Retail packaging revolution

Retail packaging revolution

Andy Johnson discusses how multi-channel retailing is affecting packaging design and branding…


There’s a healthy debate raging on the future of retail packaging in today’s multi-channel world. With the ever-growing penetration of all things online, we all know that shopping can happen anywhere now – not just in store or in front of a computer – but wherever the shopper happens to be and at whatever time they choose, thanks to computers, smartphone and tablets.

So does this mean that the role of packaging is changing too? As more shopping takes place in the online world, will all packaging default to a white box with the most basic labels? Is packaging in danger of becoming something that is merely functional – that simply protects the product on its journey from warehouse to home? Or are we moving toward a packaging renaissance where the physical pack presents a gateway to the world of digital and virtual reality?

For us, it is very definitely the latter. As we outlined in our recent webinar, The Retail Packaging Revolution: are you ready?, packaging still needs to contribute in all the ways it ever did to getting a brand noticed, chosen and valued, but it is doing so in new and exciting ways. The rapidly accelerating pace of technology in our industry is keeping pace with the speed at which it is becoming seamlessly incorporated into people’s everyday lives. In short, the over-riding need to communicate with people at the moment of truth – via the pack, regardless of whether that pack is on a shelf, in a bar or online – is opening up exciting new creative possibilities.

Innovative effects such as multi-sensory coatings, UV inks, conductive inks and thermochromics, are increasingly being used in mainstream packaging, helping brands stand out from the crowd. Many brands are using technology to enhance brand messages and bring an additional level of involvement with the pack.

A great example of technology making an impact on-pack comes from Ballantine’s Finest whisky. SBS agency Parker Williams worked with Ballantine’s, and its technology partner Kandoo, to use electroluminescent technology to create visibility for the brand behind the bar in a dark nightclub, while keeping in the innovative and engaging edge that the young male audience has come to expect from the brand.

Ballantine’s packaging activation uses the link with music that has already been established in local market activation programmes. The new display bottle uses the movement of light on pack in a sequence of effects that highlights the Ballantines ‘B’. Light pulses through the bottles like sound waves echoing the beat of music.


Different settings reflect a range of music beats and electroluminescent technology can make it seem as though the bottles ‘talk’ to each other. When grouped in a large bar display, bottles can be programmed for sequences to run in unison or for the light effect to radiate out from a central point across the bank of bottles.

These technologies are really working hard at the ‘chosen and valued’ stages of the process.

But what about ensuring brands are picked when online shopping has reduced that carefully chosen packaging design to an on-screen square smaller than a postage stamp? Many packs are not designed to be considered in this way – but some brands are understanding that online shopping is now just another environment in which a pack must make impact.

Many packs are not designed to be considered in this way – but some brands are understanding that online shopping is now just another environment in which a pack must make impact. Take Ocado for example – their own brand offer was specifically and purely designed to be sold online. The traditional packaging considerations for a food pack sold in-store, such as photography were discounted, in favour of bold colour swooshes which stem from the Ocado logo and in doing so reinforce the core architecture of the brand.

Does this mean that brands should consider an on- and off-line version of their packaging reflecting the differing needs of each channel? This would, in all probability, be impractical on many levels – logistically, it presents challenges, and such a solution may certainly have branding implications further down the brand lifecycle management process than simply the act of purchase. Pack designers are still getting to grips with the additional imperatives brought by online, and working towards harnessing all the technologies now at our disposal to deliver effective pack solutions. What’s clear is the fact that we’re embarking on a packaging revolution. The future of the pack is evolving at a faster pace than ever before, driven by the need to move beyond the physical box and engage with our senses and interact with our smartphones.

Online packaging innovation doesn’t have to be all about making packs translate to the online shopping space. It can also be about bringing the digital world directly onto the pack, via augmented reality (AR).

Augmented reality blends the digital and the physical, helping people view detailed information traditionally carried on pack in the virtual world, triggered by the pack and displayed on their mobile devices.

In essence, it is the ability of a device to combine a view of the ‘real world’ with digital information. Examples can range from finding your nearest café with a floating arrow and summary, making a poster come to life with video and 3D, to placing a virtual object in your home before you decide to purchase it.

With packaging, the design on-pack becomes a watermark, which activates additional information when viewed through a smartphone. This could be the ability to see inside a pack, or to activate a recipe video – or anything else you care to think of. The creative potential of the technology has not even nearly been fully explored yet.

Some may think AR has major implications on packaging and design, however the implications are not as extreme as one might think – 70-75% of existing packaging is suitable for current AR app recognition, while other packs may just need small adjustments.

Unlike most technological developments, AR doesn’t seek to take away from the traditional and replace with the virtual. It very much relies on the tactile world around us to link the real and digital together and, indeed, it requires the continued development of non-digital design.

Sun Branding Solutions is a global brand lifecycle management agency delivering services across the entire packaging launch process for your brands. For further information please visit

Stephanie Cornwall
Stephanie Cornwall