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Packaging Design

Unpacking Consumers’ Post-Pandemic Packaging Priorities

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Sustainability and consumer insights inform more functional packaging designs for foodservice and ecommerce due to COVID-19 behavioral changes.

In the last year and a half, each one of us has changed. We’ve developed habits, hobbies, heightened attention to hygiene, a deeper appreciation for smiles, and a more thoughtful consumption approach.

The ripples of our massive redirection trickle down to every element of life: how we shop, what we buy, how we eat, and how we expect companies to package our ecommerce purchases. For marketers, balancing new consumer behavior and the need to adapt while sustaining the same level of acceptance can feel a bit like a game of Tetris. However, combined with consumer insights and strategic research, companies can elevate their packaging to protect the integrity of their food, connect with consumers on a new level, and contribute less waste to the environment — all in one fell swoop.

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Quick-serve restaurants (QSRs), forced to prioritize touchless service and drive-through capabilities, have evolved their packaging to accommodate consumers’ new behaviors and provide a more functional, convenient dining experience without compromising quality.

For instance, QSRs use insulated material to keep food fresh during transportation or add a protective film to drinks to minimize the risk of spills.

To ensure evolved packaging meets (and hopefully exceeds) consumer expectations, QSRs analyze consumer insights. As a result, we have leveraged several consumer tests that replicated drive-throughs so consumers could evaluate packaging during in-context situations. Participants recorded the full spectrum of their drive-through experience — from ordering to package disposal — through detailed digital surveys and video diaries. These findings provided the comprehensive packaging narratives QSRs needed to uphold the integrity of their packaging while evolving it to meet shifting consumer behaviors.

Shifting consumer patterns demanded evolved packaging over a range of industries. From March 2020 to March 2021, online purchasing rose by 49%. The expansion of the e-economy reshaped how companies’ thought about packaging design and even its role within the consumer journey.

Suddenly, the art of attracting consumers wandering through brick-and-mortar stores with eye-catching package design and optimal shelf positioning waned in comparison to presenting a captivating and curated representation of the product online. Ecommerce shifted packaging from the role of the sales pitch to an extension of the brand story.

Relieved from the pressure to sell, packaging could start being more playful, engaging, and personal. In tandem with the trend of social media influencers “unboxing” (the process of opening a package sent online for their followers) and the rise of more sophisticated digital printing capabilities, ecommerce packaging provided brands with the opportunity to propel a more strategic and consumer-focused narrative.

This new opportunity for brands to communicate their identities in a tangible, playful way overlaps with a new wave of consumers who value authenticity and candid communication from the brands they support — and marketers are catching on. Olive Inc. reports 85% of marketers believe consumers want to be communicated with as an individual rather than a demographic.

Through insight testing gauging consumer reactions to brands’ communication strategies, brands can get to know their consumers deeper and understand what they crave in terms of brand communication. Understanding the full spectrum of the consumer narrative is just as critical as the product narrative and can inform memorable and meaningful first impressions through ecommerce packaging design. Qualitative tools, surveys, and video diaries help capture the fullness of companies’ consumers and empower packaging optimizations that resonate on a more personal level.

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The post-pandemic consumer also tends to expect the brands they support to align with their sustainability practices. Consumers forced to pause and come to terms with the long-term effects of their daily habits have emerged from lockdown more aware and intentional. According to the President of the Foodservice Packaging Institute, Natha Dempsey, the pandemic knocked many consumers from the grind of day-to-day routine long enough to take a closer look at their consumption habits.

“With the pandemic bringing everybody home, consumers saw firsthand how all that to-go packaging piled up, creating much more waste. But there wasn’t more; it was just going to a different place,” Dempsey states.

While residential waste increased by 15% during the pandemic, commercial waste created by facilities and offices decreased by 30%. Suddenly, consumers had to take full responsibility for the piles of paperboard and plastic accumulating from their newfound online shopping addictions. Once forced to reconcile with the immediate ramifications of their consumption, people began pushing for more sustainable packaging. Among popular packaging strategies (such as including free samples and personalizing design), packaging sustainability (44%) is the most critical factor encouraging online shoppers to purchase again.  

While consumers might indicate they heavily value sustainability, our experts note that this is true as long as sustainability doesn’t infringe on the products’ functionality. For example, a dairy company might want to swap out their plastic milk container with paperboard. However, if the new bottle begins disintegrating in the fridge after just a few days, consumers won’t celebrate its enhanced sustainability. The key is to increase sustainability while keeping quality intact.

Companies can ensure their products’ upgraded sustainability only adds to consumers’ experiences through strategic product testing. In-context testing models such as our LifeLabs provide opportunities for companies to give their new packaging a test run in real-life situations where consumers can provide candid feedback, like a new juice box package leaking in the car on the way to drop off their preschooler.

Brands are also leveraging trends that cut production costs and increase sustainability, such as the “ships in own container” (SIOC) strategy that eliminates an additional outer box from the packaging.

Another notable trend shaping how brands package their goods is the “as compact as possible” strategy, which reduces transport volumes, carbon footprint, costs, and resources. In business-to-business (B2B) environments, returnable and reusable packaging is standard, but recently companies are expanding these practices to include consumer shipments. Other companies prioritize sustainability by making the recycling process more accessible, including designing parts to be separable, labeled correctly, and clean.

Out of all the changes left in the wake of the pandemic, shifting packaging trends might feel insignificant. However, consumers’ broadened understanding of their impact in the production cycle and strengthened desire for sustainable disposal could revolutionize waste management. As consumers’ priorities and behaviors continue to evolve, we’ll likely see companies pour more intention into packaging narratives across every industry.

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