The hot MTV program "Pimp My Ride" is a prime example of how a cultural value of today's consumer speaks to customization. Customization is not a new concept but one that has reappeared with a vengeance in so many industries. Still, for all the clear indications that customization is a key consumer value—the business of packaging design is behind the curve.
There are an ever-increasing number of business sectors that cater to the mainstream customer seeking that which is "made to order;" these include clothes, cars and body parts to athletic equipment. Even retail stores are starting to improve the shopping experience through customization and pushing the limits. Yet, we in packaging design still see a customized consumer packaging design as having a singular size, shape, design, and aesthetic.
Certainly in many ways packaging design is all about customization. Designs are based on the needs, desires, and values of individual consumers, but we are really designing for the "mass individual." We don't offer the design-savvy consumer an opportunity to tailor their own packaging based on their personal style.
Perhaps our businesses model could follow other industries. What seems like a new phenomenon can become a progressive business practice. We could move forward into the exciting direction away from "masstige" and toward individualization.
The British handbag designer, Anya Hindmarch, brilliantly adapted this concept to her own profession and began a line of Be a Bag products in 2001. The upscale Be a Bag line allows customers to personalize their handbag with an image of their choice. When BMW reintroduced the Mini Cooper, they took customization to a whole new level. Not only can consumers customize every aspect of their car, now Mini Cooper drivers will have customized billboard advertisements.
The Mini Cooper advertising experiment targets approximately 1,000 Mini owners in select cities. Through a coded-chip embedded in their key fobs the drivers will be the target of billboard ads that are personal, exclusive, playful messages based on questions the owner filled out. Another example is Windsor Vineyards, the North Coast winery, which has embraced customization by enabling the purchaser to specify the body copy on their wine label.
It is very possible the mass brand concept is going to have to be reassessed so that it speaks to the individual consumer rather than the average one. Mass appeal, along with "masstige," are values that will soon wane. There are a growing number of small retail businesses that desire an exclusive packaging structure in small runs.
Small consumer product companies are in search of the manufacturers, marketers and designers that will service their needs with a truly tailored solution. The time has come for the end-users or consumers to be able to customize their in-home packaging. Imagine a line of packaging designs that are styled exclusively for a family or individual—truly a "private" label.
How we got here
The customization concept harkens back to a time long ago when our ancestors brought their own packaging—a container, bag, or bottle—back into the retail shop to be refilled. Today, there are countless products that would do well as refills, and consumers can learn to embrace this value and truly respect the marketer that seizes this opportunity.
Why shouldn't a consumer be able to select from an array of containers from the manufacturer and simply purchase the refill package? Companies would be able to promote their environmental responsibility of saving packaging while creating loyal customers that appreciate convenience, customization, and corporate responsibility.
In addition, the marketers could truly gain entry into specific consumers' houses, understand their standards of living, appreciate their aesthetic sensibilities, and develop products specific to their individual lifestyles. Although, as analyst Carrie A. Johnson of the market research firm Forrester claims, "The cost to produce one-off custom products is high, and it affects both front- and back-end systems." However, she continues, the customization "provides a new channel for manufacturers to reach out to buyers directly, and an opportunity to fine-tune their product mix based on direct observations of consumer behavior—consumers who are opinion leaders with greater than average influence."
Where do we go now?
With the heightened level of design aesthetics across the country, there is really no reason why the packaging of consumer products should not fit exactly the way the end-user would like them to in their home with an appearance that matches their style and with product information that is specific to their individual needs.
Today's consumers desire packaging structures that fit neatly in their refrigerators, cosmetics and beauty care products that can be easily organized and identified within their own personal space, and even dry goods that work within individual kitchen environments. Add to that the desire for pharmaceuticals that have labels printed to meet a consumers' eyesight limitations and have structures that are fashionable and not antiquated.
One of the easiest places to start on the road to real customization is in the self-serve areas of supermarkets. In the area of the store where the shoppers fill their own containers, there should be multiple choices of packaging containers and the ability to create individualized labels with the specific information. Hypermarkets and big box stores have an opportunity to attract the individual within the mass, to bring the shopping experience back to a more personal level by providing custom packaging opportunities.
Smaller stores are making a comeback for exactly that reason—the personal experience and customization fits naturally in their arena. Since many of these retail markets cater to consumers that pay more for specialty items, the opportunity exists to enhance their experience with personalized packaging.
So how can we enhance our value to the next generation and convey values to consumers? Maybe modeling our business after Pimp My Ride might not be a bad way to start. For this tech generation, not only is bling king and style everything, but customization is a key behavioral asset and skill. Their marketing savvy demands that we dramatically alter our mode of operation—for if we don't consider their values now, our businesses will be lost in the transformational change.
Marianne R. Klimchuk is the Associate Chairperson of the Packaging Design Department at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where she has written curriculum, taught courses, and directed the packaging program for 13 years. Marianne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.