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The Power of First Impressions

By AICC Staff

August 1, 2017

The primary role of packaging has always been to contain and safely transport a product from point A to point B. The logistical function was center stage, with little consideration for alternative roles the box could play. The retail market and ever-increasing competition for shelf space forced a heightened awareness of the power of packaging to serve in a marketing function. The ability to capture the fleeting attention of the consumer with powerful graphics and intricate displays became a major consideration in brand awareness and growth strategies. There was a clear distinction between packaging plants focused on retail customers and graphics-driven, and those focused on the industrial brown box market. This separation, with very little change, described the box industry for many years.

That is, until Apple. Steve Jobs elevated the marketing use of packaging into a branding tool unlike any we had seen before. Apple might not have understood the neurological science behind it, but the company understood the powerful connection it could create among its product, its brand, and its customers. Apple recognized the ability of packaging to act as a presentation of its product.

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs quotes Apple’s Jonathan Ive:

“Steve and I spend a lot of time on the packaging,” said Ive. “I love the process of unpacking something. You design a ritual of unpacking to make the product feel special. Packaging can be theater—it can create a story.”

The perspective that the packaging could create a story for the customer significantly elevated the marketing function it had previously performed. The aspect of product protection combined with graphics to drive awareness had now been replaced with the ability to create an emotional connection with the customer.

This shift opened the door to the opportunity to create a powerful first impression of the product inside. The packaging was now a tool used to support and enhance your brand image in the heart and mind of your audience—or conversely, one that created a challenging disconnect.

The perspective that the packaging could create a story for the customer significantly elevated the marketing function it had previously performed.

Many companies would scoff at the idea of still using a website built in the ’90s. They recognize the need in our digital age to be current, visible, and relevant to their end user. Most participate in social media to drive awareness to their brand and traffic to their site. They are wise to understand the critical nature of these areas in today’s competitive market. The millennial generation is entering their peak buying years, and ordering products through their connected devices is second nature. A report by Business 2 Community states that 63 percent of millennials report staying updated on brands via social networks, while another 46 percent rely on social media when making online purchases.

The disconnect to the brand image occurs when the product is received. These companies recognize the need to have a strong online presence, while they are simultaneously packing their product in an oversized brown box filled with dangerous-to-the-environment Styrofoam peanuts and not recognizing the message this sends about their company, their brand, and their values. A 2014 Nielsen study found consumers to have a growing awareness of packaging’s impact on the environment, with 55 percent of global customers willing to pay more for products provided by companies committed to positive social and environmental impact. It is much more difficult to overcome a negative first impression than it is to build awareness. In addition, our internet economy magnifies the residual impact felt once a customer makes an unfavorable decision about your company and their willingness to purchase again. First impressions tend to remain, even when contradicted later by factual information.

The message is clear: The powerful roles played by product packaging cannot be overstated. The right packaging has the ability to tell a story, support increased product awareness, reflect brand image, and drive growth within present and future customers. The complexity of changing consumer lifestyles and purchasing patterns requires a constant vigilance in understanding and maximizing the role packaging serves.

The Unboxing Phenomenon

width=400The concept of creating an experience for the consumer came along with the belief that they would choose to share it with friends and family. Brand awareness and positive feedback have long been a goal of marketers.

“The value of premium packaging extends far beyond the customer experience into residual marketing effects.

The experience goes beyond the online order to when the customer actually opens the beautifully wrapped package and shares that experience across social networks. That act of online and social recommendations drives loyalty from your customers and promotes brand awareness,” says Maria Haggerty, CEO of Dotcom Distribution.

The experience of product presentation and the desire of consumers to share this moment with the world grew well beyond what anyone could have predicted, and soon the YouTube phenomenon known as “unboxing” was born.

Between 2010 and 2014, the number of YouTube clips with “unboxing” in the headline increased 871 percent. In 2013 alone, 2,370 days’—or 6.5 years’—worth of unboxing footage was uploaded to the site. This trend is not just in the United States; the traffic is worldwide, with participation from locations as far away as India, Sri Lanka, and Trinidad and Tobago.

The message is clear: The powerful roles played by product packaging cannot be overstated.

Apple’s drive to create an experience for the consumer has also resulted in their products being the most popular unboxing videos. Competition for these views is fierce, with many companies choosing to upload their own video footage to official YouTube channels. This phenomenon isn’t just for high-end electronics. Everything from toys to makeup to live animals has made the cut. If you can buy it, an unboxing video of it probably exists.

These videos allow shoppers an inside peek at products—one that doesn’t contain retouched images and paid actors, but shows what’s really in the box. People want transparency. These videos are research material for devoted comparison shoppers.

It is not wise to simply dismiss this trend as another example of our digital obsession. YouTube watchlists show unboxing videos routinely rank in the top 10 of most-viewed spots, right beside music videos and the latest viral pranks. The reason for the popularity rises above the explanation of our always-connected internet lives. Experts support this claim with examples of kids watching videos of toys being opened and the belief that it provides more of an exploratory learning process—the ability to watch how others are learning about the product. How are they putting it together? How are they using it and playing with it? They contend that this visual foray into others’ imaginations and creativity opens the door to our kids making different connections and expanding their thinking.

The Impact of E-commerce

The changing marketplace and massive growth of e-commerce will continue to challenge the most sophisticated manufacturing companies and their packaging partners as the expectations of box performance continue to rise.

In 1994, Jeff Bezos introduced the concept, and by 2014 the company reported nearly $90 billion in revenue, with no signs of slowing down. E-commerce has completely changed the way we shop and is reshaping the U.S. economy in the process. Countless studies have been conducted, with subsequent articles and reports on the variety of industries disrupted and the vast changes predicted.

The impact of e-commerce on well-known, long-established brick-and-mortar stores can be seen on the nightly news. These retailers understand that if a product isn’t easily found on the shelf, the consumer will pull out their phone and find it elsewhere, and the retailer

will lose the sale. This mandates a shift from low value to servicing the customer again. A local grocer in my market recently underwent a massive expansion. Many more available products, wider aisles, and better lighting were all part of the mix. However, the most noticeable change was the increased number of store employees present in the aisles and wearing neon vests with the words “How Can I Help?” printed on them in bold letters. Most certainly it was an attempt to prevent customer frustration with their ability to easily locate items in their new shelf space and to reduce the number who pulled out their phone to find them in a competitor’s space or online.

The growth of online shopping and delivery of these goods will be a major contributor to the growth of the shipping industry, with the U.S. Department of Transportation projecting annual freight volume to increase by 45 percent by the year 2040. We will continue to see dramatic increases in the number of distribution centers. The way we purchase and consume goods will create opportunities for new industries to emerge.

The changing buying behavior of the consumer demands continual innovation in the world of packaging. The e-commerce supply chain is complex. The new shopping trends and evolving retail marketplace put greater demands and expectations on the various roles packaging serves.

The structural integrity required to safely transport the product from point A to point B gremains at the forefront. The increased handling through the new supply chain places greater challenges on box performance. Providing sufficient product protection through an unpredictable delivery process is a challenge; combine this with the added desire to deliver a strong first impression and brand experience, and it’ll task even the most knowledgeable packaging guru.

The packaging must reinforce who you are, what you’re about, and what message you are striving to convey.

The structural integrity of the box is only one consideration in package development. A major hurdle facing e-commerce companies lies in their lessened ability to build trust with the consumer. They have lost the opportunity to do this through face-to-face human contact as the brick-and-mortar stores were able to do. There is a continual need to build consumer awareness and deliver a smooth user experience. The ability to deliver the wow experience when the product arrives is where packaging must find the perfect blend of functionality and aesthetics.

Pulling It All Together

The first impression of the package sitting on the customer’s doorstep will either make the product inside better and the brand more desirable or instill a negative perception that will tarnish both. For many customers, this will be their first experience with your brand. The packaging must reinforce who you are, what you’re about, and what message you are striving to convey.

The individual packaging components you choose send a loud and clear message about your company. Everything that makes up your product packaging represents the message associated with your brand and whether there is continuity to your online presence and the customer’s belief in the connection.

The marketplace continues to change, and packaging must rise to meet the challenges presented with the expanded supply chain and subsequent structural demands. Consumer buying behavior requires packaging to play a significant role in solidifying brand awareness and loyalty.

In an era of unboxing and online buying, be sure your packaging is worth sharing.

PotraitKim Brown is the founder of Corrugated Strategies. She may be reached at 317-506-4465 or