Packaging Beyond the Tactile: Why Designs Need to Go Beyond the Physical

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By: Grant Wenzlau

The demands of a packaging designer continue to grow as the possibilities of packaging expand. Gone are the days of simple material and color selection—today we live in a world where packaging plays an integral part of brand expression and the customer experience. Physical packaging can extend into a digital realm, containers can tell stories, boxes can augment reality and unlock hidden content.

Packaging today is paving the way for new experiences. Thoughtful design and creative strategy align to produce completely new opportunities where the box, bottle or bag act as platforms for a more engaging customer journey. In this report, we examine packaging beyond the tactile and how today's best designs create richer experiences for deeper connections with brands, products and people.

Aeronaut Brewing Explores a New Way to Experience Music with The Lights Out

How can beer help you listen to new music? This is the question Adam Ritchie and the band The Lights Out asked when they released their latest album, T.R.I.P. Rather than release music over the internet or the old-fashioned way with physical CDs, they decided to do something different: they looked to beer.

Partnering with Aeronaut, a brewery run by MIT scientists, they decided to release an album on a beer. Then (perhaps after a few beers), Aeronaut helped them make it happen. The result? A completely unique customer journey that combines packaging, digital, and social media.

When you buy one of Aeronaut's beers, you’ll see a hashtag on the can. When tweeted, it triggers an automated response which releases the album to you through a website. The beer steers your journey, the album is your soundtrack. For the first several months, the album could only be found through the beer.

When asked why they wanted to do this, Ritchie replied, “We’re reintroducing the physical, tactile aspect of music discovery.” He added, “It’s not fun anymore. We remember a time when you would go to a music store when a new album was released. And packaging has turned a lot of people onto bands they would otherwise not listen to.” By releasing their album this way, they’ve brought back a lost part of music discovery to listeners.

It was a relatively small release (they made 250 gallons of beer/music in their first run), but the engagement on social media was significantly higher compared to any engagement they'd seen previously. All of their fans took to social media to unlock and discuss the album. Then, followers saw the tweets and could explore further. A large cross-pollination between their Twitter followers and craft beer fans also presented itself.

The takeaway:

T.R.I.P. and Aeronaut introduced something tactile in a completely unexpected way. Ultimately, it created a novel experience that increased engagement, reached a new audience and generated buzz. By combining physical elements with the digital and social realms, consumers found a new way to drink, a new way to discover music.

A Happy Meal Turned Virtual Reality

Last year, McDonald's Sweden launched a promotion that turned the iconic Happy Meal into a virtual reality headset. It was a limited edition run: only 3,500 sets were made.

The promotion was "tied to the Swedish ‘Sportlov’ recreational holiday, during which many families go skiing. With this in mind, McDonald's created a ski-themed VR game, ‘Slope Stars,’ for use with the goggles."

The takeaway:

This simple rethink of the packaging’s purpose gives consumers a new way to engage with a product and the brand. Beyond an expanded experience of what Happy Meal packaging used to be, converting the box into a headset also extends the life of the material. Rather than throwing it in the trash right away, customers continue to engage with the item.

Thoughtfully approaching design means considering alternate uses for the package and rewriting the customer journey to be a more meandering path, a longer journey. Doing so creates more touch-points to connect with the brand and to tell stories that resonate.

Nutri-Grain Embraces Digital Devices

Nutri-Grain wanted to connect with teens to encourage healthy eating and a healthy lifestyle, so they turned to Geometry Global for help with designing new cereal packaging.

“Nutri-Grain wanted to connect to teens who are glued to the couch by compelling digital content. The aim was to inspire them to get outside and be more active by using the very devices they find hard to put down.”

They pushed Google Cardboard's concept to the limit by designing a cereal pack that transformed into a virtual reality headset. The design had to be so intuitive that an 8-year-old could do it. When properly folded and combined with the Nutri-Grain smartphone app, teens would find an immersive real-world experience from the point of view of extreme professional athletes.

The design is stylish and futuristic. It was meant to catch the eye by being far more subdued than the frantic coloring of the rest of the cereal aisle.

“Nutri-Grain sold out of packs in 5 weeks and inspired over 35,000 teens to use the newfound energy they got from their breakfast into being active outside.”

The takeaway:

By thinking about the deeper purpose of your product, the packaging can be designed to follow your customer out into the world after they've consumed your product. What is compelling about the Nutri-Grain example is the cohesive story they weaved through the product and packaging experience. They wanted to convey that their cereal gives you energy. Then, they created a tool for play that enabled kids to direct this newfound energy to explore and experience something novel.

Nestlé Re-Examines the Role of Physical vs. Digital

As we previously reviewed Nestlé's Digital Year in Review, their head of digital and social Pete Blackshaw has some insights on digital experiences. The rise in digital communication and applications has only heightened the importance of the core pillars of packaging.

As Danielle Sauve writes:

"Packaging is the mother of all content for consumer products. Think about what packaging gives to consumers: assurance that the product is safe (best before dates), accurate information about what’s in the product (ingredients and nutrition facts), and an expectation of what kind of experience they are about to have (imagery, color, texture). And packaging gives back to marketing: the effort that goes into composing and quality-checking packaging can be re-used in the form of content assets, symbols, ingredients, romance copy and even pack shots. These can be leveraged in consumer marketing programs as well as online retail channels in a consistent brand experience."

But today, packaging must transcend those simply functional elements. Just like any app on your phone, it must be both visually pleasing and intuitive to use—form and function. It must provide structural support but also engagement.

Sauve goes on to say, "People tend to interact with and consume packaged goods during the prime of their lives, and so I think we can expect packaging to take a cue from digital and provide more entertainment in the package experience."

The takeaway:

In the midst of such fast-paced, over-saturated lives, packaging must deliver on its core promise. But the best designers go beyond basic requirements and create an experience that provides entertainment and engagement. This is the potentiality of packaging. In the past bright colors were used as differentiators. Today that is the norm and you need something else to stand out off the shelf. Now, the way to do so is by developing digital narratives and virtual experiences that connect to the physical packaging.

Tostitos that will Drive You Home

Another example of expanding the experience of packaging beyond the tactile is Tostitos Super Bowl bag. In an effort to make roads safer after the big game, they partnered with Goodby Silverstein & Partners to create a bag of chips that will not only remind you that you’ve been drinking but use near-field communication (NFC) technology to call an Uber for you—all with a $10 discount.

Roger Baran, a Goodby Silverstein & Partners creative director, commented, "We're proud to introduce to the world the first bag of chips that gets you home safe. For a football fan, there is a lot of emotion involved with a game. It's easy to drink more than you planned. And a lot of times all you need to stop short of driving after drinking is a friend who calls you off. On Sunday of the big game, we want Tostitos to be that friend."

The Takeaway:

Tostitos packaging provides a service. By understanding the context in which this product is consumed, they built an experience that adds to the consumer's life. The chips perfectly marry digital experiences, cutting edge technology and physical packaging elements. Altogether it creates something completely unexpected but fun, engaging, and useful.

This move from digital to physical has just been brought into stark reality with Amazon acquiring Whole Foods. Online behemoths continue to consolidate the supply and delivery chain, and shopping continues to drive online. A recent Pew Research study revealed 8 in 10 Americans shop online (up from 22% back in 2000) and 15% of Americans shop online on a weekly basis. As consumer behavior trends push towards the worldwide web, the design and product worlds feel those reverberations.

This goes beyond same-day delivery, free returns or subscription services, though, which are rapidly becoming the norm. All of it adds up to a new challenge for designers: packaging that is merely packaging is no longer enough. Packaging designers must envision of the life of a pack in the context of the customer, as well as plan for digital applications and extensions to physical solutions. Then, they must explore questions they've never had to ask before:

  • How can we use technology and create a richer experience, stronger connections and deeper stories?
  • How can we extend the life of the materials and reimagine them in a digital world?
  • After the packaging has served its purpose as a vessel, how can we transform it to deliver a richer entertainment experience?

The lines will only continue to blur between pixels and print, opening up exciting opportunities. With a new responsibility to both the product experience and the digital experience, designers can create packaging that acts as a primary mode of brand expression, customer engagement and as a vehicle for delivering stories and social content. Now it’s time to think about how to turn that cardboard into a conversation starter.


Grant Wenzlau
Grant Wenzlau is a writer and brand strategist in Los Angeles. He co-founded OSSO Design and Tinker Watches. He is the former editor of HOW Magazine and The Dieline. He has consulted for YouTube, The White House, and many startups. When he is not doing these super fun and exciting things he is most likely driving in his Jeep.