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Hungry for Impact

By AICC Staff

March 21, 2022

Prior to March 2020, while e-commerce already represented a significant percentage of overall food and beverage sales, once the COVID-19 pandemic hit and consumers turned en masse to the digital world for much of their purchasing, e-commerce growth ticked up significantly.

The food and beverage industry saw much of this growth as consumers turned to online purchasing and delivery rather than shopping indoors—in some cases, because physical stores were closed; in other cases, due to their own concerns about the potential for exposure.

In fact, according to a EuroDev blog: “While a lot of industries suffered from a worldwide decline in demand since the outbreak of COVID in early 2020, revenue in the food and beverages industry skyrocketed. Worldwide revenue is expected to reach $342 billion in 2021, an increase of 97% compared to 2019’s revenue ($174 billion), almost doubling the revenue in just two years.”

Amid this growth in demand, brands both big and small are addressing challenges and finding new opportunities to stand out and make an impact while still being mindful of cost considerations and sustainability.

Design Considerations for a Hybrid World

Kristi Duvall is vice president of sales with The BoxMaker Inc. in Kent, Washington. She’s observed, firsthand, some of the shifts in packaging needs for food and beverage brands since the beginning of the pandemic. While many parts of the country are now widely open for in-store sales, consumers continue to shop online—not only due to pandemic concerns but also because they’re discovered the ease and convenience that online shopping can provide. In addition, with rising gas costs an ongoing concern, saving money by making fewer trips to physical store locations is also a benefit.

“Brands are focused on trying to connect with the e-commerce market while also improving their shelf presence for retail applications,” Duvall says. That, she says, has been an impact of the pandemic, and one that is likely to continue. “Brands are having to have a sort of multichannel or multifaceted approach where they’ve got to be able to connect with the customer and deliver an experience to their doorstep as well as catching their eyes in retail stores.

A related challenge has been the ability to predict just how much and what type of packaging materials will be needed as shopping patterns continue to shift. Boxmakers are finding themselves taking an increasingly just-in-time approach to packaging.

Just-in-Time Approach

Efficiency and cost-effectiveness are as important as ever—perhaps even more important in a tight and increasingly competitive market. Duvall says one of the things she’s seeing is more brands taking advantage of digital printing: “buying what they need when they need it instead of buying large volumes and then sitting on inventory.”

The ability to stand out is another requirement in a hybrid, and very competitive, market.

Customization and Co-branding

Retailers want to feel special, and they want their consumers to believe they’re special, too. Seeing the same packaging on the same product from one store to another doesn’t help retailers stand out in meaningful ways.

Instead, says Duvall, retailers are increasingly seeking personalized experiences. “They want to see something that’s exclusive—that you can only buy at one retailer,” she says. “They don’t want to know that the consumer can go somewhere else to buy the same thing.” For instance, she says, in a community two brands could pair up and then get together with their favorite charity and do something unique tied to an online campaign.

Influencer Kits

Connecting with influencers has also been an area of new opportunity. Social media—especially channels like YouTube and Instagram—have given rise to an explosion of influencers, people with large followings whose opinions can move the needle for sales of a wide variety of consumer-packaged goods, including food and beverages. Getting the attention of these influencers can be challenging, though. That’s giving rise to a trend in using “influencer kits” to break through the clutter and stand out.

Also called “influencer marketing boxes,” these kits are designed to attract attention as well as drive an impactful unboxing experience.” Influencer kits might include product samples, for instance, along with some swag, Duvall says. They’re usually printed both inside and out. “And I think the brands expect somebody to do an unboxing video—unboxing videos still get a lot of clicks online.”

While big brands have tended to have better budgets to provide exceptional experiences and create creative packaging concepts, smaller brands have gained traction during the pandemic. As Jessica Paige points out in an article for Packaging Gateway: “One positive to come out of the pandemic disruption is consumers’ growing appreciation of small and local businesses. ‘Support Local’ was one of the many slogans that were thrown around over the pandemic in a bid to save local economies and protect jobs, and websites supporting local companies experienced a boom in interest.”

Emotional Connections and Interactive Packaging

Food and beverage brands have an opportunity to make emotional connections with consumers, says Lisa Barrieau, banding sales manager, food, at Felins. “In the world of retail food, the label is more than just a means of advising the consumers of the nutrition facts, ingredients, and expiration dates,” she explains. “The food label is the voice of the brand, creating an emotional connection between the company brand and the consumer, making it a crucial part of the packaging.”

Creating an emotional connection, says Barrieau, “is the first step in forming a relationship with the customer, and therefore encouraging repeat purchases, so companies must pay close attention to their packaging and labeling decisions to foster this relationship.”

Digital packaging can also be combined with interactive packaging, Duvall says, using Digimarc—the watermarking and interactive packaging. Also, from a sustainability standpoint on digital packaging, every time that customer changes the art, they’re not having to worry about those plates having to go into a landfill at the end of life.

Also, if somebody is using a traditional print method such as a litho-lamp, you’re not having to worry about using all that extra material to register colors. Your first sheet is available with a digital print job.


Another top-of-mind consideration, and concern, for consumers today is sustainability. These concerns are rising as online ordering has become more prevalent.

“Today, we are seeing strong consumer demands for reductions in packaging waste by decreasing the amount of packaging material, sustainable and environmentally friendly products, brand recognition or a relationship with the brand, and a positive overall food experience,” says Barrieau. “An alternative to adhesive labels and sleeves, adhesive-free labeling and automatic sleeving using ultrasonic technology allows users to meet all of these demands,” she says.

“Ultrasonic banding uses a minimal amount of packaging materials and has the ability to switch between recyclable paper or plastic material or a compostable film, meeting consumer demands for a sustainable solution,” Barrieau says. “Additionally, ultrasonic banding allows for stunning graphics to be printed directly on the label or sleeve, allowing for easy brand recognition and contributing to a positive experience with the product.”

The ebb and flow of consumer demand for online access when buying food and beverage brands has certainly created challenges—but it has also illuminated new opportunities for brands and the boxmakers they turn to for efficient, effective, and sustainable packaging solutions.

The Pandemic Difference

For some brands a suddenly more digital environment has offered benefits they might not have immediately anticipated, Duvall notes. For instance, she says, “I think it’s been easier for smaller brands to get noticed because they’re not having to fight for the same kind of shelf space that they get squeezed out of at a large retailer.”

In the digital world, she says, small to midsized brands are getting notices on social media through channels such as Instagram and TikTok, where they can do some interesting and fun things—they can take more risks to see if they could potentially capture a different audience. “I think a lot of brands took advantage of that,” she says. Even today, she says, the brands that haven’t done that kind of experimentation still have the opportunity to make changes and connect with consumers in a different way. “It’s still evolving.”

Looking Forward

Looking ahead, Duvall predicts that some of the larger brands are going to begin replicating some of the creativity and experimentation that small to mid-sized brands have been leveraging during the pandemic. “The smaller brands are getting recognized, and there’s a lot of focus,” she says.

Duvall predicts that there will also be a continued focus on buying local and sustainability: “I think a lot of consumers are really trying to make those decisions when they’re at the shelf or when they’re purchasing online. They want to know, ‘Where is this coming from?’ ‘How far away is it?’ ‘Is the packaging recyclable?’”

Even e-commerce behemoth Amazon has taken note of these concerns and has begun offering “frustration-free packaging” and delivery options for consumers who prefer to bundle multiple orders into single shipments to save costs and minimize environmental impacts.

Making an impact will continue to be important for food and beverage companies, Duvall notes, pointing out that one trend that is likely to continue is creating packaging that will be saved rather than tossed out—packaging that becomes part of the product which, she says is already a trend in Europe. Brands, she says, are thinking differently about their packaging. “Long after my product has been used, could this box that it shipped in be used in some other form? Could it become a piece of furniture, or some sort of holder, or a keepsake, or is it personalized with a person’s name on it?”

As smaller food and beverage brands are gaining a toehold during the pandemic, larger brands are beginning to follow their lead to get attention both on product shelves and on doorsteps. This heightened demand and hybrid environment is creating both challenges and opportunities for packaging that is impactful, cost-effective, and environmentally friendly.

PortraitLin Grensing-Pophal is a Wisconsin-based freelance writer and a frequent BoxScore contributor.