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Wants and needs. The nice to have’s and the must have’s. Acceptable or not. All too often, these are the considerations made by companies when it comes to how packaging will be treated in their bottom line. Packaging is often classified as an expense when instead it should be viewed as an investment. The consequence – product packaging is often less than optimal as companies settle for “acceptable” as the standard.

As a qualitative research consultant, I began engaging the packaging industry and launched social media entity PackageSPEAK years ago when I realized how much consumers had to say about the packaging for the brands they love. The trick was that you had to ASK them.

For generations, consumers have simply accepted product packaging and often the frustrations that come with poorly designed concepts. Companies weren’t asking and consumers weren’t talking. Companies often ran with packaging that passed the simple litmus test of acceptability. If it did the job of containing and identifying the product, they were good to go.

But packaging has come a long way.

Elements of form and function can delight consumers, create new usage occasions for brands, and enhance the overall relationship consumers have with the products they buy and use everyday.

Packaging is how consumers find products. They interact with the packaging in the home, and just before tossing, recycling, reusing or repurposing. The packaging is the last moment of truth the brand has with the consumer – until the next time. Will they choose your brand again?

And perhaps innovation and the new attention on packaging is happening just in time. Boomers, who have their own set of challenges related to packaging (that will have to be another article!), are relatively accepting of shortcomings. Having come of age during the tough times of the Depression Era, they are quick to forgive missteps and make do. The generation following them has matured in an age of information and choice where consumers have more questions and are not as quick to accept what is handed to them. They are more likely to mildly express their frustration, and perhaps quietly make another choice at shelf.

And then there are the millenials, the Gen Y consumers who have emerged with a sense of entitlement. They are more demanding and more vocal. They don’t make quiet choices – they start movements. They are engaged with the greater market and they care about the greater good. Social media has launched brand communication onto a high-speed, 2-way street.

Packaging needs to keep up. Thoughtful design every step of the way from choosing materials, to how packaging behaves on the brands’ manufacturing and fill lines, to how it either enhances or detracts from the consumer experience is key. Ask questions, explore consumer behaviors and perceptions, and when there is a thorough understanding of what really works, begin the design process to turn that packaging budget from an expense into an investment opportunity and deliver on delight.

Kaylor Hildenbrand, Principal Consultant for PARK Research Partners, is a qualitative research consultant striving to uncover consumer insights that will inspire and guide companies to move beyond acceptable. Email Kaylor at Kaylor@PARKresearch.com. (www.PARKresearch.com and www.PackageSPEAK.com)