Packaging Design – The Next Decade

Can you hear that beating in the distance,
you should listen, because it’s the future calling…

A quick search of the Web, will reveal a plethora of predictions and trend analysis that can be applied to many areas of design. So, when I was asked to write my point of view as to where package design is going in the next decade, I wanted to avoid repeating what has already be said, over and over again. Of course some of the trends that are around us cannot be ignored, and need to be included here. But in general, I would like to try to give my personal point of view of how I see the future, based not on a wet finger held up to the wind, but on my own experience of the past 40 something years in the profession and the active part I still play today.

Context:

First, I thought it would be interesting to go back to the question, ‘Why do we need packaging at all’, and to answer that, we need to travel a little bit back in time. Apart from all the obvious reasons concerning, product delivery; storage, shelf life and protection etc…, packaging products in small portable units came about, because it allowed the consumer to buy neat little portions of product, that were easy to carry home, use and store. But, these neat little portable units offered more than just practical advantages to consumers, they also offered to manufacturers, a way to communicate directly to their consumers, both in the store and in use, and in so doing opened the way for modern marketing to develop. So, here’s a first trend prediction from the past: Packaging will be continued to be exploited, in order to communicate directly to consumers! Yes, I know, that sounds obvious, and it is. But of course, it’s a little more complicated than that to communicate directly with consumers, because today, consumers are themselves are so much more complicated!

Mega trends:

As I said, there are many trend predictions posted throughout the media, that offer ‘mega’ trends which tell us that consumers are, on the one hand, looking for value, but on the other hand, wanting indulgence, that there are consumers who live with uncertainty and mistrust, but who balance this out by searching for authenticity and ethical choices. They tell us that, some of us need to be connected to a tribe or need to cocoon ourselves away, whilst there are others, called early adopters, who want to break out and explore. They tell us that, our modern lifestyle leaves us wanting convenience and fast track solutions, but that our guilt, leads us to seek health and wellness and me-time (or family time). You’ve read the books and articles, you’ve seen the movie, I don’t think I need to go there in too much depth, but more to the point, we do need to ask, what does all-this mean for packaging and the future?

The influence of society:

Well, it has to be said, that packaging is a media just like all the others, and as with most media, it will always reflect society, I think that’s a pretty safe to say, so there’s my second prediction! Packaging will continue to reflect the society we live in. But often, reflecting society means a sort of role reversal, that is to say, if we are in wartime, films become sentimental, if we are in a time of uncertainty they become bold and certain. A good example of this role reversal is the time of grey austerity, after the Second World War in the UK. The generation that followed exploded with colour and broke all the rules, giving birth to the Hippies, Mods and the Carnaby Street fashion of the sixties. We can now see a repeat of the same phenomena, in Eastern Europe following the fall of communism, where consumers in these regions prefer their packaging to be generally more colourful today, because of the austerity of the past and the need to reflect on the change that their society has undergone.

This then pre-supposes that; if we look for the changes in our society, which may occur in the next ten years, we should also be able to ascertain the future trends in packaging design?

The ‘mega’ trends, mentioned above, certainly will continue to apply (far be it for me to contradict all the clever minds that thought them up), but I do believe, they will only apply in differing degrees, in different regions of the world. Let’s just take a moment to see the big social changes we are experiencing and ‘humbly’, try to apply them to possible changes in package design trends. This will definitely not be an accurate science, but then, predicting never is. To put that in context: I still have the encyclopaedias I had as a boy in the 50’s, where it shows that by now we should be living in space age cities, travelling in cars that use some form non-specific pure energy and go from place to place in glass tubes high in the sky – so much for predictions!

However, it is clear that the world today is going through a re-balancing, it’s a time for generation change, the rulers and structures that shaped the post war world have begun to get old, and their dream societies (good or bad), have begun to fall apart. This has clearly been aided by the Internet, which has allowed most of the world to access, or at least, be informed about, what’s going on and what, in some cases, they are missing out on. In consequence, in the places where they have been missing out, there is a demand to be part of the action, and the current ‘haves’, are now finding that they have to share more with the ‘have-nots’. This shift is also bringing a huge demand on resources, as more and more the ‘have-nots’, begin to own what the ‘haves’, are used to having. It’s clear this trend is not going to go away and the consequences of all this re-balancing, is resulting in uncertainty and friction, on the one hand, and forward looking positivity and ambition on the other. Leaving one part of the world looking for re-assurance, and the other on a voyage of discovery.

In my career, in Western Europe, I have seen small shops replaced by corner supermarkets, corner supermarkets replaced by out of town complexes and now corner supermarkets coming back to fill the local gap (these are now called Hard Discounters). I’ve seen Theodore Levitt’s globalisation theory rise and then become diluted, as consumers strive for individuality, reacting against the rise of global retail sameness. Behind all this, I’ve also seen both the supermarkets and the major brands continue to expand their influence.

So, how will such changes in society affect packaging in the coming years? Here are some of my thoughts:

Localisation:

Petrol and oil are clearly becoming a significant expenditure in most Western households, therefore we may see consumers looking to save on their shopping journeys, thus, creating a trend towards local shopping. If this happens, it will allow for more diversity in the shopping experience (coupled with the desire to have more ethical and authentic products), which will, in turn, allow more space for niche products. In packaging terms, this translates to shorter print runs, the expansion of digital printing, greater colour flexibility and some room for more eclectic, and more consumer focussed designs.

Simplification:

We are all becoming aware of the great changes happening to our environment, catastrophic events and worries about pollution are driving us to seek sustainable and, let’s face it, more sensible solutions to the way we package and ship our products. There are now many initiatives, like the Courtauld Commitment in the UK*, which seeks to downsize, reduce, light-weight and re-cycle packaging, as well as looking to reduce shipping and with it, Co2 emissions. This trend of ‘minimalisation’ in packaging, will certainly continue over the coming years because, it not only is a responsible act, but in most cases it makes good commercial sense too.

Internet Shopping:

Shopping on the Internet continues to grow and, as we become more and more constrained and bored by the sameness of our shops and experience the pressures of petrol bills on our household economy, on-line shopping will offer an attractive and easy way out. For packaging (in its broadest sense), the Internet releases us from the constrains of the box or bottle – sizes become almost irrelevant, when there is no shelf, and the product experience becomes broader. So, my belief is that the Internet will drive design consultancies to re-look at their current model, and look for new ways to help clients market both on-line, in-store and on shelf.

Power to the people:

In truth, though we professionals like to think we are in charge of our brands, brands have always really only been owned by people, because the power of a brand exists only in the mind of its consumer. In the coming years this will, I believe become even more true. Brands that do not listen to their consumers, that do not pay attention to consumer’s needs and aspirations, will inevitably fall by the wayside. Marketing to a generation that is well educated and better informed than ever before demands honesty, transparency and accountability. Anything less will be exposed and derided instantly and on a global scale.

Ethical Responsibility:

There’s no-doubt, the Internet has allowed us to check up on brands, to hear dissenting voices and gain information that manufacturers didn’t want us to know. This ability to expose brands without their make-up on, has already made many brands look towards ethical sourcing, I would suggest, that this trend will continue, indeed, in many cases, here too a commercial advantage can be gained, either by promoting products as actually being ethically based, or by helping to improve the production value chain and thereby deliver a superior product. Packaging will certainly have its part to play here, offering a more transparent and open approach to promoting all this good work, and delivering satisfaction and assurance to ethically minded consumers, via design.

Brand De-Sensitisation:

The proliferation of supermarkets and hard discounters and with them, their private label strategies and cross border product importation (especially in areas like Europe), is creating a different mindset for consumers, a mindset where it is OK to try something new, where change is no longer to be feared, but rather relished. Add to this, the ability to buy products from around the world on the Internet, and we realise that consumers are no longer tied to traditional market and brand choices. In my view, this de-sensitisation will mean that ‘brand’ packaging will have to be more ‘iconic’ and a little less descriptive – a brand will have to be much more than a product logo, or even a specific product, becoming instead, a lifestyle choice that may include many and differing product lines, touching consumers in many and diverse ways.

East is East and West is West:

As I mentioned above, all of these trends have to be looked at in terms of the social changes and the re-balancing going on in the global economy today, whilst many of these trends may well come to pass in the old economies, in the new economies things can be very different, their supermarkets and shopping malls are growing, brands are offering the promise of a lifestyle only dreamed of before, there is increasing employment, optimism and growth. Just as Europe dreamed of all those American brands in the post war period, up to now, there has been a hunger in the emerging economies for all things Western – but for this generation, I feel things will quickly change. Already in Eastern Europe consumers have a preference for their own, local brands, and all around the world people now have access to on-line information that will speed up the way cultures adopt and drop new trends.

Finally, there are the Children, the 8 year olds (and under), of today, who are already Internet savvy, they experience thousands of brands on a daily basis, they communicate globally and pick-up and drop a new fad in less than a month. For them, the world is truly global, transparent and instant, and they are not ready or willing to accept the ways of the past. Theirs is the real future, and how they react, will change the face of branding and packaging radically over the next decade.

The theme of this article has been about looking at the future from a personal point of view and comparing it with past experiences, it is certainly not to say Plus ça change (plus c’est la même chose**)”, in fact, in the world of brands, this old French phrase has never been more inappropriate!

The drums of the future are beating loudly, because they are not so far away as we might think – Exciting times, I believe!

Rowland Heming©

March 2011

*A responsibility deal aimed at improving resource efficiency and reducing the carbon and wider environmental impact of the grocery retail sector – http://www.wrap.org.uk/retail_supply_chain/voluntary_agreements/courtauld_commitment/index.html

**The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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