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What I learned on vacation

I took a 15-month break from my 27-year career as a packaging journalist and this is what I learned: Consumers are a tough nut to crack. Especially when it comes to figuring out what they want from packaging.

From July 2009 to October 2010, I worked for consumer insights company Iconoculture as an editorial strategist in their new Global Packaging Advisory Service.

In the CPG world, everything revolves around the consumer. At Iconoculture, I looked at how consumer values changed their attitudes towards different types of packages and why. Fascinating work, let me tell you!

Some values, like those that define a generation or lifestage, are slow to shift. Like Boomers and the value of “control” or teens and “experimentation.”

Other “in the moment” values swing like a monkey, first here, then there. Like what we recently saw from Convenience to Thrift and back again as consumers were hammered by the Great Recession and then found some relief as it receded.

Here’s an example of how consumer values play out in packaging today:

When the recession hit in 2008/2009, people felt rocked by events beyond their control. Think TARP and pay cuts. So they took charge where they could: Simplifying their lives by clearing the clutter of “things” and getting back to basics like economical home-cooked meals and gardens.

Consumers were drawn to products in clean packages, designs with stark copy, striking graphics and simple labels.

At the same time, though, anger and frustration with the BIG GUYS–governments, businesses and brands–shook their trust. Think BP and Tiger Woods. So they felt empowered and in control by getting the goods on the goods: Finding info on the internet and sharing it with friends and family through social networks.

Add to all that another piece: Most Americans carry around a mobile computer, a.k.a. their cell phones.

So I’m calling it! The next big packaging trend based on consumer insights: Communicating on the package through quick-response (QR) codes. These cell phone scannable codes pack a lot of data in a little space. It’s paradessence–the simultaneous satisfaction of two opposing desires. In this case, simplicity and knowledge. Just what the consumer craves today.

We’ve already seen a number of brands go the mobile marketing route, using QR, text messaging or other short-cut codes — Kellogg cereal, PepsiCo beverages, Green Giant Fresh veggies, BrassCraft plumbing supplies, Quickie mops, Colorado Native lager, Nine West footwear, Hugo fragrances and Merck pharmaceuticals. And I’m sure many more projects are in the works.

See how consumer insights can affect a brand’s packaging strategy?

Like I said … Fascinating.

So what do you want your package to tell your customers? And how are you gonna do it? Now you call it!

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