In the last year and a half, each one of us has changed. We’ve developed habits, hobbies, heightened attention to hygiene, a deeper appreciation for smiles, and a more thoughtful consumption approach. The ripples of our massive redirection trickle down to every element of life; how we shop, what we buy, how we eat, to how we expect companies to package our e-commerce purchases. Balancing new consumer behavior and the need to adapt while sustaining the same level of acceptance can feel a bit like a game of Tetris. However, combined with consumer insights and strategic research, companies can elevate their packaging to protect the integrity of their food contents, connect with consumers on a new level, and contribute less waste to the environment all in one fell swoop.

Quick-service restaurants, forced to prioritize touchless service and drive-thru capabilities, have evolved their packaging to accommodate consumers’ new behaviors and provide a more functional, convenient dining experience without compromising quality. For instance, quick-serves use insulated material to keep food fresh during transportation by adding a protective film to drinks to minimize the risk of spills. To ensure evolved packaging meet (and hopefully exceed) consumer expectations, brands use consumer insights. As a result, we have leveraged several consumer tests that replicated drive-thrus so consumers could evaluate packaging during in-context situations. Participants recorded the full spectrum of their drive-through experience from ordering to package disposal through detailed digital surveys and video diaries. These findings provided the comprehensive packaging narratives quick-service restaurants needed to uphold the integrity of their packaging while evolving it to meet shifted consumer behavior.

Shifting consumer patterns demanded evolved packaging over a wide range of industries. From March 2020 to March 2021, online purchasing rose by 49 percent. The expansion of the e-economy reshaped how companies’ thought about packaging design and even its role within the consumer journey. Suddenly, the art of attracting consumers wandering through brick and mortar stores with eye-catching package design and optimal shelf positioning waned in comparison to presenting a captivating and curated representation of the product online. E-commerce shifted packaging from the role of the sales pitch to an extension of the brand story. Relieved from the pressure to sell, packaging could start being more playful, engaging, and personal. In tandem with the trend of social media influencers “unboxing” (the process of opening a package sent online for their followers) and the rise of more sophisticated digital printing capabilities, e-commerce packaging provided brands with the opportunity to propel a more strategic and consumer-focused narrative.

This new opportunity for brands to communicate their identities in a tangible, playful way overlaps with a new wave of consumers who value authenticity and candid communication from the brands they support—and marketers are catching on. Olive Inc. reports 85 percent of marketers believe consumers want to be communicated with as an individual rather than a demographic. Through insight testing gauging consumer reactions to brands’ communication strategies, brands can get to know their consumers deeper and understand what they crave in terms of brand communication. Understanding the full spectrum of the consumer narrative is just as critical as the product narrative and can inform memorable and meaningful first impressions through e-commerce packaging design. Qualitative tools, surveys, and video diaries help capture the fullness of companies’ consumers and empower packaging optimizations that resonate on a more personal level.

The post-pandemic consumer also tends to expect the brands they support to align with their sustainability practices. Consumers forced to pause and come to terms with the long-term effects of their daily habits have emerged from lockdown more aware and intentional. The pandemic knocked many consumers from the grind of day-to-day routine long enough to take a closer look at their consumption habits.

While residential waste increased by 15 percent during the pandemic, commercial waste created by facilities and offices decreased by 30 percent. Suddenly, consumers had to take full responsibility for the piles of cardboard and plastic accumulating from their newfound online shopping addictions. Once forced to reconcile with the immediate ramifications of their consumption, people began pushing for more sustainable packaging. In one study, 44 percent of consumers rated sustainability as the most critical factor influencing their decision-making.

While consumers might indicate they heavily value sustainability, our experts note that this is true as long as sustainability doesn’t infringe on the products’ functionality. For example, a dairy company might want to swap out their plastic milk container with cardboard. If the bottle begins to disintegrate in the fridge after a few days, consumers will care about the sustainability aspect. The key is to increase sustainability while keeping quality intact. Companies can ensure their products’ upgraded sustainability only adds to consumers’ experiences through strategic product testing. In-context testing models such as our  Life Labs provide opportunities for companies to give their new packaging a test run in real-life situations where consumers can provide candid feedback, like a new juice box package leaking in the car on the way to drop off their preschooler.

Brands are also leveraging trends that cut production costs and increase sustainability, such as the “ships in its own container” (SIOC) strategy that removes the additional cardboard box from the packaging. Another notable trend shaping how brands package their goods is the “as compact as possible” strategy, which reduces transport volumes, carbon footprint, costs, and resources. In B2B environments, returnable and reusable packaging is standard, but recently companies are expanding these practices to include consumers. Other companies prioritize sustainability by making the recycling process more accessible, including designing parts to be separable, labeled correctly, and clean.

Out of all the changes left in the wake of the pandemic, shifting packaging trends might feel insignificant. However, consumers’ broadened understanding of their impact in the production cycle and strengthened desire for sustainable disposal could revolutionize waste management. As consumers’ priorities and behaviors continue to evolve, we’ll likely see companies pour more intention into packaging narratives across every industry.

Sean Bisceglia is the CEO of Curion. Bisceglia specializes in accelerating growth, establishing market leadership positions, and launching disruptive technologies for various industries spanning from marketing and staffing to human capital. He founded and led four companies that achieved rapid market acceptance and global distribution of its products and services.

Outside Insights, Story