Check Availability

Customer Experience

Unbox the Experience: How Smart Packaging Creates A Memorable Moment Of Truth

A cardboard box with a key hanging out of it.

What is smart packaging? Well, everyone knows that feeling you get when a package arrives just for you: excitement, mixed with anticipation and curiosity about what’s inside.

Brands are increasingly building on that sentiment by creating a customer experience with the packaging itself, using humor or memorable messaging – or just having fun. This is smart packaging.

Take Imperfect Foods, a grocery delivery service that aims to reduce food waste. Their shipping box notes on the bottom: “If you happen to be reading this side of the box you’re either a literate ant, very curious about Imperfect Foods, or already repurposing this box for something around the house (hopefully not an aquarium). GREAT WORK! We won’t tell you what to make with yours, but we’ve heard that 1 in 5 cat don’t have a fort to play in. Just sayin’…”

Imperfect Foods employs smart packaging to create a memorable experience for customers.

Now that’s funny! And it’s definitely smart packaging.

Then there’s the iconic iPhone package that many readers will recall opening: the elegant white box, with its perfectly arranged accessories inside.

As one content review platform noted approvingly: Apple managed to create a “memorable unboxing experience” with a packaging design “renowned for its meticulous attention to detail, sleekness, and overall user experience.”

Both the food and the phone are representative of a growing and gratifying trend in customer experience: creating an experience with smart packaging, before consumers can even use the product that’s inside.

As companies compete more fiercely than ever, especially in an e-commerce world, pleasing packaging – or smart messaging atop it – is growing ever more important as a mark of distinction. Brands are responding with everything from talking Pop-Tarts to skyscraper-shaped spaghetti, inspirational slogans, and classic, stylish designs.

Survey purveyor Poll The People clearly captured the stakes of the packaging wars. “Your brand can stand out from the competition when your graphic design and product teams put effort into distinctive packaging,” it wrote. “With thousands of businesses competing for consumers’ attention, the brief moment when they look at your product might make or break your business.”

Smart Packaging Is A Customer Experience Gimme

In case you can’t tell, I am all for experience-making through smart packaging. It’s as close to a gimme as you can get in customer experience because it literally costs nothing, other than creativity.

Companies are printing the packaging anyway, so adding some sort of humor or memorable messaging is a simple and FREE way to create an experience where one didn’t exist before.

Packaging is a key part of the overall product experience – the first part in many ways – and having some fun can boost morale for employees and create loyalty from customers.

It’s a great opportunity to be Witty in your product offerings, a key part of my WISER methodology for creating remarkable experiences.

From China To Corn Flakes

Today’s smart packaging traces its roots to China, where sheets of treated mulberry bark were used to wrap foods as early as the first century.

Paper making techniques and other forms of packaging were refined over time, and among the first modern products to use distinctive packaging were Kellogg cereals and their paperboard cartons.

The U.S. packaging industry is today valued at $193 billion, and a recent study spotlighted packaging’s importance to customer experience. “Researchers and practitioners concur that creative packaging is an essential element for attracting customer attention and resultant success in a cluttered marketplace,” it said.

Related: How Does Supply Chain Impact Customer Experience?

Smart Packaging Examples

Product packaging is indeed far more than just a place to house a product. From visually striking images to pretty paper and compelling content, it creates an experience all its own.

Some packaging has gained iconic status simply by becoming part of the culture, from Coca-Cola’s vibrant red design that “evokes a sense of familiarity and nostalgia,” to the simple blue background sandwiched around the white logo of Oreo cookies.

Not to mention the bear-shaped honey bottles that have dotted supermarket shelves for more than 60 years.

Other packaging gurus go for quirky humor, like the designers of the A1 Steak Sauce bottle that tells consumers to “SHAKE WELL: If there’s only one drop left, a more extreme form of shaking may be required.”

Or the one Pop-Tart that said to another: “Seriously? It’s nearly noon and you’re still in your foil?”

In Britain, a supermarket chain sold a package of smoked mackerel overlaid with a message telling buyers: “I’m a great catch.”

And one brand marketed a box of “NYC Spaghetti” – with the strands emerging in the shape of the Empire State Building.

Some packaging turns to inspirational slogans, such as Halls cough drops, which feature writings on the wrapper that include “Seize the Day,” “Be unstoppable” and “Nothing you can’t handle.”

Similarly, the vitamins at care/of come in daily allocated packets, each with a fun slogan, quiz question, or joke. (Get 50% off your first order)

For other products, the focus is more on the packaging itself, and the accoutrements that go with it. Fairy Loot, a book subscription business, won raves from one reviewer for doing “a spectacular job creating a magical experience with their boxes!  They use sparkles, flowers, and other mystical fillers that are on-brand and a pleasant surprise for customers.”

More Packaging Examples

In my book, The Experience Maker, I highlighted two other smart packaging examples that really made an impact on me. Here’s an excerpt from the book:

For example, bubly™ Sparkling Water, a product of PepsiCo, added fun messages to its cans—a different one for each flavor. According to the press release at the product launch in 2018:

Each bubly flavor features bright, bold packaging, unique smiles for every flavor, and comes with its own Witty greeting on the tab (like “Hey u,” “hiii,” and “yo”) and personal messages on the can (such as “I feel like I can be open around u,” “hold cans with me,” and “love at first phssst”), for maximum enjoyment and smiles.

Eight different colored cans of bubly seltzer water. The company employs smart packaging to create an experience for customers when they open the pull tab.

BUBLY, the Bubly Designs and the Bubly Marks are trademarks. Used with permission.

The first thing most consumers notice is the greeting on the tab because it is strategically placed right where their finger goes to open the can. The fact that each flavor has a different message definitely elicits a smile. The beauty of the campaign? It succeeds in establishing a humanlike relationship between the consumer and…a can of sparkling water.

It’s also brilliant in its simplicity. After all, it’s just a few words atop or on the side of a can that already had other printing on it. It’s clever, memorable, and shows off the brand’s personality. A friend pointed out that the tab messages replaced the standard hole that apparently – though I had never heard of this – was meant for a straw. So that must have required a minor production change, but it was well worth the investment. In fact, PepsiCo CEO Ramon Laguarta told analysts in July 2019 that bubly “is going to be one of our next billion-dollar brands.”

The back of Conagra’s Manwich® Bold Sloppy Joe Sauce cans include four simple instructions for preparation that are also Witty:

Cook 1 lb. of meat (thoroughly)

Add Manwich sauce!!!!

Ask to be called Chef to anyone who addresses you

Serve, dig in, & leave hunger behind

Conagra's Manwich sauce uses smart packaging to insert funny directions right onto the product label.

I literally laughed out loud when I read the part about asking to be called “Chef,” and then of course I asked my kids to refer to me as Chef for the rest of the evening. Also, four exclamation points is just great. The experience difference between these fun cooking instructions and a typical recipe is immense, yet the cost or effort to make the change was minimal. You want to strive for these kind of experience changes in your business.

What Your Company Can Do

Frankly, I love this trend. If a simple message can evoke such strong feelings, that reinforces the importance of using every communication channel and/or customer interaction to create a remarkable experience.

If your business is printing boxes or envelopes anyway for shipping, why not add some fun and memorable messaging to them?

The next time you revise your product packaging, consider adding a hidden message (also called an “Easter egg”) aimed at your biggest fans.

If you are a digital-only business, think about integrating fun messages into your software, like business communication platform Slack does with its welcome message. When users open the software, they are greeted with “Please enjoy Slack responsibly.” It’s not supposed to make you laugh out loud, but it’s a clever play on the beer, wine, and liquor advertisements, which include “Please enjoy responsibly” in the legally mandated disclaimer language at the bottom. If it gets people to start their day with a smile, it’s a win for the product.

And if all else fails, consider adding some fun messaging in other channels such as letters, emails, and social media posts.

Want to become memorable to your customers? Turn smart packaging into smart business.

For more on smart packaging: Check out the Experience This! podcast, episode #61. This post includes excerpts from The Experience Maker book, used with permission. Main image by congerdesign from Pixabay. Imperfect Foods and Manwich images by Dan Gingiss.

See What Dan Can Do For Your Organization

Let Dan inspire your team to adopt a customer-centric culture where everyone can be The Experience Maker.

Meet With Dan