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Balancing Logic and Emotion

By R. Andrew Hurley, Ph.D.

June 4, 2019

width=300The business of corrugated fiberboard is inherently logical. Much of the work is mathematical—at the corrugator, in the design department, in diemaking—it’s math, measurements, and precision. Even the converting process is timed. Boxes are folded and glued in a mechanical order that needs to be engineered from the start. Customers require a specific order quantity, specific geometry, specific ECT, pricing, even commission. But for more than a century, brown boxes did not have to serve as a shopper-facing commodity—until recently.

The brown box is no longer an afterthought. Now, a significant number of consumers see traditional retail goods for the first time, at their doorstep, in a brown box! Instead of standing out on the shelf, packages need to perform at home. Customers are holding corrugated packaging to the same high expectations as they do a paperboard carton in retail.

E-commerce packaging needs to arrive undamaged, be frustration-free, manage waste (curbside recyclable or returnable), facilitate brand equity, and ideally offer a unique experience (custom decoration and/or structure). Each of these factors impacts consumer perception and repurpose intent. Corrugated board still retains its logical and mathematical roots, but it now lives in the consumer’s world, full of emotion.

How does the customer feel during that first unboxing experience—the moment you have engineered down to the specific fiber? The resulting emotion sets a strong precedent for the relationship the buyer will have with the brand. I speculate this is one of the fundamental reasons for Apple’s impressive packaging. The tight tolerances engineered to facilitate the slow release when you open an Apple product build anticipation and generate excitement. That attention to the packaging quality automatically creates a positive preconception of the product quality and forms a deeper connection between the brand and the user. With Apple setting a now iconic precedent on emotion-based packaging—right up there with Tiffany & Co.’s Little Blue Box—let’s think for a moment on how this applies to the logical (versus emotional) world of corrugated fiberboard. Quite simply, e-commerce is providing corrugated packaging a spotlight like never before.

So, where do you go from here? How do you create a positive emotional experience for your customer? Just as there is an ECT calculator, there are tools to measure a consumer’s emotional response to an experience, such as opening your box. My research team recruits a targeted audience, presents them with relevant packaging, and measures facial expressions at 30 times per second. Seven emotions are captured: joy, surprise, fear, disgust, contempt, anger, and sadness.

My team and I have been doing research like this for several years; as technology advances, so do our process and efficiency. I’ve been able to observe, participate in, and play the active role of everyday consumer as our corrugated packaging industry has changed in terms of use, consumption, and expectations. What I’ve taken note of is a few brands and packaging providers that have made some serious investments in time and thought around the customer’s perception of corrugated boxes and specific ways end users interact with their packaged products. If this is something you are considering, review this white paper on a Seaman Paper Co. study executed last year ( The premise, process, and findings are directly applicable to AICC’s membership as we navigate changing expectations.

There has never been a better time to be in the corrugated industry. Take advantage of it. On your next project, consider balancing your traditional logical preparation with some emotional insights.

width=150Andrew Hurley, Ph.D., is an associate professor of packaging science at Clemson University. He can be reached at