Projecting ethical branding through packaging

29 June, 23
Packaging is the first physical contact most consumers have with a brand – so make it count

Packaging is the first physical contact most consumers have with a brand – so make it count

First impressions are everything. It’s a phrase that’s well-worn to the point of cliché, but for good reason – it’s true. And, in today’s always-online world, where consumers are bombarded with thousands of competing messages in every area of their lives, it’s more important than ever.

In today’s world, a brand’s competition isn’t just from its direct competitors on-shelf. It’s from the smartphone notifications constantly buzzing in a consumer’s pocket, targeted emails, TV and radio adverts, and online sales with free same-day delivery that pull the consumer’s attention in dozens of different directions – all of them away from your brand.

To get – and crucially, keep – your consumer’s attention, a modern brand needs to offer something deeper. It needs to have a personality that’s instantly recognisable, while also standing up to long-term scrutiny. And, like any personality, this must be built on a foundation of ethics and principles.

The moral argument

‘Ethical consumerism’ has been a known phenomenon for several decades, but the explosion of the internet means it is now crucial for brand success. It means consumers can access information about almost anything from almost anywhere and at almost anytime, and as a result, are more informed about the impact of their shopping habits than ever.

A Deloitte survey1 found this has coincided with many consumers making a concerted effort to adopt more sustainable lifestyles. Meanwhile, an OpenText2 study found the majority of consumers would be willing to pay more for a product that was ethically sourced or produced. The same study found that 81% of respondents felt ethical sourcing mattered to them.

Interestingly, 20% of these respondents said this had only become the case in the last year.

This indicates a continuing shift in consumer behaviour; one that will only increase as time goes by. And, with Gen Z consumers on the cusp of maturing into the world’s leading spending power, brands will have to walk the talk when it comes to ethics.

The first ‘digital native’ generation is more aware of issues surrounding sustainability, ethical sourcing, and labour exploitation through the supply chain than any before it. Furthermore, the generation that has grown up in the rubble of the Great Recession has an understandable cynicism when it comes to corporate governance, meaning it is the least likely to trust any ESG claims at face value. A McKinsey survey3 found 88% of Gen Z consumers flatly do not trust the ESG claims made by brands. Any claims a brand makes will have to be backed up with something real and tangible to connect with modern consumers – meaning packaging is now perhaps the most important aspect of any ESG strategy.

Embody values – don’t just signpost them

Consumers can now conduct painstaking research on any brand and product before they buy, but they have no tangible demonstration of that until they first encounter its packaging. In the aftermath of the pandemic, during which time the simple act of picking up a product to see how it feels in the hand was largely not possible, the sensation of touch has taken on a new importance with consumers.

If a brand’s message does not resonate with a consumer, that message is highly likely to be lost amidst the sea of other marketing messages modern consumers have to deal with.

Sustainable, ethical messaging that is muddled by overdesigned, unnecessary plastic packaging will likely not land well with modern consumers.

Great packaging design should work hand-in-hand with brand messaging to not only display company values, but to embody them in a way that consumers can touch and feel, as well as see. It is important to remember that packaging’s job does not necessarily end once the consumer has made a purchase. How the consumer opens the pack, the way the pack functions to protect the product, and – if necessary – the convenience of returning a product in its original packaging are all vital touchpoints that a brand can use to reinforce its values through packaging.

The modern approach to ethical supply chains and sustainability is a holistic one. In this sense, packaging should not be thought of as a signpost that points to a moral – it should be inseparable from that code. With an innovative structural design, print techniques, and packaging enhancements, it is possible for packaging, this can be achieved. Swapping out plastics for recycled content or plant-based materials, lightweighting and reducing pack size to reduce the overall carbon footprint of a pack, or incorporating easy-return features to help minimise logistics costs are just a few techniques that can be applied as part of a broader sustainability strategy, ensuring a brand’s sustainable claims ring true.

Themes of ethicality and sustainability are hot topics in the packaging industry of today, as it seeks to meet the demands of modern consumers. Brands and converters can learn more about ethical, sustainable packaging at London Packaging Week, the vibrant home of packaging innovation and design, this September at the ExCeL London.

London Packaging Week 2023 will be held on 21 & 22 September. Attendees can register for a free ticket by visiting londonpackagingweek.com.

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