How Online Retail is Changing Paper-Based Packaging

With so much of what we communicate e-mailed, texted, snapped or tweeted, it can feel like we live in digital overload rather than in a human space. How long before we’re all wearing augmented reality glasses as we walk down the street streaming video on our phones?

That’s why it should not come as a surprise that the paper – based packaging that brings the digital fruits of our labor to our doors is also providing a satisfying, tactile unboxing experience. Retailers have long known that packaging is the last visual and physical communication with the consumer before they connect with what is inside.

Think of how beautifully Apple presents its iPhone prior to opening the box. Unless you go to an Apple store, this is your only first-hand experience with the company and Apple makes the most of it.

In a digital world, packaging is the new store front increasingly serving as the only touchpoint prior to interacting with the brand itself. As a result, packaging is no longer simply a utilitarian material to protect the product as it’s shipped and delivered or communicate information. Packaging now plays the role of brand ambassador entering your home and presenting the product to you on behalf of the maker.

In fact, we’re now at the point where packaging IS the product. Consider the case of Loot Crate, a self-described “subscription box for gamers and nerds.” In the beginning, subscribers would get a box of gamer stuff each month. But then they decided the box itself should be part of the contents you get – one month it could become a diorama, the next it could be folded into a 3-D cardboard dinosaur. The crate has become the loot.

Of course, packaging can still be innovative in traditional roles. Take Pizza Hut for instance. They wanted their customer experience to be hot and crusty, so they took the humble pizza delivery box and reengineered it with corrugated baffles to dissipate moisture and air pockets to trap in heat. The result is a cardboard box that keeps the pizza inside 15 degrees warmer than an old-style box.

Paper gives you “exponential options,” according to Dean Whitney of the design consultancy, Catapult Thinking. “It’s so elegant. It feels so nice. It sounds so nice. It holds graphics. It holds contents . . . Packages speak to you.”

Indeed, many brands packaging can be just as iconic as the product inside as recent ads for brands like McDonalds in France by TBWA/Paris proves. McDonald’s billboards don’t even show the food, just the empty box. The campaign makes McDonalds packaging look beautiful and makes you ask existential questions. Was the Big Mac satisfying? Its absence suggests the answer is “oui.”

Packaging not only connects us to the virtual world, it now inhabits that world with an insouciant shrug, as though it has always been here.


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