Packaging Innovations 2017: the role of packaging in the digital world

Online shopping is shaping all manner of industries, and at Packaging Innovations 2017 the role of packaging in the ever-changing digital market was identified as one of industry’s hottest topics. Elliot Gardner investigates.


There were many projections made and trends discussed within the packaging industry at last week’s Packaging Innovations 2017 expo; however a constant theme was the need to evolve to find a place in the ever-changing digital world. Online shopping has been around for a while, but is still a niche in many countries around the world, and if brands aren’t prepared to make ready for the online consumer, they may be swept away by the digital tide.

Being online storefront savvy

The role of packaging online is a concept that many have struggled to get their heads around. After all, if a product is being sold online, surely the role of packaging is severely diminished, as brightly coloured boxes with visible logos and brand slogans, all designed to attract the gaze of consumers when they’re browsing the shelves at their local store, are rendered pointless?

Global market intelligence agency Mintel, at its 2017 Packaging Trends seminar at Packaging Innovations 2017 in Birmingham last week, argued differently. At the base level, most online storefronts, particularly for grocery retailers such as Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Asda, simply use photographs of products sold, in a manner not dissimilar to how goods are displayed on shop shelves. This presents a problem, says Mintel global food, drink and packaging analyst Regina Maiseviciute Haydon: “According to various researchers we spend between 3-15 seconds looking at shelves in brick and mortar stores, however when it comes to online, we flick past much quicker.” This means brands cannot hope to achieve the same level of engagement with potential customers without optimising their packaging and branding for digital storefronts.

"Most online storefronts, particularly for grocery retailers such as Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Asda, simply use photographs of products sold,."

The need to appeal to the browsing consumer becomes even more relevant, as does the need to coordinate with the retailer selling the packaged goods. A downside of the online storefront model is where ordinarily a product’s packaging could be altered for promotional purposes (a limited edition box design for the festive period for example), the image of the product would then have to be altered on the retailer’s website, lest the message be lost on those who do not want to journey to the physical store for their groceries. Adversely, limited edition packaging could be displayed for a longer period than intended if the retailer does not revert to the previous imaging.

‘Unboxing’ and the role of new media

The role of social and online media in the promotion of goods, particularly non-grocery goods cannot be underplayed. Mintel claim that since 2010, the number of online videos quoting the word ‘unboxing’ has grown by 800%. Collaborating with bloggers, vloggers and social media personalities to promote a brand is nothing new, but often overlooked is the ‘box’ part of the unboxing. The first part of the product the commentator will judge is its external packaging, and if the product isn’t represented appropriately, the review will begin with a negative tone.

“Consumers often say they can’t open the packaging, sometimes they get too much packaging, they don't know what to do with this, they don't know how to recycle it or dispose of it, they also often say that the packaging doesn't reflect the value and luxury of the goods they get,” says Haydon. “On the other side we often see luxury brands coming in very flashy and very beautiful packs, but then they are being exposed to the fact that they might not reach their recipient because they might be stolen or lost on the way.”

Packaging has traditionally been one of the primary ways to engage a potential customer, acting as both an advertisement and an indicator of the quality of the goods contained within. It appears that many companies delving into the world of online shopping have trouble walking the fine line between protection of goods and adhering to the level of quality expected by the consumer, and if brands hope to continue to market their goods successfully online, it’s something that packagers and packaging departments will have to get right.