It's Time to Elevate the Package to Market Brands
There’s a lot of talk about “the evolution of consumer product marketing,” and we’ve all heard “It’s about content, not context.” Correct: The content on product packaging has to become more powerful — both emotional and rational at same time — to create instant gratification in the shopper and consumer. The changes impacting other mediums also apply to packaging, and the package has to catch up.
There are two key realities to deal with first. One: Package design — as design — was always handled in a peculiar way from a marketing perspective. In the hierarchy of thinking on the brand side, package design wasn’t considered primarily a marketing tool: It was more functional. And two: Because of this, packaging fell under the purview of procurement, where per-unit cost is a key consideration. Or if there was a design leader for the client, it was overseen by the design group. But the design function — emphasis on its function — was rarely invited to the marketing table.
Fast forward to today: In the world of the consumer and the shopper, a much more direct experience of the brand is starting to manifest itself, as opposed to the mass experience. Once there was only one purchase funnel. It ruled us for 100 years and slowly updated itself but was always media-driven and rigorously prescriptive. It saw the shopper as a purely rational being. It left the brand to fend for itself based on hit-or-miss messaging. And because that 100-year-old funnel persists, 70 billion advertising dollars a year are spent and wasted in North America alone with nothing to show for it.
But that single funnel is dead. And it has been replaced by 6.2 million (or maybe billion) paths to purchase fully under the control of the people who buy the brand — call them shoppers or consumers, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that shoppers/consumers can make nearly every single decision that defines their experience with the brand. They’re in charge. This is why the package must be elevated to marketing — because it is marketing, and it has to be allowed to market. Once it’s elevated, we can all put the appropriate pressure on the package to enable those shopper/consumer decisions — in store, online, at home.
The physical package is still the most direct form of communication in terms of what the brand stands for. It is also the most immediate and intimate form of communication. The package doesn’t just contain the brand, it is the brand. We must strengthen its marketing power, to empower the consumer and spread this benefit across the entire brand. Most important, we must allow the package to extend empathy for the shopper/consumer by giving those who purchase the brand a reason to care.
THE COORS EXAMPLE
Here are a few examples already on shelves. Coors beer has always been the “beer of the Rocky Mountains.” To truly own the idea of “cold,” Coors created a package that turned blue to literally depict “cold” wherever it was fully chilled — on the shelf, at home, at a cookout. It’s interactive; it engages and empowers the consumer, and an entire marketing platform was built around a package that “contains” and “markets” simultaneously. It also is emotional and rational simultaneously. It’s pure marketing that stands at the intersection of form and function.
Naturally, we can’t build that kind of experience into cans of cling peaches, but there certainly is a lot of headroom between what’s done now under a cost-per-unit regime and what we could do if we allow packaging to be true, and truly powerful, marketing.
WHERE TO START
There’s another hurdle to cross. When there’s a divergent thinker on the brand side who believes in this, typically he or she engages one of the brand’s ad agencies — and the effort fails because the agency doesn’t fully understand what goes into a package. They create it as a “pushed” message, like a commercial. But that’s precisely not what Coors did: It started with the physical can itself and built the campaign around how the consumer interacts with it. So if you’re going to shift packaging oversight from purely design to marketing, engage a packaging agency that starts with brand ideas from the shelf out.
I want to make sure I’m not misrepresenting procurement. Procurement does precisely what it’s tasked to do: minimize cost and avoid risk in the complicated package process. But to make packaging more powerful, you have to allow human emotion into it, and that involves risk taking. So a candid brand might admit that it’s beneficial to change the package more frequently or build in unconventional messaging and experiences that attract and please shoppers/consumers — and this might involve taking money from, say, traditional radio. But if a brand believes in the power of the shelf and its ability to send a brand home, it makes this commitment at the highest levels of brand management.
WHERE TO FOCUS
If we talk about how physical packaging can become more interactive and consumer-influenced, let’s also talk about what online shelves can draw from the physical package. Typography and copy are two overlooked assets. Great typography sells brands through conscious and unconscious cues, and today’s brands need to work harder to put compelling, on-brand typography online, especially on the third-party retail sites they depend on. Third-party sites now understand this, too, by the way.
And copy is no different. Functionally, Groupon’s value proposition has always been simple and clear, but what makes nabbing a bargain with hundreds or thousands of other people so much fun is the wacky, inspired copy that we all read — in a kind of social moment — before hitting “BUY!” Groupon wouldn’t be Groupon without the inspired long-form copy we all share.
What I’m encouraging is for marketers to think of “packaging” as extending across all manifestations of a brand — the actual assets, the types of experiences, and the gratification they create. This requires planning, changes in oversight, integration of teams, and, potentially, higher costs up front. But in the end, how much do you want to sell?