Online brands – opportunity or threat for pack design?

Pack designWith more sales moving online do we have to rethink the role of pack design – will it become a less important part of the marketing mix?

‘Phenomenal’ growth – that’s IGD’s prediction for online grocery shopping (The Grocer). Online sales growth is outstripping growth through stores, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS)’s Retail Sales figures for July 2012. All exciting stuff, but what does it mean for pack design strategies?

I spent a good deal of my working life involved in retail pack design; everything from biscuits to lawnmowers. Its importance was taken as a given. It was the silent salesman, communicating features benefits and the brand values. Emotionally there is no more powerful moment than at the point of purchase. Trends in online and click-and-collect could potentially change the role of packaging design.

At the moment most products have a dual life; part on the shelf and part online. Our relationship with online brands is based to a large extent upon our in-store experience. But as time progresses products and customers may evolve who have no relationship other than online – in fact it’s easy to think of any number of online-only brands, though perhaps few in the FMCG sector.

A case could be argued for pack design to be being obsolescent. However, it’s interesting to look at how e-books that never have a bookshelf life have adopted virtual covers online: the same goes for some albums – a skeuomorphic comfort factor. So perhaps there is one important semiotic role for the pack as an icon for brand or product.

Many of the other functions of pack design present quandaries – conveying product information, size, contents, applications, instructions etc. These are not necessary for the online ‘pack’ as they can be conveyed in product information and specification details on the web page, separate from the pack. However, these may need to accompany the delivered product.

Other functions of the pack design such as communicating features and benefits, demonstrating the contents or creating emotional appeal will still be required. However, these are not necessarily roles for the pack. Rich online media, video, audio, games, communities etc., may present far more exciting ways communicating this information as part of the whole ‘pack’ experience.

Rather than presenting a threat to pack design it may open the door to a new age of retail/e-tail connection.

Packaging designers need no longer be constrained by the pack dimensions or print limitations. A single compelling icon when clicked can open a door to an almost boundless experience. The necessary data and statutory information can be separated from the emotional appeal of the brand.

The pack for the delivered product will have a different function. The purchase decision has been made. The new pack has to inform and reassure the buyer they have made the right choice and help stimulate repeat purchase.

The future looks exciting for pack design – though maybe not as we know it.

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