When the packaging is part of the product itself

What happens when the packaging is part of the product itself?

Packaging performs different tasks:

  • Presentation (keep forever) – expensive watch; jewellery
  • Protective (discard immediately) – computer; bicycle; shoes
  • Functioning (continuous use) – cling film; washing detergent

Each of these types has different requirements. Each creates a particular set of user expectations.


Photo credit: TimeKeeperForum

Presentation packaging is likely to be an enduring reminder of the product, its value and its attraction. Poor quality packaging will detract from the value of the product. In all probability it won’t be used in conjunction with the original product after its initial opening but may be used to store other (generally small) items.

Protective packaging clearly needs to be adequately protective, but it also needs to be readily removable; easily discarded so probably needs to be recognised as environmentally friendly. It is unlikely to have ongoing impact on the way the product is perceived unless it induces wrap rage in the user – in which case the impact will be negative. This is still very much evident in everyday products and is the subject of a separate post. Protective packaging can have a further use, beyond that of protecting the original product – it may be reused or repurposed. Shoe boxes, for example, are often used to store different items (including shoes sometimes). In this case, the quality of the packaging can have an enduring effect on the perceived value of the product, particularly if it is clearly identifiable.

Functioning packaging is much harder to get right because it is difficult to distinguish it from the product itself. It also needs to last as long as the product itself – failure to do so will seriously reduce the value of the product, as described in the cling film example below.

An example – Cling film

recently bought some cling film from a supermarket in France. It cost exactly the same as what I buy in the UK and the cling film itself is identical – it appears to be of similar thickness, strength and clinginess. But there is a world of difference when considering the dispenser – the cardboard box in which it is packaged, complete with its serrated edge. In the French version* [see note below], the cling film itself has outlasted the dispenser, which is now damaged beyond the point of being useful. It cannot function properly as a dispenser, and is completely unable to cut the film as it is dispensed. With the same amount of use, the UK version remains fully functional.


French version


British version

With both versions available to me in the kitchen drawer, the comparison is immediately obvious. And every time I use the French version it reminds me of its poor quality. There’s nothing wrong with the product itself (the cling film), but the dispenser is part of it. I cringe every time I have to use it, and have vowed never to buy it again.


Japanese version

Without wishing to sound like a complete geek, I also have a roll of Japanese cling film. It was a gift from a colleague (don’t ask), so I’m not sure how much it cost. The film itself is stronger so I imagine it was more expensive, but the real difference is the box. This has to be the Rolls Royce of cling film dispensers – using it is an absolute joy. In terms of a Net Promoter Score I would expect it to score 100.

The problem here is that the French product is utterly hopeless and scores a zero from me every time, simply because of the packaging. The cardboard of the British version is very slightly thicker and lasts much longer. It is altogether more functional and makes the product more usable. The French version, while perhaps having a marginal cost benefit, ruins an otherwise adequate product. Had this packaging been purely protective in nature, it would have been immediately discarded without adversely affecting the quality of the product.

Many other examples exist, frequently in cleaning- or kitchen-related products. The cling film example above illustrates a general point:

  • When the packaging becomes a necessary part of the product itself, greater attention needs to be given to the quality of the packaging.

This raises another point:

  • If functional packaging plays such an important part in the overall perception of the product, why is it often so poor? Cost is clearly an issue, but Net Promoter Score and brand retention must also be important factors. The smallest extra cost required to deliver a continuous delightful experience must surely be justifiable.
  • The idea of the packaging doubling-up as a dispenser was initially regarded as a nicety – something extra. Over time it has come to be regarded as a core feature rather than a differentiator. And as such, it has to work effectively.
  • The example of an expensive watch or piece of jewellery with a delightful package presents a contradictory picture. It is unlikely to result in a repeat purchase – even if the packaging exceeds the user’s expectations. In this situation, the expectation is that the package will be delightful because of the cost of the product itself.

In summary:

Do not reduce the cost of functional packaging to the point where it ceases to be functional – it is a false economy.

What do you think? Please add a comment below. Or subscribe to this blog to automatically receive updates.

*Note: This is not a general comment about French vs British (or even Japanese) product. I’m sure there are equally British versions which compare poorly with the French version. I label these as French and British versions solely to avoid referring to particular brand names 🙂

Further reading:


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