Brand loyalty is the holy grail of marketing and retail commerce. An incredible amount of time and money are spent in search of that elusive hook that will bring customers back again and again. In an endlessly connected, Amazon-reviewing world, any personality established for a product can become its calling card across multiple channels—retail, e-commerce, and social media. Your packaging is a perfect place to grow that personality. The addition of humor and the encouragement of playful interaction with your packaging can go a long way to humanizing your brand and creating repeat customers.
Take for example, one of the most ingenious packages of the last century, the fortune cookie. Now, I know you may be saying, “That’s not a package, Dr. Hurley. That’s a mediocre, complimentary dessert.” But hear me out. I’d argue that the cookie is just a playful way of packaging the real product—the prophetic slip of paper inside. Think about it. When the check comes at your favorite Chinese restaurant, you grab for the fortune cookie, crack it open, and read your fortune; you may or may not actually eat the cookie. But if for some reason the cookie is empty, you’re definitely going to be disappointed. That cookie is a 100% playful, 100% edible, 100% package. There are even rules and superstitions about how you have to interact with the cookie to ensure that the fortune comes true. Only my four-year-old son is in it for the dessert.
But “Surprise and Delight” (to steal an advertising buzz-phrase) elements are nothing new for package designers. Lots of brands have made a name for themselves by incorporating playful packaging elements. In 1991, Mars launched the Dove Promises brand and decided to slip a little pick-me-up into the wrapper. Each chocolate is individually wrapped with an encouraging quip printed on the label—not unlike those found in fortune cookies. But beware…spending a full day obeying directions from a candy company might not turn out so great.
Bottled beverages are also ripe markets for this kind of engagement. For nearly 20 years, two different bottled tea companies have been adding extraneous tidbits of “play” to their packaging. Honest Tea and Snapple both print messages on the inside of their bottle caps. Honest Tea goes with inspirational quotes, while Snapple shows off their smarts with “Real Facts.” These messages have given rise to fan followings that run the gamut from dedicated blogs to multiple Pinterest pages.
Magic Hat Brewery goes a step weirder; while they also print messages on the underside of their bottle caps, theirs range from silly rhymes like, “What could be better than a beer with Eddie Vedder,” to just plain random, i.e., “How much for the goat?” But, by figuratively “speaking” to customers every time they open a bottle, these beverages have created brand ambassadors whose focus has nothing to do with their actual product. And from an economics point of view, they are doing it really cheap.
Truthfully, it was a purchase I recently made that got me thinking about the importance of playfulness in packaging. After my household was struck by a nasty round of the flu this winter, I decided to go medieval on the air quality in my home and bought a Foobot air quality monitor. It’s basically Alexa for your lungs. Being a giant science nerd, I was excited about this new purchase, but less enthusiastic about what hoops I was going to have to jump through to set it up. Adding new technology to our already over-connected lives can be intimidating for anybody, regardless of their nerd level. But the packaging immediately put me at ease.
For starters, the copy for this product is really well written and phrased in such a way to give the Foobot instant personality. Its self-identification as, “Your good air guru” on the front of the sleeve evokes mantras, not algorithms. Even a hyper-functional element, like the finger hole to open the box, is given to heart-shaped whimsy and a note below it about how much the Foobot already likes me. The cheeky little message on the bottom of the box just drives home the feeling that Foobot is my buddy, my pal, here to look after my health and happiness—and my household levels of CO2 and particulate matter.
All this is to say, a little packaging creativity (and the courage to use it) can certainly go a long way toward cultivating brand loyalty. The biggest challenge for any brand is deciding who they want to be and how they want to tell their story. Playful packaging reminds us as consumers to slow down, enjoy a moment just for the sake of enjoying it, and let ourselves be surprised sometimes. And as packaging engineers, it reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously.
If you’re interested in learning how to implement tactics like surprise and delight in your packaging, register for the course, Leveraging Human Factors in Packaging Design.