded packaging. Eco-awareness and minimum waste concepts are about to stay. Going green does not agree with today’s consumer packaging. Apart from sustainability, increasing regulation might be a third change factor for packaging.

Trend 3) An increasing desire for labelling and regulation leaving little room for branding

The amount of regulation and labelling is set to further increase in the future. Consumers have a desire to know as much as possible about the products they buy. They want transparency to help them choose what is best for them. This desire finds its way on packaging through labelling in various forms: Expiry dates, ingredients, nutrition information, advisory messages, country of origin, and much more. All helping to protect the public from risks associated with the use of products. Obesity, alcoholism, diabetes amongst others are all health risks. Governments have a vested interest in minimising these risks. Regulators will continue to do their best in informing and protecting consumers. This will restrict the branded space of packaging. What if regulation reaches a point where branding becomes a secondary aspect of packaging? Or disappears completely? All to help consumers to make more informed choices. Consumer packaging of the future must balance these needs.

What to focus on now

Change is in the air. How consumers shop, their expectations and needs are evolving. Marketers will adjust their strategies. Some quicker, some slower. The future might not be as vivid as most of today’s packaging. Thus, how can you prepare? What to focus on now to meet your marketing objectives and keep your brand alive?

As a consequence of the evolving marketing landscape, there will be many ways to respond. For a start, a renewed product focus and a differentiated approach to communication.

Even if the packaging is how you got consumers to buy your brand in first place, the product is what makes them come back.

Focus on the product – this is your competitive advantage and will stay it. Don’t get distracted by fancy looks. Even if the packaging is how you got consumers to buy your brand in first place, the product is what makes them come back. More importantly today, with fully informed consumers, brands continue to become transparent. And they are under constant comparison and review. As a result of this, your core product and its ratings will make the difference. Your product defines the value you provide to consumers. How is it different and better than the competition? What is your unique benefit, solution and selling point? This is the competitive advantage that you want to focus on. Exploit and emphasise it when promoting your product. Consequently, this will generate consumer loyalty and sustainable growth. Also, be ready to invest in the product. Today’s competitive advantage might fade over time. Know your consumers and constantly measure your success in meeting their needs. Track their perception of your brand and your product’s performance. Use research to understand your shoppers and how latest trends are affecting them. This will enable you to identify opportunities, new problems worth solving and investments in the right product. By continuing to provide value, you are set up for a loyal consumer base.

Use content marketing to tell stories about your uniqueness which are worth sharing.

Once you are clear on the unique value you bring to consumers put it in writing and communicate it. Consumers are better informed and have more choice than ever. Take advantage of this. Use content marketing to tell stories about your uniqueness which are worth sharing. Generate content to grab their attention and convince them to try your brand. Focus on value, quality and relevancy. Create content that consumers want to share with their friends and social circles. Based on your brand truths. Consumers appreciate authenticity. Don’t just create messages, make your content interesting through storytelling. Use online to make content interactive and personalised to keep your consumer engaged. Track their interactions with your content to gain more insights on what they value and what problems they face. To return to the subject of product development, continue providing value. Instead of the traditional funnel with ever smaller conversions, consider an expanding funnel. Use the right content to convince one consumer and benefit from ripple effects through social networks. A good start to find out more about strategic content marketing is this collection of articles on Medium.

To sum up, the landscape for traditional packaging is set to change. Above are just a few thoughts on how you can respond. There is lots to do. But in the meantime, here are two actions you can take right away:

  1. Get crystal clear on the comp advantage of your product
  2. Start sharing your unique story with consumers

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