How are millennials paving the way for consumer-focused packaging in today’s markets? We explore how convenience, experience, ethics and sustainability are huge drivers for this generation when they are purchasing products.
The history of packaging is a storied one. Tracing roots back almost 3,500 years, the ancient Egyptians constructed rudimentary containers from biomaterials such as palm leaves and hollowed-out logs, transporting crops in what is widely considered to be the origin of commercial product packs. Later, around 200BCE, the Chinese developed cellulose-based paper packs to contain their goods in early examples of flexible packaging.
The changes in packaging technologies and consumer demands have brought the industry to where it is today – the material and design advances we see around us are an amalgamation from a millennia of change.
But despite the changes, certain qualities of packaging have remained the same, throughout its long history. While storing products, at the core it must be functional and practical. However, as far as design features and material substrates go, it has always been a great reflection of its time and the audience.
Peel everything away to just the fundamental premise and packaging exists to serve consumer needs. Branding, styling and periphery functions are nice-to-haves, but product packaging lives and dies by its core use, protecting and preserving products to meet customer demands through functionality.
There is an interesting power dynamic at play between the buyer and seller in today’s market. Where historically customers took products and packaging in whatever format was most convenient for the brand, this model is experiencing change. Packaging design must now be consumer-led from conception to delivery, to ensure it’s the product of choice in the busy retail space.
It’s logical therefore, that the architecture of packaging shines a light on the values, ideals and lifestyles of the time; the factors that influence exactly what buyers want. In reflecting the contemporary social, technological and political climate, great pack design becomes inextricably linked with the period in which it exists.
Take Coca Cola for example – the iconic red and white labelling over a glass bottle is one of the prime symbols of the 1940s and 50s, flourishing in a time where mass production experienced a post-war boom. What’s more, the public found themselves with more disposable income, ensuring they could stock their home with family-sized quantities of the same products and brands that they’d previously enjoyed in single-serving bottles in bars and restaurants.
This history brings us full circle to the market of today and the much-maligned millennials. Also known as Generation Y, the general consensus describes this demographic as consumers born between 1980 and 2000, although the years included in this segment seem to change from source to source. The good news for retailers is that globally, they’re the largest buying segment, estimated at around 1.8 billion. What’s more, they’re currently moving into their prime spending years.
Generation Y views pack design and functionality differently to the generations that came before it. Like every time period since the aforementioned ancient Egyptians, modern packaging holds up a mirror to the generation it serves. To delve deeper into how the millennials have altered the landscape of printed pack design, it’s important to understand the needs, thoughts, lifestyles and zeitgeist of the time. Brands and the media often treat the segment as something of an enigma, but understanding their values is key to guiding packaging design and leveraging that to build tangible brand loyalty.
The key elements to courting Generation Y consumers are convenience, authentic experience, ethics and sustainability. Modern packaging design has been acutely shaped to fit these values and maximise selling opportunities, with the landscape still continuing to develop.
Often (perhaps unfairly) labelled with descriptors such as entitled, non-committal and transient, the Generation Y consumer is very much a product of its surroundings. Lower working wages and increased costs mean that time is at a premium and modern technology is peaking in availability. When life is lived as such a pace, products must match this speed with convenience. Millennials, as well as Generation Z that succeeded them, live in a world of instant gratification. When information, organisation and purchasing are simply a ‘Hey Alexa’ away, customers in this demographic rarely find time for products that are not packaged for efficiency and speed.
It’s this paradigm shift that has sparked the surge of on-the-go packaging, designed to fit into busy consumer lives without fuss and with minimal disruption. By demanding more from brands, buyers force brands to innovate in design.
Two driving forces at the core of convenience are minimalism and portability. To accommodate this, designers have been influenced to streamline the storage and usage through innovations. Microwaveable ready-meals for example, designed for quick cooking, require equally rapid preparation. To meet modern convenience needs, brands have developed pack designs that are simple, fuss-free and reliable.
Innovations to the market have combined with these developments to offer practical container solutions that offer a slick consumption experience without compromising on design impact or quality. Another prime example is the dawn of stand-up flexible packs with a stronger structural base. Used for storing everything from confectionery and breakfast cereal to washing powder, standup flexible packs have experienced a popularity surge over the previous few years. Ideally suited for neat and tidy storage in places where space is at a premium, the packs excel in providing impactful branding real estate alongside design that meets millennial needs for convenience and practicality, without sacrificing aesthetic qualities.
The millennial generation created a shift not only with individual products, but with brands. One major change has been the new emotional connection desired with brands; consumers now want to immerse themselves in the brand and its values. This is intrinsically tied to one of the basic functional needs that was originally outlined by Abraham Maslow in his early studies of human motivation – belonging. By building a close connection with the brand, users become part of a sub-group along with other like-minded purchasers, satisfying this base need. Ultimately, customers actively want to be pushed up the brand loyalty ladder from customer to advocate; they desire an emotional connection with businesses they purchase from.
It’s because of this need and Generation Y’s susceptibility to it, that Experiential Marketing exists to moderate all consumers touchpoints with a brand, including packaging. Does it look modern and fresh? Does it feel good to the touch and deliver a pleasant tactile experience? What does it smell like? Does its construction and material match up to the core values of the brand? Perhaps most importantly, does it feel authentic?
Millennial shoppers today look to buy experiences, not simply products. This extends to the purchase process itself, as well as the physical goods. Research from University of Florida has established the unique store navigation traits that the Generation Y’er exhibits. The generation prefers to browse the open, well-defined spaces of the store, which tend to be along the outer edges. Because of this, millennial shoppers are less likely to venture into the centre of larger stores than the generations before them. It’s due to this trait that convenience products designed for life on-the-go are generally more often stored in the outskirts of the store when merchandising layout is considered. This presents a challenge to packaging designers, who must now design packaging to not only appeal visually to the consumer, but attract them from a greater distance, tempting buyers into areas that they’d usually be reluctant to visit. For the packaging supply chain, this has resulted in packaging that is clean and crisp, but impactful. It has also placed more focus on branding, with businesses making a concerted effort to convey the visual elements of their brand, ensuring it is evident from a distance.
Brand experience is not simply a one-way street. Millennials are the first generation to grow up in a digital society. This then becomes a paradox when the buying public today is both closer than ever and further apart. Social Media has enabled instant conversation and networking, taking much real-world discussion online and into the digital space.
Part of the wider brand experience is the ability to share thoughts, reviews and comments in these social spaces. Millennial consumers tend to be influenced socially by the consumption habits of their peers, who are often a more trusted source than traditional marketing communications. Spoken conversation and recommendations still occur as they have for millennia, only now it’s across new platforms. Increased conversation largely equates to a stronger bond with the product, for better or worse. To leverage this, retailers that tell a story through their packaging design have been able to forge this connection and translate it into real-world brand exposure and equity.
Ethics & sustainability
Where the current Generation Z demographic finds much motivation in political causes, Y is better defined by its commitment to ethical and sustainability causes. As one of the main drivers of the current eco-friendly marketplace, millennial consumers are particularly susceptible to the ‘Blue Planet Effect’. What this means for manufacturers and retailers is that sustainability is not just a marketing buzzword, it’s an important influencer in the purchase decision process.
Retailers have to put their money where their mouth is and weave sustainability into their brand values – communicating this clearly on their packaging and making the demonstrable ethical benefits very clear. Notably, a recent Nielsen study found that 75% of millennials polled were happy to pay more for a product with sustainable pack credentials.
Plastic packaging has recently been vilified in the media in what many see as a knee-jerk response to real-world issues surrounding the environment and climate control. Only 9% of all plastic produced since the 19th century has been recycled, and yet it also offers a host of economic benefits too, such as reducing biowaste from spoiled products and acting as a barrier to aromas and gases. Retailers that are able to clearly communicate their sustainability values and benefits undoubtedly put themselves at an advantage on the shelves.
A good example of sustainable causes being woven into the core fabric of a business to meet consumer needs is savoury snack manufacturer, Two Farmers. With ethical, honest production as a central value of the business, Two Farmers became the first brand in the world to offer a compostable pack for crisps.Using a multi-layer laminate created from wood pulp, the packaging not only extends the shelf life of the product, but also allows a practical and convenient method of sustainable disposal. These values are clear on the pack, the attribute is noticeably displayed through written text and conveyed through the traditional, classic charm of the aesthetic design. The brand and its ethical values become very apparent, standing out and maximising its shelf appeal in a busy and competitive market place.
The packaging industry has become a great reflection of the world around us, and particularly for the millennial market, which harbour distinct values and ideals that have shaped the nature of modern packaging excellence. Lifestyle factors influence buyer behaviour, which in turn affects user needs, impacting pack design to accommodate these changes. The design of modern packaging, its features and production methods take into account the ideals that millennials hold to better appeal to the audience, acting as a competitive advantage to businesses that can leverage these factors.
These distinct values are huge motivators for Generation Y in terms of influencing purchase decisions, and it’s clear to see how they’ve driven packaging design to this point and continue to do so. Pack design becomes deeply entrenched with retail and marketing strategy. Being able to tap into the ideals of this buying segment allows an experience and emotional attachment to develop. It’s vital that modern product manufacturers are able to leverage this in order to create loyal long-term customers for the years to come.