Global cultural differences can influence, or even dictate, design changes in packaging, reflecting local consumer demands
Ever considered buying a luxuriously wrapped strawberry as a gift? Or at the opposite end of the spectrum, a laser-labelled avocado designed to banish packaging? As innovative packaging design evolves, and goals around sustainability, health and convenience need to meet diverse cultural expectations, there’s an explosion of innovation worldwide, from Asia to the United States and Europe.
“Packaging nowadays generally carries heavy symbolic weight,” says Caspar Lam, assistant professor at The New School’s Parsons School of Design in New York.
Colours, typeface, images and material are distinct markers that create an emotional connection, but the game is changing with consumers expecting “more from their packaging and brand”, says Constantijn Huynen, managing director at Cartils branding and innovative packaging design agency.
Ecommerce kickstarted trend for innovative packaging design
With packaging no longer just about point of sale, the advent of letterbox packaging for items including coffee, shaving products, flowers and even flat wine bottles brings added consumer convenience as well as business insight through subscriptions.
For Melyssa Koh, Asia managing director for agency Labbrand, the rise of ecommerce in the region means new opportunities in innovative packaging design, rather than a brand’s appearance on a physical shelf space.
“Unboxing becomes part of the experience,” explains Ms Koh, pointing out that brands like Singapore-based jewellery business The Mindful Company incorporate inspirational quotation cards, and layers of wrapping to build excitement and connection.
New food and drink packaging is changing consumption behaviour
Using layers to convey a sense of journey is equally important in Japan, where gifting is culturally highly meaningful.
“Packaging causes us to stop and think about our own assumptions when it has some unexpected utilitarian function,” says Professor Lam.
In Japan, rectangular watermelons originally grown to fit in a compact refrigerator have become a luxury item where the fruit itself becomes a package, while certain prize fruits such as rare strawberries and grapes are expertly wrapped in gift-like layers to prevent damage.
Meanwhile, in the beer market, innovative packaging design is being used to create new consumption moments. “In Mexico, an alcoholic drink is not normally part of a working lunch,” explains Mr Huynen. “Transnational brewing company AB InBev introduced a 25cl beer, which is more acceptable, and massively affects packaging. Innovation is often driven by the search for new sales opportunities.”
Similarly, Swedish brand Pangpang collaborated with creative agency Snask on a new “shower beer”, in an 18cl bottle designed to be drunk in the shower without getting warm. While brands are cultivating new ways of consumption through packaging use, it’s important to consider challenges based on disposable income.
Secret to successful packaging design is understanding consumers
“There are dramatic differences as you move around the world and the biggest is between emerging and developed markets, which do cross cultural divides,” points out Martin Bunce, principal consultant at Tin Horse design agency.
In the haircare sector, a price-driven consumer might buy a sachet, which could be seen as a magazine giveaway in a more developed region.
“It’s about understanding a customer might be looking for two to three doses from what another customer would think of as a single dose,” adds Mr Bunce.
“So how can we make that sachet reclosable so it can be used again and not waste product? We have to understand it through other people’s eyes, rather than carrying assumptions from our own cultural expectations.”
We have to understand it through other people’s eyes, rather than carrying assumptions from our own cultural expectations
Saswata Das, founder of India-based Almond Brand Strategy & Design, agrees. “India is a value-conscious market where a large part of the rural audience gets daily wages and can only afford to buy smaller chunks of products,” he says. “No wonder India is where the sachet revolution started and is still a big hit.”
Mr Das adds that colour coding is another key design strategy as, with the exception of the urban population: “India as a country sees more and reads less.”
Changes to food packaging helping promote health
But it’s not only by looking to emerging markets that smaller sizes are challenging assumptions about packaging. Inspired by the laundry detergent and dishwasher market, San Francisco-based Pacific Shaving Company developed its new single-use shaving cream pods, which are water soluble and zero waste.
Meanwhile, cultural expectations around food and drink portion-sizing are being confronted amid a drive for greater responsibility concerning health, while continuing to target business growth.
“Packaging can be a good solution for those categories under pressure because of new guidelines around obesity,” says Pierre Chandon, professor of marketing at INSEAD business school and director of the INSEAD-Sorbonne University Behavioural Lab. “Customers choose based on what is available and it is all relative, which creates opportunities around perceived size and value.”
In Canada, Nestlé has introduced a smaller 45g Smarties pack, divided into three 15g sections, rather than the old 50g pack.
“Nestlé understood portion control is a win-win area, while research shows smaller portions are actually more satisfying for a customer,” adds Professor Chandon.
Beautiful beauty packaging differs from country to country
Beauty is another area where culture plays a huge part in packaging. While in the America and Europe, the notion of efficacy is often portrayed in a clinical way, the opposite can be true in Asia, with Korean brands such as Oh K!, Tony Moly and La Biotte using fun, characterful packaging, with the knock-on effect of being enormously shareable on social media.
“These brands are not just aimed at younger consumers, they reflect what is seen as beautiful in Korea, Japan, China and Taiwan, which is about revealing the youthful and child-like part of you,” says Labbrand’s Ms Koh.
Meanwhile, technology developed at the Korean Packaging Centre is disrupting traditional information-sharing on packaging, creating opportunities for inclusive design, a concept which helps enable as many consumers of all abilities as reasonably possible to use products without difficulty.
The Korean Packaging Centre’s four-year project spearheaded the idea of talking packaging, which gives information messages through a smart phone. That innovative packaging design, created by Cambridge Consultants, is now being used on medicines and uses touch-sensitive paper to trigger audio messages to help patients overcome any fears of starting a new treatment.
Among all the cultural considerations, the overriding theme of sustainability and waste is yet to be fully tackled, says Mr Bunce at Tin Horse. “We have paid for a one-way trip in terms of packaging and somehow we need to start paying for the return journey,” he warns.