Today’s consumer is not the consumer of the past, and tomorrow’s customers will continue to change at a rapid pace: Demographics and shopping habits are shifting; technology is creating new ways for them to purchase from a greater range of products; and attention spans are plummeting. 

The good news is that by keeping up to date with technology and focusing on customer engagement through packaging, your brand can stay abreast of consumer changes.

BRANDPACKAGING talks with Jill Ahern, senior director, consulting services, Packaging Technology Integrated Solutions at HAVI Global Solutions ( and Josh Dickson, marketing strategist at, about why your brand must adapt and how to do so.

BRANDPACKAGING (BP): Explain the importance of packaging to a brand and consumers in this present day.

Jill Ahern (JA): Packaging plays a very unique and significant role with consumers. As first identified by the work of scientific researcher, clinical psychologist and marketing innovator Louis Cheskin, research shows that a product’s attributes and attributes of its packaging are intertwined in consumers’ perceptions. In other words, our visual inputs from a package actually impact our perception of the product within it. This link, combined with our experiences of product packaging, further reinforces our cognitive and experiential link between product and package. Even the terms used to describe many products illustrate this: We buy a loaf of bread or a head of lettuce, but we also buy a bottle of wine, a bag of chips and a can of soup. The package actually helps define our description and understanding of the product.

Because of the powerful role packaging plays in shaping the consumer experience, it has a tremendous (and often under leveraged) importance for the brand. It is most often the first and last moment of exposure for a product, so the power to influence purchase and repurchase is significant. For many goods, packaging provides multiple impressions over the use cycle, and is also highly sensorial, providing the tactile, auditory and visual experience with the brand.

Given the changes and fragmentation in other marketing channels and increasing competition in the marketplace, packaging is being used even more as a brand communication lever. One of the only consistent brand communicators across a product’s lifecycle, packaging is a key driver of value, which is the essence of brand power in the evolving and highly saturated marketplace. 

BP: How can brands create packaging that accurately accomplishes what the brand needs it to do?

JA: The underlying principles of semiotics (the meaning ascribed to signs and symbols) can help packaging to demonstrate full value and be as effective as possible in delivering on brand objectives. In a consumer’s experience, every attribute and aspect of a package carries meaning or provides a cue that is interpreted, and it is critical that each is understood and aligned with your brand promise — from function to form, color, design, etc. It is important to recognize and understand both the intentional and unintentional messages being delivered by your product packaging, as both are equally influential.

At HAVI Global Solutions, we have used this approach in developing a Brand DNA Alignment Tool that applies these principles to package design. Here are a few key takeaways of what a holistic understanding allows a brand to do:

  • Identify and map relevant and motivating packaging-specific benefits to consumers’ emotional drivers.
  • Quantitatively and expertly decode and link those benefits to package design attributes that reinforce a brand’s DNA traits, objectively validating the insights and design cues that trigger a desired consumer response.
  • Provide prescriptive design direction to packaging and design teams based on consumer cues and best-in-class category norms. 

BP: How do you see consumers changing in the near future? 

JA: A program that we host, the Future of Packaging, takes an intensive look at what’s to come in the next decade. In the course of research and preparation for this, here are three key areas that we’ve recognized as changes in consumer behavior that we should be mindful of when thinking about future packaging needs:

  • Demographic changes: When we think of markets, it’s important to think of them as a compilation of the people within them. Globally, demographics are changing; and in the U.S., we are in a time of transition. Millennials are becoming a larger share of the consuming class, and they are a culturally diverse cohort. This impacts the market in a variety of ways including the demand for products.
  • Technology: We must anticipate the impact that technologies have on consumer behaviors and expectations. How products are purchased has everything to do with packaging, and in the U.S., this change is shifting considerably. There is an evolving global market at the fingertips of nearly every consumer, and brand loyalty is becoming more and more challenging. Product packaging plays a key role in the omnichannel approach to the consumer marketplace.
  • Choice and availability: Choice was previously considered as whatever products were available at your local drug, mass market or grocery stores. Now, consumers can and do buy products from all over the world through an evolving web of options. Elevation of experiences leads to higher expectations. Also, information transparency means a more informed consumer.

Josh Dickson (JD): Consumer attention spans have decreased sharply in the past decade. The all-time low attention span is down to eight seconds — that officially qualifies as less than that of a goldfish. And changes in technology are having a drastic effect on the challenges that brands face at the shelf today. These changes are only going to continue more rapidly in the future.

Technology has raised the level of noise that brands have to cut through on the store shelves, as there is now greater access to resources for more brands to produce stellar packaging and branding. At the same time, the big-name brands are able to utilize technology on a scale that is inaccessible to many small to mid-sized businesses (SMBs). Take Snickers, Bud Light and Coca-Cola’s latest variable design packaging: These, coupled with big dollar traditional marketing campaigns, result in a unique and attention-grabbing presentation that is difficult to compete with. As technology continues to expand into all aspects of our lives, the additional noise makes it harder for consumers to focus on new or different brands.

BP: What will that mean for brands’ packaging?

JD: While the previous answer may make it seem like a bleak time for brands, it really isn’t all bad news. Savvy brands can leverage more affordable printing and packaging technologies as they become more universal, and this will help level the playing field.

Additionally, instead of trying to do it all, smart brands can focus on one area of wow-factor that will cut through the noise and differentiate themselves from the pack.

Overall, this is a very exciting time to be in the branding and packaging world. With rapidly changing technology and greater access for SMBs to this technology, we are going to see a more competitive marketplace, which will lead to innovative products and packaging. We’re excited to be a part of the packaging manufacturing industry, as we get to see these trends firsthand and help make it affordable for SMBs to compete better than ever before on the store shelves.

JA: It’s critical for brands to develop a holistic view and to get closer to the consumer. Brand packaging should be considered a calling card. Waiting for trends or to see what your competition is doing in order to implement new or best practices into your approach will put you at a disadvantage; by the time a trend is seen in the market, you are too late. Positioning yourself in the driver’s seat on research and innovation will play a much larger role in keeping your brand behind the eightball — those that are best (and first) with thoughtful innovation will win in a competitive environment.

What we know about the future is that competition is not only on the shelf next to you — it can be any product a consumer can find or create themselves (online, in other countries, etc.). If you don’t intimately know your consumer, what they value or do will likely surprise you. With that, the investment of time, effort and resources in order to use packaging in a more strategic way will be the key to staying top of mind in the evolving consumer marketplace.

BP: How can brands leverage consumer insights to minimize risk in package design decisions?

JA: Insights must be integrated across the development continuum in order to be effective. Far too often, we see examples of insights being collected and leveraged at the beginning of the packaging design process, but the end result misses the mark on delivering against consumer value. Integrated insights and design processes are critical to preventing erosion of the design as a result of things like hand-offs, manufacturing requirements or cost reductions.

It is important to continue to challenge the process with added consumer insights along the way, in order to deliver consumer value and avoid erosion. 

Forecasting the Customers of the FutureForecasting the Customers of the Future