Food packaging: past, present and future

Understanding the history of packaging provides insights into some modern day trends. In search of those insights, I went back to the origins of packaging—many hundreds of thousands of years, to the early hunter-gatherers.

These early people, our ancestors, wrapped surplus food in leaves and created carrying bags from leaves and twine. These locally-sourced, biodegradable containers helped these people protect food from contamination. For hundreds of thousands of years mankind has been putting food in containers, forming part of the human evolutionary experience.

Later civilizations developed clay and glass technologies, using these types of containers for storage but most importantly, transportation facilitating trade. And this is how packaging, form and function developed, over many thousands of years, originally to feed a few, to where we are today with 9bn mouths to feed all around our world.

Today’s behavioural drivers around the value of packaging may appear less primal but they’re just as instinctual: lifestyle, provenance, loyalty and so on. These are the things people want to align with in modern society. By bringing them all together with functional packaging, brands will be able to develop more powerful offerings that appeal to wider, deeper and inherent senses. Packaging must catch the eye and engage the emotions.

To achieve this we need packaging innovation, the most recent of which is digital. Having good packaging with an easily-grasped, well designed form and function is a big part of the sell to trigger those inherent senses. Digital delivers the opportunity for Brands to build consumer relationships by driving more modern themes through digitized packaging. Packaging that delivers valued content from sustainability to provenance, from lifestyle to loyalty, offers that change by the time of day or by weather conditions. Digital is a canvas limited only by our own imagination.

But now, of course, with so much shopping taking place online, some have said the need for great packaging is diminished. That’s nonsense. Packaging should actually be the digital gateway—a way to take customers through brand real estate and drive their imaginations. The experience? The Web Site, Brand Content, Facebook, YouTube and the Packaging are ideally all a single, harmonious whole.

Omnichannel brands and retailers should take note when it comes to food packaging. There’s brand content, informative content and legal content—and all three need to transcend the channels so that every piece of information a customer touches is on brand, consistent and adheres to legal requirements. That means ensuring that if, for example, nutritional values have changed on pack, those changes automatically update through all channels at the same time.

The future is looking very bright for food packaging: technologies such as augmented reality are adding a new level of innovation and creativity, while the right containers can drive digital engagement as much as in-store buying behaviour. We’ve come a long way from the leaves but appear to be moving back to locally sourced with more and more local, click and collect retail outlets.

About the Author

Mark Eggleton_popsop expert_m

Mark Eggleton is the Head of innovation at Sun Branding Solutions.