When we think of packaging as a branding tool, we tend to think of amazing retail packaging like Apple’s. The electronics firm maintains a secret “packaging room” where hundreds of potential package designs are tested to get the opening experience perfect.
And, in an era where “unboxing” videos can get millions of views, such attention to packaging details isn’t obsessive, it’s practical.
But, one area of packaging that often gets scant attention is how the product is shipped to the consumer. Often, of course, that’s outside of the control of the product maker or brand. They may do a brilliant job of packaging their product, but when the product is sold outside of a retail environment the seller decides how to protect the item on the way to the consumer.
I recently received two shirt orders on the same day – one from a large US retailer’s e-commerce arm, and another from Charles Tyrwhitt, a British shirtmaker. The packages formed a stark contrast. The Tyrwhitt shirts were in a sturdy-looking box, secured with a band, and well-branded on multiple sides.
The shirt from the big US retailer came in a plastic bag. That’s typical for apparel orders these days – since clothes don’t break easily, they can be shipped in light, flexible plastic bags that minimize both packaging and shipping costs.
From a packaging engineer’s viewpoint, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the performance of these bags. Personally, I’ve received dozens of apparel orders in them and nothing has ever been damaged. It’s no surprise that just about all big e-commerce retailers have adopted them for clothing shipments.
First Impressions Count
While the bag-style packaging is functional and cost effective, it fails the “first impression test.” Packaging should, for a fashion product, communicate a sense of value and, perhaps, prestige. A crumpled plastic bag communicates the opposite, cheapness and disposability.
First impressions are important because they are sticky. As I describe in First Impressions: Incredibly Quick To Form, Slow To Change,
- First impressions form in milliseconds, before cognitive processing.
- First impressions can persist even when contradicted by factual information later.
The sturdy, well-branded Charles Tyrwhitt package makes a great first impression, which raises expectations for the product inside. Those expectations, in turn, influence how the customer perceives the product itself. Higher expectations, if not actually contradicted by the product, result in a better customer experience. (See Why Expensive Wine Tastes Better.)
I’m sure it will come as a big disappointment to my readers, but I didn’t tape any unboxing (or “unbagging”) videos for my shirt purchases. But, I’ll point out one other area where Charles Tyrwhitt’s focus on packaging was evident. Men’s dress shirts come with packaging elements designed to keep them looking crisp – plastic collar supports, cardboard stiffeners, and, all too often, a plethora of sharp little pins holding everything in place. The clever package designers at Tyrwhitt create an unwrapping experience free of puncture wounds by using just a few well-placed clips. A small thing, perhaps, but it demonstrates attention to detail.
Steve Jobs may not have known about the fMRI evidence for expectations altering the customer’s experience, but he clearly understood their power. Walter Issacson’s biography of Jobs quotes Apple’s Jonathan Ive:
“Steve and I spend a lot of time on the packaging,” said Ive. “I love the process of unpacking something. You design a ritual of unpacking to make the product feel special. Packaging can be theater, it can create a story.”
Ritual? Theater? These concepts seem far removed from typical packaging concerns of cost, weight, and protection. But it’s important to remember that the customer experience for e-commerce products includes the way the product lands in the consumer’s mailbox or on their doorstep. That first impression can make the product better and the brand more desirable, or it can create a negative perception that will tarnish both.
Roger Dooley is the author of Brainfluence: 100 Ways to Persuade and Convince Consumers with Neuromarketing (Wiley, 2011). Find Roger on Twitter as @rogerdooley and at his website, Neuromarketing.