Future Packaging—What’s Ahead?
By Herb Meyers and Richard Gerstman
“The art of prophecy is difficult—especially with regard to the future”
This observation by Mark Twain, made around the turn of the 20th century, is as true today as it was then. But, no matter how difficult and capricious, predicting future events and conditions remains an inescapable temptation.
So, it should come as no surprise that the book, The Visionary Package, co-authored by us and published earlier this year, examines what lies ahead in marketing, branding and packaging in the next five to ten years. There will be numerous challenges. But for the purposes of this article, let’s be “visionary” regarding a few of the most critical ones:
• The explosion of mega-stores and the proliferation of brands
• Our changing lifestyles
• The impact of global marketing
• Integral electronic devices in packages
In answer to these phenomena, the role that packaging will play in branding, conveying product information and providing product enhancement will offer substantial challenges.
Mass marketers, such as Wal-Mart and Target, are hard to ignore these days. Chances are that, in the future, there will be more of them, many created through mergers. Mega-stores will dominate the marketing of products in ways in which we can only speculate.
For example, when two store chains merge, where does the brand loyalty go? Retail consolidation often means redesigned stores, signage, trucks, packaging and other visual media. Designers must be especially careful to develop a design program that acknowledges and understands the consumer of both merged parties. With good planning and design, the consumer will feel positive about the merger or the acquisition of the brands—as long as consumer service and product quality are maintained and brand identification remains clear.
Add to this the proliferation of products in the gargantuan environment of mega-stores. For example, as the growth of the frozen food category continues, there are opportunities for new frozen products to satisfy our more mobile population. Some mega-store chains have as many as 60 doors of frozen food competing for the consumer’s attention. Many of the products overlap and visionary package innovations are needed, especially for better cooking trays, to retain this impetus.
Proliferation of brands
With so many mega-stores, the proliferation of brands can’t be far behind. Marketers of packaged products and their designers will have to deal with a growing list of competitive major brands as well as more and more store brands.
How do you divide up such mega-brands and their packages so that your consumer understands the value offered them? When should it be an entirely separate brand and when should it be a brand extension? What do consumers really perceive about the brand and its packaging? Where does the brand fit with the competition? What is its point of difference? How can packaging reinforce the brand imagery?
Products in virtually every category will overlap, making the consumer’s ability to differentiate more and more difficult.
Take just one category—pharmaceutical products. There are prescription drugs, over-the-counter drugs, dietary supplements and traditional and dietary foods. You can find products on the retail shelf that appear to be similar, but they’re regulated differently, because one is considered a drug and the other a supplement. Companies constantly seek to expand their product mix. Future packaging will face the problem of differentiating similar products at an increasing rate.  
The senior market
Speaking of pharmaceuticals, one of the biggest challenges will be in meeting the needs of the senior market—and that’s not even mentioning the approaching deluge of baby boomers.
Challenges include:
• Striking the right balance between ease of opening a bottle and preserving child-resistance.
• Using larger type for the visually impaired, without crowding the package.
• Using color and warning messages, without turning off other consumers.
To complicate matters, many of the prescription drugs we buy will, in the future, be sold over the counter. Brand identity of these drugs must be considered well before the product switches to OTC. It’s important to get into the brand’s DNA—the core or the meaning of the brand—so that when the drug transitions from prescription to OTC, physicians, pharmacists and consumers will follow.
Global marketing
With global marketing on the rise, marketers and designers should pay close attention to social issues around the world. Population growth and movement, changing behavioral patterns, and even political disputes between certain countries, may affect the future distribution of some packaged products.
But perhaps the most urgent global packaging issue will be the effect that global distribution will have on the ever-present concern about package disposal. Packages that are distributed globally will need to be designed to prevent product damage and deterioration in order to survive long periods of transportation and various weather conditions. But what happens when these packages are discarded?
Distributors and their designers will be challenged to create packaging structures that minimize use of materials while maximizing product protection. The interest will be in new materials, formulated from natural sources that will not harm the environment, such as corn and/or beets.
The changing climates, brought on by global warming, also may affect the production of food and how it will be transported and stored. This may not only require modification of the food, but also packages that can adjust to temperature changes, possibly through the integral application of digital sensors that will activate temperature controls within their shipping environment.
Also important are the dubious storage facilities at some points of delivery. In many countries, retail environments differ substantially from the stores to which we are accustomed. Stores in non-western locations are often much smaller, even tiny and primitive by comparison.
Last, but not least, is the need for designers to familiarize themselves with letterforms and graphic symbols on packages that may be shipped to countries where visual perception is substantially different. For example, the brand presentation on cans and bottles of Coca-Cola in the western world differs substantially from that in Asian and mid-eastern countries, where verbal and symbolic perceptions are often significantly different from ours.
The information bubble
But the most fascinating and exciting opportunity for visionary package design will be the emergence of electronic devices able to accomplish never previously performed tasks.
In the first part of the 20th century, most packages were simply containers that held and stored products. In the middle of the 20th century, packages started becoming a communications medium. Brands had to compete against one another, and package designers began to influence how one brand could outsell the other through good marketing.
The next generation package will be transformed into an information-gathering device. This will be the most revolutionary change of packaging in the coming years.
RFID and the smart package
Although bar codes have been an excellent tool for tracking products in the retail store and at the checkout counter, they have their limitations. But what if each individual product had its own coded information? This is where RFID (radio frequency identification) comes in.
Packaged goods companies and retailers have realized that tracking their products efficiently can save millions of dollars annually. And the RFID chip will do just that. RFID is expensive for most packaging applications today, but mass production will bring the price down in the future. Some companies, like Wal-Mart, have already started requiring suppliers to use RFID chips on shipping cartons and pallets.
Along with enabling extraordinary efficiency, the benefits of tagging packages worldwide with tiny RFID chips encased in packages might include:
• speedy store shelf replenishment
• information gathering
• product supply forecasting
• theft deterrence
• immense cost savings
For the manufacturer and marketer, RFID chips will verify authenticity by tapping into instant and precise product information on when, where and by whom each item in the inventory was produced. With pirating and counterfeiting of brands on the rise, RFID will enable marketers to know whether the product is the authentic brand, and retailers will be able to confidently tell consumers that the products are authentic.
The digital package in the store
In the store, packages will continue to help retailers cater to the consumer. Products will be restocked just as quickly as they left the shelf. RFID chips will automatically count what’s on the shelf and what needs to be replaced. It will be easier to take your products out of the store without waiting on long lines. You’ll swipe your store loyalty card across the package so that when you arrive at checkout, your shopping list is already registered and your bill waiting.
Hand scanners, such as those used at Toys R Us, will enable you to scan the packaged items and have those items appear on the Internet for friends and family to order for you.
The digital package at home
At home, RFID chips on packages will be able to provide helpful information such as cooking instructions for the microwave or care instructions for washing various types of fabrics.
Chips might alert you when you run out of cereal or when the milk in the bottle has turned sour. Packages for pharmaceuticals will alert users about compliance, such as when to take a pill. A signal in the bottle cap will remind patients when to renew a prescription.
To create “smart packages”, package designers need to acquire an understanding of some of the technical aspects of RFID systems, how they function, how the cost implications will impact on package production and how to use them creatively.
The package designer’s concern
Future packaging offers many exciting opportunities for marketers and designers. But when all is said and done, none of these opportunities will benefit the marketer unless the brand and package designer is privy to the marketer’s strategic objectives and the consumer market to which the brand is targeted.
This can only happen when the designer is included in the strategy development right from the start. Unfortunately, more often than not, the designer is given a creative assignment when all of the strategic issues have already been decided upon, only leaving room for interpreting a pre-conceived concept.
This, plain and simple, is shortsighted management. It is time for marketers to understand the benefit of including the designer every step of the way in order to reap the fruit of his/her visionary solutions and for designers to better communicate their ability to offer them. BP
The authors, Herb Meyers and Richard Gerstman, are co-authors of The Visionary Package: Using Packaging to Build Effective Brands. Meyers is the retired founding managing partner of Gerstman + Meyers (now Interbrand). He can be reached at DesignHM47@aol.com. Gerstman is chairman of Interbrand U.S. and founding managing partner of Gerstman + Meyers. He can be reached at richard.gerstman@interbrand.com.