To many in the marketing and design businesses, "interactive packaging" denotes images of soon-to-be-realized nanotechnologies: futuristic barcodes; new substrates; even more imaginative take-offs on the "Try Me" concepts of today; and better clamshells that make entire products or key product attributes clearly visible to consumers.
While these ideas have great merit, some of them are unattainable at present. Yet, marketers know that all of their initiatives—including packaging—must engage consumers. So how can we get packaging to "speak" to consumers today?
Getting on message
The very idea of engagement or formation of a relationship between consumer and brand implies an emotional connection. Packaging helps deliver a brand with emotion when structure, color, imagery, and copy come together effectively. Aspects of brands that leverage the highly-charged emotions surrounding enjoyment, for example, resonate with the consumer.
Packaging can making a consumer pause—and maybe smile—due to an unexpected element, a sense of whimsy, fun or fantasy, a promise of enjoyment, an engaging story, a sense of nostalgia, a promise of luxury, indulgence, or a bit of self-pampering. All of these can elicit profound emotions. Well-designed packaging cues can bring these emotions to the fore. In addition, used with lifestyle imagery, these cues can deliver a story and become powerful motivators.
Beyond graphics, imagery, and emotive and lifestyle cues, packaging must still deliver a specific hierarchy of information. But this needn't be a dry exercise. Consumers are human beings, and as such, they respond to stories. When a brand has a human face, sharing stories connects consumers to it on an emotional level. This is far more compelling than dry features or benefits.
I've gone on record in the past stating: "Products come alive in packaging that speaks to the consumer. As one of the most important consumer touch points, packaging has the power to move an audience. " Packaging will always be the only marketing tool that delivers products into consumers' hands. Experts know that packaging must be a synergistic part of the overall brand expression continuum. Packaging isn't a one-off marketing initiative that lives in a vacuum.
New communication platforms
The time has come to utilize packaging to engage consumers in an even deeper manner. Since today's consumers are inundated with product choices, advertising, multi-media messaging, direct mail and special offers —most of which, they tune out—maybe there's another way to engage them. Knowing that consumers prefer to use new communications like the Internet and their cell phones should clue us in to tying our packaging into these new platforms.
Maybe besides posting the brand's web site on the package somewhere, we could integrate more ingenious devices onto packaging to invite consumers to either "join the conversation" about our products on a new blog. Or invite them to register online to become part of a consumer consultant panel (with a reward, of course). Or even ask them to test a new product or new flavor to solicit their feedback.
When it comes to kids, how about giving them a couple of fun reasons to come to a web site loaded with games and adventure? Suggest they bring their friends into the games via IM or Twitter?
Why can't special offers or invitations be used to form an exclusive "club" via social media among brand devotees? Why can't they be geared to the Internet and to mobile phones? If these are the communications platforms consumers are using the most, why shouldn't brand packaging tie neatly into those vehicles?
Simply printing a website onto the back or side panel of packaging isn't sufficient. A device that is part of package design yet clearly visible upon casual observation will create curiosity and spark interest. Why not invite consumers to check in via their cell phones on the spot to avail themselves of some special information? An exclusive promotion? A special invitation?
Does this sound far-fetched? Take a look at what Nickelodeon has done for various kids' demographics. For adults, take a look at the Dell or Apple communities. And all of this leads me to think there is a great opportunity to do much more. The fact is that packaging has still been under-utilized as a driver for consumer connectivity. Certainly great package design has helped forge relationships between consumers and brands one-on-one. But more thinking outside the box is necessary. What else can be done to use packaging as a driver of conversation between brand and consumer?
Creating a link
Forging relationships, alliances, and exchanging ideas are all happening at warp speed thanks to new communications platforms and social media. Packaging needs to work more closely with them. If used optimally, this is one of the ways brands and branded products will continue to have relevance for consumers.
New applications of social media are unfolding. What other kinds of tools are emerging or have yet to appear? The opportunities might be only limited by our imaginations or our ability to create the tools we will need to interact with consumers.
By providing additional impetus for interaction, packaging can create a more vital link between brand and consumer. Great ideas can be solicited as customers interface more closely with companies. The advantage comes from the ability to speak directly with the customer one-to-one. Consumers can also be encouraged to interface with each other and, out of that, a sense of "belonging" will emerge. Better yet, consumers will feel empowered and become evangelists and spread the love (yes love, the most powerful of human emotions) for the brand far and wide.
And that is the power of leveraging today's connectivity, isn't it? Time to think of packaging in relation to the new communications platforms consumers have already embraced. If we do that, the consumers will be engaged at a deeper, more meaningful level. Communities will be built around brands. That is the ultimate goal for all of us, isn't it?
Ted Mininni is president of Design Force Inc., leading brand design consultancy to consumer product companies with Enjoyment Brands™. Design Force Inc. can be reached at 856-810-2277, or online at www.designforceinc.com.