Your Packaging is your Experience, Brought out of the Store

By: Joe Parrish, partner and chief creative officer, The Variable

How many times have you walked into an amazing store, or a sporting event or an amusement park, bought something, and been totally let down once you get home?

I feel like it happens to me all the time. The in-home unboxing never lives up to the experience I just enjoyed. I think that's a real dilemma with packaging design nowadays. Modern brands are being built more and more through experience, not through advertising or promotion. Modern brands are expected to delight consumers with unexpectedly amazing encounters.

The problem with most brand managers is that they understand this as it relates to a retail experience or website user interface, but they overlook the role packaging can play in extending (or reversing) the great experience a customer has with a brand.

I'll use the most obvious example as my first example.

The Apple Store is awesome. It is a great experience that allows consumers to really get a sense for the Apple Brand. I'll never forget the first time I walked into an Apple Store to buy an iPhone. The in-store experience was amazing—but the experience when I got home, was possibly even more amazing. The iPhone at the time was still magical. It was an amazing (impossible) piece of technology that seemed to have come from another universe. When I got home and opened my iPhone, the amazing experience only continued. You want to know what satisfaction feels like?

Hold the top of an iPhone box and wait the few seconds for the bottom of box to ever-so-slowly, slide out. Revealing on a beautiful piece of incredible technology. Apple understands that the packaging of the product should be born of the experience.

We recently helped a local grocery store re-invent its brand and its in-store experiences. Aside from a brand overhaul, the grocer created several stores-within-a-store, from a beer growler store to a coffee shop to an on-demand fruit and veggie prep station.

One thing that became evident to us was that, for the brand experience to feel cohesive, the packaging for these different stores needed to carry the experiences into consumers’ homes. For the beer growler store, we named it The Beer Den, created a mythical half bear, half deer character and brought the personality to life through packaging. We created a series of growlers that brought the Beer Den's quirky personality from the store to a consumer’s fridge. And in the craft aisle, where most grocers have a mix-n-match pack, we created the Cub Pack and encouraged people to find “six species of craft beers born at The Beer Den" because: "It's always mating season in Beer Country."

The shop was named Boxcar Coffee & Chocolate and tied in a railway theme. The in-store experience had an actual boxcar dropped into the middle of a grocery for customers to stop and be transported to another place. We extended experience outside of the store by concentrating on the packaging. We designed coffee bags for beans, we made the cups memorable, we created The Traveler for large to go orders—we even thought through napkins to make sure no stone was left unturned.

The end result of this attention to detail is that when customers bring products home from the store, they are left with a delightful assortment of quirky and memorable packaging. And it exactly mirrors the experience they've worked so hard to create in store.

Another example that comes from our own experience presented itself when we had the idea to create our own energy drink. I know what you’re thinking: Why would an ad agency create an energy drink? Well, the short story is that we wanted to scratch our own itch. All energy drinks were born of testosterone and rage with a side of motorcycle extremeness. We wanted to create the energy for the rest of us. We, as creatives, still needed a pick-me-up, but we didn’t want to be seen drinking electric yellow caffeine. We thought there was an opportunity for an energy drink that spoke to a different lifestyle, and to a different energy drink consumer. We created a formulation that was less aggressive, but just as effective (by upping the electrolytes and lowering the caffeine). We knew the drink had to communicate, at a glance, that it was something different. So how did we do that?

First, we chose the name Sunshine. In a world of Amps and Voltages and Monsters, Sunshine felt just right. It was that feeling you had when you are exposed to Sunshine; you feel better, not extreme-er.

We then created a design language that put itself more in the craft category than the homogenous category. The brand instantly felt like a lifestyle. And with the 4-pack, we created a packaging system that allowed for consumers to take in all of the points of difference of Sunshine; from the can itself, to our belief in spreading the Sunshine, to our non-traditional sensibility.

The result has been overwhelming. We all know how limited the attention span has become at shelf for consumers, but Sunshine’s packaging was able to draw like-minded people instantly away from the extreme side of energy to the Sunshine side of energy. What started as an experiment has turned into a successful business.

For a brand built on experience, it's easy to put all of your efforts into the product or the service. But remember, the last brand touchpoint is the one people remember the most. Should it be unremarkable or unforgettable? I vote for the latter. Go the extra mile. Invest in your presentation; curate your out-of-store experience with the same gusto and attention to detail that you do your in-store experience. Make your packaging matter.


Joe Parrish
Partner and chief creative officer, The Variable

Great ideas rule the world, and with Joe’s creative mind at the helm, ideas are what rule The Variable. Joe has worked in the advertising biz for 20+ years on global brands like Audi, Nationwide and Sony developing award-winning campaigns recognized by the likes of The Dieline, Communication Arts, The Addys, The One Show and Ad Age. When not making advertising, he keeps on making other things—like the fast-growing Sunshine Beverages and a social good startup brand called Careolina. Nothing drives his creativity more than his family. They are an endless spring of inspiration.