Why Packaging Can Make or Break Your Business

  •    Designer and branding expert. Born and raised in Sweden, she grew up surrounded by an appreciation for good storytelling and great design.

Forget business as usual. These days, many successful businesses are reinventing everything from supply chains to customer service. Vertical commerce brands (VCBs) are quickly replacing traditional retail models with a digital-native, direct-to-consumer model that cuts out the middle of the supply chain, bypassing things like traditional storefronts and wholesale pricing. (Think brands like Dollar Shave Club, Casper and Warby Parker.) For consumers, this shift has generally been a positive thing, as it enables companies to pass on savings and create high-quality product at lower prices. So what can you learn from VCBs as a maker, small business owner or solopreneur?

The first point of customer interaction for VCBs is the website, which takes the place of a traditional storefront. As a maker, your website should be an impeccable representation of your specific brand — user-friendly, inspiring and functional.

Besides the website, packaging is the main point of contact and physical expression of your brand. Speaking at a MAKE IT IN LA event at her company's headquarters, Jesse Genet, founder of packaging manufacturer Lumi, explained that in order to be successful, packaging needs to be an extension of the product.

The current fascination with product packaging is obvious when considering the popularity of “unboxing" videos — a search on YouTube brings up over 67 million results.

In order to succeed, you need to carefully design the full customer experience of ordering, receiving, opening and even returning packages. These are Genet's top three things small businesses and solopreneurs should consider when it comes to packaging.

1. Make it an Experience

Most people still think receiving a package in the mail is exciting — and it should be. Design your packaging as an experience worthy of an unboxing video. Make it unique yet intuitive. Consider the design of the package, but also how products fit into it. Apple products are a good example: They are perfectly presented in pristine white boxes where all components fit into neat compartments. The experience of opening a new iPhone or MacBook is both simple and satisfying. Don't make your package anything like an Amazon box, which is often comically ill-fitting and filled with too much cushioning material.

2. Make it Shareable

For small businesses, who often have limited budgets for marketing, social media is a powerful tool. If you create packaging that elicits a feel-good response, customers are likely to share that experience with their followers. This is a perfect way to spread awareness, but also to build loyalty and deepen customers' relationship with your brand. It's also a marketing opportunity. Dollar Shave Club, a VCB that was recently acquired by Unilever for $1 billion, has encouraged customers to share their unboxing experience on Instagram by doing hashtag contests and giveaways.

3. Make it Uniquely Yours

Since the packaging is often a customer's first tangible experience with your brand, it must be a seamless extension of the visual identity established on your website and elsewhere. There is no one approach or look that fits all — remember, it's your brand and products that make your business unique. Threadless ships products in a simple poly bag (made by Lumi) with “Great Art in a Squishy Bag" printed in bold sans serif letters — a style that works well for the no-frills custom products retailer.

A brand that sells something like fine jewelry, high-end skin care products, or expensive electronics might create packaging that feels more considered and luxurious. However, be careful to not overpack your products. Meal-in-a-box delivery service Blue Apron has faced criticism for creating an excessive amount of waste by individually packaging every single component of its meal kits. So when in doubt, err on the side of simplicity.

Finally, don't break the bank when creating your unique packaging experience. Genet recommends spending no more than 3% of the total product cost on packaging materials. Sometimes custom-printed cardboard boxes — done well by hugely successful direct-to-consumer brands like Honest and Thrive Market — or branded packaging tape is enough to do the trick.

Be creative, think about the customer experience, ensure that the packaging is a well-designed extension of your brand, and you will be well on your way toward direct-to-consumer success.