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If there’s anything 2020 has taught us, it’s that the world of consumer goods can shift on its axis in an instant. The increased acceleration to online shopping, and further expansion to demographics previously wedded to the physical experience are well documented. So is the new reticence to dwell for any longer than necessary in stores. Both are forcing brands to review their packaging for simplicity and clarity of messaging. Quick, easy, product selection is paramount; on- and offline.

However, there are other considerations not even on shoppers’ – or brand marketers’ – radar prior to the pandemic, but which have suddenly become important.

 

Keeping it clean

Remember when we were told we were “too clean” for our own good, that we were missing out on the kind of steady exposure to germs and bugs that helps us fight off nastier ones when needed? Safe to say that 2020 has ended that line of thinking for a good while to come.

While we can argue over the scientific basis, today more than two-in-three consumers think about who touched a product before them, with many opting to clean or leave items overnight before handling. The implications for brands are multiple; creating formats that minimise required contact to unwrap, using antibacterial materials in the outer and effectively communicating such benefits on-pack. There’s a need to rethink and innovate, be it a complete rework or smaller tweaks to reassure nervous consumers.

 

Immune health

Another pandemic-prompted purchase consideration is health and wellbeing. The focus on the nutritional and natural benefits of food has been increasingly important for quite some time, but Covid-19 has given it a sense of urgency, especially around any immune or health-boosting claims. Expect design changes or stickering from food and beverage brands around this area.

 

Sustainability and carbon footprint

Before Covid, this was the hot topic, with brands expected to focus on improving sustainability. This year, it has felt like the issue has dropped down the agenda. To some extent that’s true; plastic is forgiven in some areas so long as it’s there to address hygiene. But the overarching concern about care for the planet remains, and consumers are more aware than ever of the impact of microplastics in the oceans and soil – not to mention a growing concern about them finding their way into the food chain.

It would be a big mistake for any brand to take their foot off the gas in moving away from single-use plastic in particular. Recycling is one of the easy ways in which consumers can make a personal difference, and more and more are doing so. The awareness that it creates has a knock-on impact to their brand selection.

But environmental concerns go beyond plastics and the real juggernaut is carbon footprint.

Putting aside pockets of climate change denial, there is now broad acceptance around the scale of change needed to halt (or at least slow) climate change. Consumers want corporations and governments to act. The recent unprecedented wildfires have given tangibility to the devastating impact that climate change is already having. They’ve helped to drum home the message to consumers that this issue is not something that’s centuries or decades in the future, but here and now.

Reducing our individual and collective carbon footprint is now the minimum expectation.

The most forward-thinking brands – some of our clients among them – are committing to becoming carbon neutral. Brands who have only just started moving towards sustainability and carbon neutrality must catch up and fast, or risk being deselected by increasingly aware and educated consumers. But even those who have been making strides in this area are now being challenged to do more, requiring them to innovate further and faster.

 

Connected

As packaging continues to be minimised, the space to communicate key brand and regulatory messaging shrinks too. Marketers are increasingly turning to QR codes to solve this challenge, connecting physical and digital. Once a consumer scans the code there’s opportunity to deliver a more immersive brand experience, detailed product specs and usage guides.

 

How?

These trends are not happening in a vacuum but against a backdrop of major demand volatility (upwards for some but downwards for many) and continuing market uncertainty, prompting severe pressures on cost and sometimes, sadly, redundancies. Some might question whether this is the time to invest in innovation – yet it’s exactly what’s needed in the fight for survival.

Many marketers feel like they’re firefighting; stretched across cost-cutting while managing the acceleration of digital transformation. Demands that leave little time for delving into changing consumer behaviour, let alone managing innovation in packaging design, structure or materials. This is why we believe it’s incumbent on agency partners (despite the challenges they too are facing) to do the heavy lifting; to offer disruptive solutions that drive innovation on behalf of the client, allowing them to focus on the vital consumer insight and cultural trends, especially when running leaner teams.

Working closely with our clients we were already moving in this direction and delivering benefits pre-pandemic with our Packaging Lab concept. This platform connects graphic and structural design, with prototyping and 3D visualisation for digital retail and marcoms, plus physical testing (including to Amazon FFP standards) to help brands ensure the safety and integrity of their product right to the consumer’s door. Print management can also be integrated and, for clients who still require elements of specialist supply in their workflow, oversight of those third parties on the client’s behalf.

We believe this type of Total Package solution can help brands navigate the impact of the pandemic, and also make a difference beyond it. It’s a simpler solution for clients; fewer handovers and less time on supplier management admin. More time for strategy and creativity.  A reduction in complexity and cost with a significantly shorter time-to-market.

Change remains the only constant. For brands and agencies to succeed we all need to embrace the pace of that change, and as suppliers we must help clients build the agility to respond to it quickly and effectively.

Sarah Craig is vice-president Europe at Spark.