Your Guide to Product Packaging Design and Strategy
The contents of a package will never be more important than the package itself. Yes, that’s a bold statement. After all, you might invest hundreds of thousands of dollars developing a product and then take years to perfect it. How could all that effort be matched by the simple cardboard box that it lives in from the time it hits your warehouse shelves to the day it’s delivered to a customer?
First, the packaging you choose might be the only thing a customer sees. If your product is found in brick-and-mortar locations, the product itself plays second fiddle to the packaging from a visual perspective. A shopper can pick up the package, examine it, read the messaging, then make a purchase decision. But the product itself will likely remain inaccessible until they take it home.
This situation is similar to what copywriters encounter when crafting emails. They might spend 80 hours writing the headlines and body copy of the message. Partnering with a designer, the perfect images are chosen. For the sake of hyperbole, let’s say that they create the most impressive email that has ever existed on planet earth.
But all that perfection is rendered worthless if the subject line doesn’t carry its own weight. You see, the recipient has to be intrigued enough by the subject line to open the email. The packaging of the email (a.k.a. the subject line that is visible in an inbox) has the power to take the campaign to new heights or sink it in a flurry of collective shrugs from recipients.
Second, the packaging you choose still plays a key role even if your customers have already experienced your product. Let’s say you have a legacy product that’s been a top seller since 2003. Your customer base knows this product. They love it.
But if you were to do a poor job updating this beloved product’s packaging, it would be possible to undo all the good of the previous years. Because a new package delivers a new first impression. And we all know how hard it is to shake a first impression.
A long-time customer might check out the newly inferior packaging and immediately draw negative conclusions regarding the value of the product. Even if the product remained unchanged in all its previous glory, the packaging will have suggested that it is subpar. In essence, your product is guilty by association.
The good news is that you have a wide array of packaging options. So don’t fall into the trap of simply using the drabbest, most obvious packaging for your products. It’s an easy route, but it makes it nearly impossible to stand out to customers in a meaningful way.
The Nuts and Bolts of Product Packaging
There have been some exciting innovations in the packaging industry in recent years. If you read that line and thought the words “exciting” and “packaging industry” should never go together, you have a valid point. But the truth is that you have a lot more options for packaging your precious products than business owners did just 5 years ago. And that’s exciting, right?
Most Common Packaging Options
Let’s look at 7 of the most common packaging options. Depending on the specific details of your product, some of these packaging options might not be good matches. But it’s always important to get the full lay of the land before you begin your journey.
1. Corrugated Boxes (a.k.a. Cardboard Boxes)
When most of us think of packaging, we immediately think of corrugated boxes. Named for the wavy portion of cardboard between the inner and outer wall, these boxes are used for everything from pizza to OLED TVs.
Corrugated boxes are notable for their sturdiness and the protection they provide. But they weigh more than some other types of packaging, and their bulkiness makes it harder to deliver a refined presentation.
2. Paperboard Boxes
These boxes are more lightweight than corrugated boxes, while still offering some decent protection. Because it’s single-layer, it can be shaped in many different ways. So if you’re looking for a custom packaging solution for your product, this could be a good option.
Pricing can be favorable with paperboard boxes, which is another key benefit. When you handle the design properly, you’ll be able to achieve a premium look at a more basic price.
3. Rigid Boxes
You’ve likely encountered this packaging if you’ve recently purchased jewelry or a cell phone. These boxes offer top-notch protection without being as bulky as a corrugated box. The secret is the condensed paperboard that makes up the walls.
These boxes are highly configurable, so you can have fun extending your brand with them. And because of their heft they feel impressive in customers’ hands. Just be prepared to pay a higher price to go along with all these upgraded features. Rigid boxes are among the most expensive forms of packaging.
4. Plastic Boxes
One of the key benefits of this packaging is that it’s transparent, allowing customers to see your product from the outside. It’s often used for products that come in batches, such as a package of 8 different flavors of lip balm. Plastic boxes are durable, lightweight, and affordable.
They can also be airtight if necessary, which is a consideration if you sell perishable items. One potentially negative aspect of this packaging is that some customers might have an aversion to plastic. These boxes can be recycled, so you might want to point that out in the messaging.
5. Chipboard Packaging
This is one of the most affordable types of modern packaging. Made from reclaimed paper, it’s a pliable material that can be shaped and folded. The most common examples are cereal boxes, though it’s also used for a variety of other purposes.
Given the lightweight nature of this packaging, it won’t work for delicate or heavy products. And it can be harder to give chipboard a premium look. But it’s still a top contender if you’re looking for an affordable way to package certain products.
6. Foil Sealed Bags
This packaging is usually only used for food items and certain fabric products such as clothing or bedding. Most commonly, it’s what your favorite store-bought coffee comes in. Foil sealed bags don’t naturally lend themselves to branding, but you can use labels or an outer box to spruce them up.
The biggest advantage to this type of packaging is that oxygen is sucked from the bag during production, which eliminates bacterial growth. So if that’s a priority for the quality of your product, foil sealed bags are a solid option.
7. Poly Bags
This is the most ubiquitous form of packaging. Made from a thin layer of plastic, they’re inexpensive, easy to produce, and ideal for a wide range of uses. From flowers to artisan soap to candy to magazines, poly bags are a great packaging option for items that don’t require shipping.
As with foil sealed bags, it can be difficult to showcase your branding with poly bags. You’ll need to get creative with your labels or find other ways to make the packaging distinctive.
Which of these 7 packaging options is best for you? That totally depends on your product, your brand, your operations, and your goals. Some products will actually choose the packaging for you. For example, if you sell premium coffee, you’re likely going to want to use foil sealed bags that will preserve the quality of your product.
Likewise, if you sell large computer equipment, you’re going to want the rugged protection of a corrugated box. The other packaging options simply won’t be able to protect such products.
Finding Product Packaging That Fit Your Needs
But if your products fall somewhere between coffee and computers (and most do), then you have a lot of choices when it comes to the packaging. As you consider what product packaging ideas are best for your needs, you’ll want to focus on these 8 questions:
- Will this packaging protect my product?
- Will this packaging stand out from the competition?
- Does this packaging align with my brand?
- Does this packaging elevate my brand?
- Does this packaging leave a great first impression?
- Is this packaging affordable?
- Can this packaging be effectively produced?
- Can this packaging be produced for the foreseeable future?
The first question is a great place to start, as it’s the genesis for the entire concept of packaging. In ancient times, certain food items or valuables were sold in boxes, pots, and other containers to keep them safe and improve portability. If the packaging preserved the contents, it was considered a win.
But merchants began to realize that a serviceable package was also a forgettable package. So various design elements came into the picture, such as producers stamping their name on packaging so it wouldn’t be stolen or could be spotted in a large docking bay amongst other items. This approach has only grown over the ensuing years, as modern merchants now look at every aspect of a product’s package before beginning mass production.
In other words, it had better be the complete package.
Your ultimate goal should be to deliver a unique experience to your customers. You don’t need to use the fanciest or most expensive packaging, but it should always convey quality. And if you can include a few elements of delight, all the better. Maybe it’s a handwritten note that’s included in a polybag containing your product. Or a funny illustration on the inner flaps of a cardboard box.
Unboxing has become an integral part of the customer experience. And if you can surprise your customers using mediums as traditionally bland as paper and plastic, then you’ve succeeded.
Album Covers: A Product Packaging Design Case Study
For decades, there had been only slight variation in the design of album covers. A musician or band would choose an image or design for the front, which would be accompanied by their name and the name of the album.
Popular albums such as Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and Shania Twain’s Come On Over are perfect examples of this.
But this proven template is not the only way to approach an album’s packaging. When bands and musicians deviate from the standard template, the results can be monumental.
For example, check out Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon. The band’s name and the album title are nowhere to be found. But the image is so distinct and compelling that it can be found plastered to millions of dorm room walls around the world.
For Metallica’s fifth album, the band used a dark background, a coiled snake, and one word. It’s almost universally called “The Black Album” due to its iconic design. Imagine that—the band created something that was evocative enough the fans felt empowered to take part in its naming.
And for Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album, also known as Led Zeppelin IV, the band chose not to use any words on the front. Instead, there’s just an oil painting of a man carrying a bundle of sticks.
Music journalist David Hepworth observed how strategic the decision was for Led Zeppelin to eschew the traditional album cover:
Well, I think one of the points I make in the book is that social media has made it impossible for bands nowadays to have the mystique that Led Zeppelin had in 1971 […] Because you never saw them on the television. You hardly ever saw a photograph of them. You had very little idea what they looked like or where they stood on stage or how they behaved […] You know, to say Led Zeppelin very cunningly exploited this mystique. And, of course, the classic case of the packaging of ‘Led Zeppelin IV,’ which doesn’t have the name of the band. Doesn’t have the name of the album. Doesn’t have the name of the record company, I think I’m right in saying. It’s got a guy on the cover with a load of sticks on his back, you know. And it didn’t matter at all. You know, this record didn’t quite get to number one in the United States. It went to number two I think but stayed on the charts for years and years and years.
What do The Dark Side of the Moon, The Black Album, and Led Zeppelin IV all have in common? They’re ranked among the top 25 best-selling albums of all time. Their unique packaging stood out from the rest, as did the iconic songs found within.
There are a few key lessons to draw from the world of classic album covers. First, when done well, even a formulaic cover can be extremely effective. It doesn’t matter if it’s just a photo, the band’s name, and the album title. If the design is top-notch, the cover will stand the test of time.
Second, deviating from the norm can be lucrative. When you have a unique idea that sets you apart but also stays true to your brand, the results can be dynamite. The obscure painting on the front of the Led Zeppelin cover didn’t confuse people… it drew them in because it built upon the scintillating mystique upon which the band was basing their brand.
Finally, your packaging can become a work of art. No, it probably won’t ever be found in the Louvre. But it can be special enough to be noticed and remembered. It can embody the elements of design and the trademarks of good copywriting.
And when something is put together with so much care that it catches the eye of the customer, and even draws them in a little for a closer look, it qualifies as art.
Better and More Sustainable Product Packaging Ideas
As the demand for ecommerce grows each year, so does the need for packaging. This means that your pursuit of artistic packaging must be complemented with a focus on how to make it better for both your business and the world at large.
“Packaging is ubiquitous,” explains packaging industry expert David Feber.
It touches almost every person on the planet. It affects things that human beings need to survive: food, healthcare, personal care. All of that is packaged. Today, none of that has a lot of intelligence. But there are real concerns with a lot of those products. There are concerns of spoilage, there are concerns of authenticity (‘Is this what I thought I was getting?’), and there are concerns of origin (‘Where is this coming from?’).
How can we get smarter about packaging? By looking for ways to be more efficient and sustainable. Because the usage of packaging is only going to increase in the coming years, and we’ve got to find ways to make it less harmful to the environment.
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