John Mathers On Online Packaging

This article appeared on Contagious 17/08/10

John Mathers challenges brand guardians to consider how their brand's packaging comes across online as well as off.

There's something particularly arresting about a great bit of packaging design: the font, the colours, the shape, the feel of the thing in your hands. It stops you in your tracks and, if it's effective, you buy it.

Unless, of course, you're shopping online, in which case if you can read the front of a pack at all, it's a miracle. You lose all sense of scale (you can easily end up buying a kilogramme pack of butter, for example, when you meant to get 250g); you lose the intricacies of the design, and the almost universally poor photography means that any visual impact a pack may have had is lost. What now seems to be the norm - tiny pictures, no sense of the thousands of pounds worth of design that have gone into every single pack - is not adequate.

Brand guardians everywhere need to take control of the situation. What is currently being designed at great expense might be right for one situation (the supermarket shelf), but it is not effective at all online.

Obviously, any changes made to how packaging could work online would require a concerted effort and collaboration between many parties - consumer goods manufacturers, supermarkets, designers and online specialists. But the problem deserves thought and the floor needs to be thrown open to discussion.

What is so wrong with online packaging?

For one set of consumers, there might not be much wrong with the current system. These shoppers know what they want and head straight into the online supermarket to buy it - job done. They often buy in bulk and shop on price alone. And we know that many of these people simply revert to the list they bought last time around.

But for another set of consumers - the browsers - this system doesn't work at all. These people like to look around, browse categories and may not be entirely sure what they want before they begin. A completely unscientific survey of friends and colleagues indicates that many 'browsers' don't shop online at all; the experience is too alien to them and doesn't suit their preferences.

Changing the way that online grocery shopping works could attract more 'browsers' to the channel. But even the 'direct' shoppers, put in a supermarket environment, would also be more susceptible to the odd impulse buy. It's just that from a design point of view, the current system doesn't promote impulse buys. Anything that is 'flagged up' in the system is done based only on price or special offer. The role of design is irrelevant in this space.

So, what's the answer?

When a new design is considered there are key areas that a packaging designer will focus on. These might include shape, logo, the type of product (for shampoo: anti-dandruff, coloured hair and so on), materials, etc. But in a pack designed to work as well in an online environment as a real one, do these considerations need to change?

In order to reconcile how a pack could work on a real and a virtual shelf, perhaps we need to think about how a pack would work if designed only for online.

One possible introduction might be QR codes (a technology already widespread in other markets, like Japan), or another type of online barcode that could feature on-pack. This could be scanned by a mobile phone or webcam and instantly add the product to a shopping list, or bring up product information, thus reducing the need for excess information on-pack and creating a clean design that works online.

To take the symbol idea one step further: do we need to show packs at all online? Consumers are also becoming more used to brand representations that pare information down its bare minimum. Look at computer icons or iPhone app buttons. These tiny but perfectly-formed iterations of brands communicate a powerful message despite their diminutive size. This icon could even appear on the packs themselves, thus becoming linked to the brand. Or they could be on-line only versions of an otherwise well known and recognised logo.

Or, if we are to stick with the pack, a photograph could be more interactive. Fashion sites have got this right: clothes can be zoomed in on, rotated and even seen on models.

How about the supermarkets offering an enhanced listing option, where a brand - say Lurpak - could offer a pack shot that rotates and an ingredients list that could be read, or pop out at a click? There could also be usage instructions and recipe suggestions included within the listing.

So, there are plenty of ideas for how things could change. But right now, the question is still bigger and more important than the possible answers. Brand guardians and designers need to consider how they could work more effectively in this space - whatever that might entail.