There is something special in the physical act of reading a book that digital media can’t quite replicate. Both literary “packages” contain information that tells a story; however, holding a book and turning its pages provides a uniquely enriching, multi-sensory experience that reading online content cannot duplicate.

A recent study cited by the New York Times found that disadvantaged students who were given 12 books of their choosing to take home and read over the summer had significantly higher reading scores than other students. Numerous additional studies verify the power of owning and reading books. It also has been posited that reading books and building a home library can positively change the way students view themselves and foster a lifelong appreciation of learning.

The absorbing and beneficial relationship that children—and adults—have with books helps to explain the power of a brand’s packaging as storyteller. The tactile experience of holding a package while reading the words and story printed on it provides brands with a unique opportunity to establish a compelling relationship, encourage purchase, and build loyalty and advocacy. Every time a consumer glances at the cereal box on the breakfast table or reads a box of tea while waiting for a cup to brew presents a unique moment of brand-consumer connection.

Storytelling on a package
Communicating your brand’s story strategically and effectively on-pack and off requires achieving balance across four storytelling themes:

1) familiar vs. unique

2) past vs. future

3) brief vs. deep

4) emotional vs. rational

We will use the tea category to illustrate how storytelling works. Tea is a very traditional product, rooted in numerous cultures, eras and locations. However, tea also is very much on trend with a wide range of new brands and innovative products, which makes it a rich subject for the power of storytelling.

Theme 1: Familiar vs. unique
Familiar, oft-told stories are the most powerful, the ones that we connect with on a deep, emotional level. You only have to look at our supposedly modern culture to validate this assertion: Fairy tales centuries old are the stuff of multiple movies and television series. We love stories of the plucky heroine who gets her man (and dream job), star-crossed lovers (including vampires) who defy all odds to be together, the underdog—be it a boy-wizard or Hobbit—who completes his heroic quest. Leveraging the power of what is familiar and meaningful to consumers in your package design strengthens the brand’s story.

Celestial Seasonings’ Sleepytime tea packaging taps into the familiar by calling its brand story, “a bed time story,” and reinforces the concept by including a dozing little bear on the box. The packaging story for Damame teas hearkens back to the royal edict of Louis the 14th and the luxury of the French Court, while Teatulia organic teas’ story promises the pristine quality of a distant unspoiled region of Bangladesh. Packaging for the UK stalwart brand PG promises that the company includes only the tips in its tea to provide a strong brew perfect for milk and sugar.

Theme 2: Past vs. future
Stories about the past imbue a sense of trust; the reassurance of tradition and the confidence of time-tested methods and quality. In periods of economic, political or social uncertainty, the power of the past grows with its allusions to a better time or place. Yet, stories about the past also can make us hunger for the new and appreciate the future by giving us a sense that we are ahead of the game. Tea is a category rich in history and tradition; thanks to early tax structures it was once only affordable to royalty and the wealthy. The Twinings of London brand has been around for centuries; a current ad touts how its teas, spices, herbs and fruit infusions are expertly blended “using techniques perfected over 300 years.” Tazo Teas, a relative newcomer at about 25 years of age, is an example of leveraging the mysteries of the past while maintaining a modern sensibility: The name Tazo has roots in Hindu, Greek and Babylonian cultures but its brand message –“Tazo happens when one combines amazing flavorful teas with a fertile imagination” – is quite contemporary.

Theme 3: Brief vs. deep
Shoppers deciding among several options on a store shelf look to packaging for a quick, brief story that gives them a reason to place a brand in their basket. But this is just one moment in consumers’ multi-faceted relationships with brands. Over time, repeat buyers want to hear deep, layered stories that reinforce their loyalty. A brand, therefore, needs to tell both an in-store and in-home story. (After all, you might as well read something while you are waiting for your tea to brew.) The Republic of Tea’s packaging balances the brief and the deep very well. For example, its 100% White Tea quickly tells in-store readers its story of being something “magnificent and rare,” the stuff of emperors. The Be Well Red Teas, in contrast, treat their packaging like a book; each side functions as a page to tell a more complex story.