• Transform magazine
  • January 27, 2023

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The golden age of packaging is in the digital age

Philip Hwang

Philip Hwang is head of strategy, APAC at global brand experience agency SGK. He argues that digital commerce has given packaging more—not less—freedom to stand out than ever before. And that great marketers know how to turn it into viral media.

As marketing evolves, we seem to constantly think that all consumer behaviour gets chucked out the window on a regular basis, baby and bathwater and all. We know these click-bait headlines all too well: “E-comm kills the main street.” “Digital kills print.” “Something-shiny kills xxx.” 

But new behaviour usually augments the old – the smart marketer just needs to recognise how traditional mediums can play new roles in the brand and marketing mix. What do you know – print books are back on the rise, the high street is simply transforming, and online-only businesses, from Everlane to Allbirds to Tmall, all have offline “retail theatre” experiences by now.

A sharable moment of truth in your hand

When digital screens and channels have proliferated beyond recognition, most brands forget that their most powerful media is their packaging. Why? Packaging that goes viral and gets shared makes the post-purchase “moment of truth” also a consumer’s first moment of awareness on social media.   

We’re in a golden age of packaging, and it’s paradoxically unleashed by the rise of e-commerce. With content-rich commerce pages increasingly the primary entry point to purchase, what was once mandatory info can increasingly be offloaded off-pack and on-page. While the combination of DTC models and digital print enable a stream of fast-release, limited editions to stoke fickle tastes and create buzz.

The result? Packaging that’s more empowered to be purer to its core function of distinction than ever before. More emotional, less functional. More storytelling, less ho-hum. To put simply: digital commerce, distribution, and print now let packaging be freer and more creative than ever before. 

Rethinking packaging in a digital age 

Great brands understand that good packaging is advertising. But invariably, most brands underinvest in design, instead over-relying on digital advertising that used to disrupt, but is now just disruptive. In an age of a million-and-one digital channels, the one thing that you can hold becomes even more precious. Good packaging design ca. 2022 needs to do these: 

  • Design to go viral: we live in a dopamine-addled, visual culture, where influencers are increasingly the gateway to awareness. How do you get shared AND ensure your brand has its voice? By making sure that the “thing” that they hold in their hand is so prominent and distinctive, the story almost writes itself. Over-the-top, meant-to-go-viral, never-before-seen packaging lets your product be the message, and ensures that you’re shared through word-of-mouth when there’s no “shelf” to jump out from.
  • Design for the journey: what a consumer wins in swipe-right convenience online, a brand loses in salience. Remember that packaging is the only IRL interaction many digital-native brands have with consumers. Which is why it becomes even more important when seeking to establish that emotional connection. But instead of packaging the product, design for the whole unboxing experience. By staging a thoughtful, ritualistic experience with impactful design, conversational copy, and personalized touches, you can create the emotional ‘high’ in an otherwise virtual journey. Make the first impression count to reap dividends in love, shares, and repeated purchase. 
  • Design for rarity: three forces have aligned to accelerate the feasibility, prevalence, and power of limited-edition packaging: DTC, digital print, and collab culture. The need for data ownership is pushing all brands, even in FMCG, to place greater importance on DTC relationships, where online stores are natural launchpads for limited edition campaigns, without the complexity of brick-and-mortar distribution. Couple this with the fast turnaround of digital print, and brands are now empowered to switch up packaging at much faster speeds than ever before. Pair a need-to-own design, a hot co-brand partner, and the magic of FOMO, and you have a limited-edition, pack-driven campaign made to go viral.

So stop thinking about packaging as the last thing you design, and think of it and invest in it as media and advertising. Because when it’s held, shared, and talked about on the merits of its design, it becomes exactly that.