The next five years: how are pack formats changing?

Packaging is rapidly evolving as manufacturers struggle with sustainability, experiment with new materials, and engage with emerging trends. Callum Tyndall examines the changing shape of packaging.

Packaging is in a moment of great change. The sustainability movement has caused drastic and rapid, though perhaps not rapid enough, transformation in an industry that is now being pushed to question certain fundamental assumptions about its operation. Whether it is the reduction of the use of materials such as plastic (to the point of zero-waste in some retail cases) or the development of game-changing alternatives that can fill the same role as plastic with a greater mind towards ecological responsibility, packaging manufacturers are having to move fast to avoid being swept away in the current of environmentally conscious consumers and regulation.

However, this change is not limited purely to the realm of environmentalism. The rate at which technology is advancing and infiltrating into all areas of industry is providing ever-evolving avenues for exploration. Industry 4.0 may not necessarily change the function and format of packaging (though it may involve some additive informational elements), but it will certainly transform the operation of the industry and production therein. The rate at which industry faces what would previously have been distinct sea changes is only accelerating in the digital era; packaging is no exception.

Working towards zero-waste: Lush and The Body Shop cut out packaging

Sustainability is perhaps the most obvious recent change factor in pack formats. Plastic has been placed in the firing line by increasingly eco-conscious consumers and manufacturers are having to find new materials to meet the practical demands of packaging without compromising on ecological responsibility. Consumers are even driving retailers towards the possibility of a zero-waste future where certain products are sold without any kind of packaging. Needless to say, this all means a drastic re-evaluation of what packaging can and should be going forward.

In September, Lush Asia launched a Naked store in Hong Kong with products that are completely packaging-free. Having found success in Milan, Berlin, and Manchester, the brand is looking to push the city’s sustainability by making it easy to choose an alternative to heavily packaged cosmetics. 

Meanwhile, the Body Shop has launched refill offerings for shower gels; the brand actually offered refills in the past but found the retail environment at the time to be shifting towards plastic rather than its current retreat. If such major cosmetic brands can make a success of packaging-free retail, others are sure to follow.

At that time, the customer retail environment was changing towards people not wanting refill at all

As Linda Campbell, managing director of The Body Shop, told edie: “We actually had refills in our stores around 20 years ago, but at that time, the customer retail environment was changing towards people not wanting refill at all.

“Everyone, at that time, was moving to plastics. Now, that conversation has evolved to the point that customer demands have come full circle. We’re responding to demand not just from shoppers but from our own store teams and from the wider policy and culture piece too.”

Getting technical: shaping packaging for the connected consumer 

Technology has been the greater change factor across industries. Consumers have access to more information than ever before, and expectations to match, manufacturers are better able to track every stage of production, and the entire process can be ever more automated and digitised. In and of itself, this doesn’t necessarily mean much for the end-design of packaging.

However, the importance placed on information, both by consumers and industry, does lend itself to a growing class of pack format: connective packaging. In the form of QR codes and augmented reality, manufacturers can open up new experiences for their consumers. 

Cameron Worth, CEO and founder of marketing agency SharpEnd, told Packaging Europe: “You might not think it, but the most important piece of tech to watch is still the mobile phone. Handset manufacturers across the board are developing the tech to better connect consumers with their products, through relevant, app-less experiences. In the short to midterm, it’s these devices that are powering new ways to engage, from NFC to AR and beyond.”

There needs to be a focus on creativity and innovation, as opposed to design

We previously covered how smart packaging can help keep pharmaceuticals safe and the ways in which Gen Z are driving forward the adoption of such packaging but we are yet to reach the peak which may see smart packaging become commonplace. The potential benefits to industry, if only in terms of supply chain management, are clear, but the argument beyond novelty has perhaps yet to be really made to consumers. That is likely to change in the coming years as experiential consumerism gains momentum and digital proliferation ensures ever-increasing connectivity.

Going further, Worth said: “There needs to be a focus on creativity and innovation, as opposed to design. Packaging is a fairly analogue industry, and we need to do more to embrace the connected consumer. The more we can connect consumers with their products, the greater the value is for all parties.”

Leveraging digital production for speed and efficiency

The future of packaging formats likely lies in a combination of sustainability and digital technologies. Trends such as premiumisation will have their place to play in the market but are less likely to become quite so holistic. Instead, it seems that the foreseeable future will be dominated on the manufacturing side by increasingly smart production lines being deployed to make use of increasingly greener materials and processes. This will ultimately mean more speed and efficiency across supply lines, which should mean greater reward for customers. 

Much of the development in packaging is resulting from direct consumer demand, most obviously in the sustainability area, and the next steps will likely focus on that translation into retail. As retail spaces themselves emphasise sustainability, manufacturers will be striving to stand out on shelves, and as technologies such as augmented reality develop and proliferate to consumers, the retail space will become shaped by these new consumer experiences. The future of pack formats will in no small part be decided by brands’ abilities to sell themselves within these new contexts and incorporate into what may well be a radically different consumer experience.

Digital production allows more agility for marketers and brands than traditional carton printing

Mark Varney, director of sales at Transcend Packaging, said: “Digital production allows more agility for marketers and brands than traditional carton printing. We can bring multiple formats to market more quickly and efficiently than ever before, and with significantly less waste in the production process, while the pack formats can be more closely tailored to the products they protect.
“Looking towards the future, companies are already having to factor in sustainability in order to secure precious retail shelf-space. This goes back to consumer demand and regulatory requirements. As commitment to net-zero grows, so too will these pressures, ultimately shaping the pack formats of the future.” 

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