Behind the Product Packaging Business

The package things come in does matter.

October 15, 2013

 It’s suspense at its highest — tearing away the glittery wrapping paper, enjoying the satisfying rustle of bows and ribbons, and revealing that much sought-after Christmas present after months of anticipation: the big Lego pirate ship set which has captured your eye every time you walk down the aisle of the local supermarket or toy store. You love the colorful pictures, the carefully planned sections separating the various Lego parts, the detailed manual and stories featuring treasure maps and character profiles as the Blackbeards of Legoland head out to the high seas. Fifteen years later, and you’re still the same way — the box that your coveted gift of choice comes in does matter, because first appearances are everything. And this is a mantra which has geared and shaped the various changes of the packaging industry in the last couple decades.

What Looks Expensive Feels Expensive

There are a surprising number of us who consider buying a product simply because of the box or bag which comes with it, a sort of aesthetic extension of the product itself. Some of us choose a product given the direct impact the brand demonstrates in its wrapping, while other consumers already know what they want to buy and their browsing priority is at a low. Interestingly enough, the art of packaging is one of the clearest indicators of a kind of class system/hierarchy in consumerism; the brand names utilize several design components to produce an attractive exterior, which not only draws in the eye of the buyer but also reassures them that the product they are purchasing is high quality. This is communicated through several language tactics such as neurolinguistic programming where the text engages in a question/response dialogue with the viewer, clever catch phrases laid out in crisp type and intuitive typography, careful composition of style and images used, and of course, quality and stability in the package itself which will suggest the item within equals the caliber without. Just take the velvety feel of a product package like the iPhone 5 box and its minimalist matte finish, which bears a nice feeling when leaving the store.

Changing Faces

Packaging has changed much in the last decades, as consumer demands have fluctuated from one kind of style to the next. The big, bold and bright colors of the 80s seen on cereal boxes, toys and other essentials matched the vibrant hues of the clothes and video culture of the movement, carrying into the 90s and producing more 3D images as graphic design capabilities advanced.

Sparked from the mass revolution in material culture originating in the 60s, packaging expressed a kind of excitement and vigor in the emerging buy-happy society. It began with simple, one-dimensional designs from both the local shop and bigger establishments in goods processing wishing to capture that more domestic appeal. And nearly a century later, it enjoys a revival in both locally-sourced, ethical food stores and even massive corporations are following suit — think Tesco Everyday Value, which uses elemental colors, a simple design, homely font, lots of negative space in its package designs and subtle elaborations which convey a sense of blissful domesticity.

Enhanced Security and Protection

The security and standards of the industry have changed considerably, as well. Particularly in electronic products, traditional boxes with dividers and plastic wrappings have been largely replaced with clamshell packaging for smaller devices and have seen a steady rise in the 90s and 2000s. As anyone who has tried to crack open the resilient plastic knows, clamshells provide sufficient protection and are secure, eliminating the possibility of theft in store where some items can be taken directly out of the box and thus bypass automatic barcode scanning. They take up considerably smaller shelf and storage space than other packaging (with even manuals packed inside) and also have the benefits of presenting the product directly to the viewer, although examining every aspect of the product might be difficult. Sometimes a sleeve is placed over the clamshell to provide further info and marketing ploys. What clamshell packaging has achieved is to enable stores to distribute and display more products: Rather than shelf space, clamshells can hang on racks or be put on displays near the till, contributing to the growing number of items which attempt to draw the customer in when they are seconds away from leaving the store.

Concern for the Environment

With 230 million metric tons of waste generated each year in the United States alone, industries like the packaging one have felt the heat on the problem of mass consumption. From paper bags at grocery stores being replaced by plastic bags, only to find that these ultimately caused more damage — stores and companies are trying to find ways to package goods in a way which is both economical and leaves a minimal carbon footprint, as well as being biodegradable. Massive companies such as Amazon use Frustration-Free Packaging which is 100 percent recyclable (although considerably more needs to be done to reduce the amount of packaging used — tough feat in an industry which serves on a worldwide basis every single day of the year), while others make it a mantra of their PR to state that their products are sourced from carefully considered renewable resources. Onus has been placed on the public to forego the plastic bag for the cloth one and to think constructively about what and where their purchase takes place.

Digital Age and Vintage Appeal

As a result, the packaging industry has transformed from bulky, loud boxes and bags to smaller, simpler designs. In some cases, they have been done away with completely — thanks to the digital age, books, music, videogames and films can be acquired with an Internet connection and downloaded directly to the tablet, smartphone, computer and television. And in the wake of this, packaging in niche areas of these media forms has actually become a bit of a vintage item. Music lovers who adore their CD booklet or sleek vinyl record sleeve which can bring in a value of hundreds of pounds; gamers who love their artfully decorated and specialized boxes — one of the most elaborate in the packaging industry — want their purchase to be tactile, whether for an authentic experience or for collector’s value.

As people become increasingly conscientious of the role they play on a global scale, the art and industry of packaging will continue to revolutionize, reinvent and renew itself to change shape with the rest of the world.

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