The New Frontier in Packaging: Sustainable High Tech

By Josh White, Principal and Creative Director at OffWhite Co.

Imagine a shopping experience where a list of product benefits pop up on consumers’ smartphones, a brand story appears in the lens of a pair of smart glasses, or products “speak” to consumers in new, virtual ways.

It may sound like something out of a science fiction book, but these disruptive technologies are closer than you think, and when they become mainstream, the way brands communicate with their audience will be less about dressing up a fancy package and more about the interactive brand experience they create.

The bright side for manufacturers? You’ll have the opportunity to save on high-end printing and design costs because packaging would be presented in its simplest form, and you would engage directly with consumers in a digital communication channel – the ultimate form of sustainability.

We’re not there yet, but with McKinsey & Company reporting that sustainability requirements will be one of the trends that “change the game” in the packaging industry in the next five to 10 years, and with one in three consumers expected to embrace augmented reality (AR) by 2021, now’s the time to be thinking about taking packaging to a whole new level – one where sustainability meets high tech. Sustainability is no longer the buzzword of the day – consumers’ emotional connection to saving the planet is real, and companies are under increasing pressure to show how they’re being responsible with their products, processes and packaging.

As the sustainable and high-tech trends get set to collide, brands that think outside of the packaging box and prepare for what’s coming will have a competitive advantage. In my role helping companies in all sectors – from major brands to start-ups – to successfully launch new brands or refresh tired ones, I’ve seen firsthand how creative thinking can turn a company around. With early adopters of AR, such as Bombay Sapphire, Fanta and 19 Crimes wine, already demonstrating the value of next-generation connected packaging trends, here are three steps I recommend considering to prepare for the next wave of sustainable, high-tech packaging.

Be Clear About Your Brand Objectives

Sustainable packaging should be the end goal, but don’t let your search for the newest sustainable technology negate the other key values of your brand in the meantime. The first step is to achieve clarity about who you are as a company and what you are trying to achieve. You may already have a great product supported by sustainable processes, but if you’re too quick to adopt a ‘holier than thou’ attitude towards sustainable packaging, you run the risk of confusing your audience. I once saw an up-and-coming food company willing to walk away from a game-changing deal with a major U.S. retail chain because they were asked to change their packaging from glass to plastic – the packaging material traditionally used for their product category and recognized by consumers – and they refused. Their fortitude and concern over killing the planet cost them an opportunity to propel their product to the next level. We often coach clients to evolve their sustainability strategy in phases, doing what makes sense for today but always keeping an eye on the final prize and positioning your strategy to take advantage of future technology. At the end of the day, no matter how aspirational your goals, you are still running a business and sustainability doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing play.

Build a Sustainability Roadmap

Sustainability isn’t just a box you check, it requires a thoughtful approach that fits your overall brand strategy. Long before you introduce your first sustainable package, look for ways to introduce environmentally-friendly ingredients and energy-efficient processes in your business to build a strong message that you care for the planet. Make your creative process sustainable by requesting digital concept renderings versus print-and-mounted presentations, using eco-friendly 3D printing for your prototype concepts to reduce your overall environmental footprint, and supporting an earth-friendly cause that you can stand behind as a company. You may not be positioned to go to market today with a state-of-the-art connected package, but you can plan for it. An example of a company that effectively evolved its sustainable packaging strategy is Coconut Bliss. The company took a calculated risk to bring their wholesome, good-for-the-planet product to market first and then worked in tandem on a sustainable package solution as they grew, and the strategy is working.

Keep Your Pulse on Good-For-The-Planet Trends

From reusable and zero-waste, to plant-based and edible, to biodegradable and compostable, sustainable packaging solutions are increasingly available. It’s important to identify the one that makes the most sense for your brand and will help to build trust with your user base. A recent survey by HAVI – a leading global supply chain management and marketing analytics provider – showed that in the food industry, 70 percent of consumers see clean packaging as equally or more important than clean food, with the majority defining clean packaging as free from chemicals and made from natural materials. We’re also starting to see edible water bottles, liners and other alternatives to single-use plastics, and new applications will continue to evolve. Knowing what your audience expects from you is key to making the right sustainable choice.

What excites me most about the future of sustainable packaging is the unprecedented opportunity that the evolution of smart, connected packaging presents. A connected package can be minimal in design and yet deliver maximum value, enabling you to share your brand story in the quickest, most refined and cost-effective way, and to say more without having to think about environmental impact.

Beyond sharing brand attributes and ingredients, you could infuse messaging about your corporate environmental initiatives or how many trees were saved in the making of your product, or even share recipes and a calorie counter. It’s both insanely cool and frightening at the same time, and I would argue that the first companies to crack the sustainability-meets-technology code will be clear winners.

About the Author:

Josh White is principal and creative director of NYC-based brand and design agency, OffWhite Co. With more than two decades of transforming some of the world’s most successful consumer product companies through the intersection of brand strategy, creative product development, innovative packaging and technology, White’s award-winning holistic creative systems have played a key role in reinventing brands and helping clients find the secret sauce to advance their companies to the next level.