November 2, 2018

When older generations think about their favorite brands, they tend to think consistency. For them, everything about the brand is perfect, which is why they are brand loyalists, so there’s no need to rock the boat.

For Millennials and members of Generation Z, consistency is death.

More than previous generations, members of both younger generations are disrupting the art of brand packaging. They don’t care if their favorite soda or cookie brand looks the same on the shelf as it did before they were born. What they want is packaging that expresses individualism and brand values. They also prefer that they have a say in what it looks like, too.

Brands are responding. And for good reason: Millennials will represent 30 percent of total U.S. retail sales by 2020, representing $1.4 trillion a year; By that same year, Generation Z will account for 40 percent of all consumers.

Some of the more familiar examples include:

  • “Love Wins” vodka bottles by Smirnoff that features unique designs that celebrate LGBTQ pride. Each bottle sold results in a $1 donation by the company to the Human Rights Campaign.
  • Coffee maker Café Franqueza has customized packaging that tells the story of the formers who grow the beans for the brand. The packaging draws attention to the brand’s provenance.
  • And famously, Coca Cola’s “Share a Coke” campaign that places individual names on its cans and bottles.

These and many others show that younger consumers want to associate with brands that express individualism and authenticity — Just as much as they want to be seen as individuals and authentic. They also want to participate with a brand, going so far as having a say in what it looks like on the shelf. And in packaging that is sustainable: Nielsen reports that three out of four Millennials and 72 percent of Generation Z say they would pay more for products with eco-friendly, sustainable packaging.

This puts restless marketers in an unexpected place. In the past, packaging represented consistency. Strong brands were strong because they didn’t change. Consumers developed relationships with brands they grew to recognize as one thing. Changing that one thing threatened that relationship. So marketers knew to keep that special ingredient the same.

New generations are showing how that relationship is evolving. New audiences are prioritizing different things: They are more concerned about the source material of the packaging, and they see their brand choice as a reflection of who they are. Slavishly making habitual brand choices at the counter has less and less appeal. They are consumers who seriously consider every choice they make. So they want to make sure the choice is about their taste or lifestyle.

To reflect these changing values, marketers are confronted with breaking down their brand’s fourth wall.

But once that wall is cracked, endless creative opportunities spring up. Marketers just need to make sure that they disrupt the tried-and-true for a reason and that it remains faithful to the brand’s values.

Take Coca-Cola. Coke was always about bringing people together, so it made sense that they would express that through the individually-named cans and bottles, for example. Marketers must be conscious of never compromising what the brand is all about, but to freshen is packaging in ways that seem to come from within, not just from the outside.

The Café Franqueza example creates the spirit of individualism while drawing attention to the individual lives of the people who cultivate the ingredients to its product. In the age of transparency, this approach strongly affirms the product itself and also of the brand in how it chooses to tell its story.

Change is a good thing. And if change is what younger consumers want, that is what they should get. But as disruption becomes the new normal of consumer packaging, brands should make a strong effort to remember its core values. Because change will only go so far if it is change that feels a natural next step.

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