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The Future is Now: How Today's Best Brands Prepare for the Consumer of Tomorrow

by Theresa Christine Johnson on 03/27/2017 | 13 Minute Read

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The future is all around us. We live in the present, but the clues for what is to come can be spotted if you look carefully. Today's fringe movements are tomorrow’s mainstream. By paying close attention to the right cues, we can get ahead of the curve. By listening and learning, we stay on top of the trends.

So, as we continuously pour through the latest designs and consumer insights, what do we see? As always, the world is shifting, tastes are changing, and today’s common practices are starting to be questioned and re-imagined. It seems as if things are converging and diverging at the same time. Consumers demand more of brands and at the same time demand that they get out of the way and disappear. We are paying more for less, and less for more. This may all sound contradictory, but what is actually happening is a transformation of expectations. Consumers today are redefining relationships with brands. They are rethinking what it means to shop, what a dollar is worth, and how they express values. These are only murmurs today but tomorrow they will be the rules of the game.

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The Anti-packaging movement is a large-scale redefinition of packaging. Consumers demand brands to be more thoughtful, ambitious, and take more responsibility when it comes to the packaging of their goods. Taking recycling further, brands now are thinking of precycling, which entails eliminating waste by not designing it to begin with. Packaging is either becoming part of the product experience and coexisting with the product or it is being stripped away completely. Both of these contrasting movements are happening simultaneously and are actually driven by the same philosophy: packaging is no longer sufficient as a disposable, transient receptacle. Packaging, which was once conceived as a means—with the sole purpose of protecting and delivering—has come to be reconceived as an end in itself. The life-cycle of the parcel should either live forever, or not at all. It has become more than just the messenger; increasingly, it is the message.

Part of this is driven by the seismic disruption of e-commerce, the bulk of which we have still yet to experience. We are heading towards a shelfless future. And in a future without shelves, how will packaging be conceived? As NPD reports, "52 million American consumers currently shop for groceries online, that number is expected to grow by 40% in the next six months alone." Our future looks radically different from the present. Old companies will be debunked and new companies will be crowned for their ability to adapt to the changes.

Tomorrow Machine

One way of reducing waste is by eliminating the line between the packaging and the product. Tomorrow Machine is an innovative design studio with offices in Stockholm and Paris, and in 2013 they won the The Dieline Packaging Design Awards for Sustainability Packaging. They created a series of food packaging designs that are completely biodegradable—the food gets packaged in various crystallized or gelatinous materials that when opened can combine with the food. As they explain one of their designs, "Gel of the agar-agar seaweed and water are the only components used to make this package. To open it you pick the top. The package will wither at the same rate as it’s content. It is made for drinks that have a short life span and needs to be refrigerated, fresh juice, smoothies and cream for example. The packaging reacts to its environment, for example you could, just by looking at the package, see if it has been exposed to excessive heat during transport.”

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Another example of Tomorrow Machine's unique approach to packaging design is their self-cleaning cup and plate made entirely out of cellulose. The design has a texture which repels dirt, similar to a lotus leaf. As Tomorrow Machine explains, "[It is] a product that not only saves resources during manufacturing but also when it is used because it does not need water and chemicals to be kept clean."  Like many of their designs, it is inspired by biomimicry and natural shapes and processes that can be found in nature. All of this follows Tomorrow Machine's philosophy of combining science and creativity to discover innovative solutions for today's most pressing problems. Tomorrow Machine is leading the charge towards the shelfless future. In a future without shelves, the packaging of food must also disappear and become part of the product experience.


Following along the same consumer pressures, branding will also continue to get pushed out of the way. The anti-branding movement is a push in design towards simplicity. Part of this push is in response to social media saturation and shrinking attention spans. (As Time magazine wrote in 2015, "You now have a shorter attention span than a goldfish." The fact that designers and marketers are now selling to an overwhelmed, over-distracted audience has changed the way brands behave. Companies are feeling the pressure from consumers to clarify their messaging and designs. They want to be recognized in the blink of an eye so their branding and product messaging continues to be cut back. A single color, a single icon, a single phrase gets repeated over and over again on different channels in different contexts. Being concise and consistent is the technique used to cut through the noise and make a memorable impression. Part of this means doing away with traditional branding.

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Soylent's goal "is to support the development of a world where access to affordable, complete nutrition—one of the most basic human needs—is no longer a challenge, but a means of empowerment." The brand that positions itself as the future of food is also practicing the future of branding, matching their approach to branding along with their food. They produce meal replacement that "provides maximum nutrition with minimal effort,” and this is a great way of describing their brand as well. They worked with OkFocus to produce the packaging that would represent their simplified view of the world. It is minimalism to the max: a pure white body with a black cap. The packaging conveys the brand values of purity through simplicity, and it seeks to be a lifestyle brand by acting as a canvas upon which your lifestyle can manifest itself. Soylent offers a subscription service, which is important since "60% of all millennials are willing to use an online subscription service."

This is a brand designed for a shelfless world; in fact, their shelf is their website. They have built a cohesive narrative and digital experience. Because so much of what was once packing materials has been transformed into pixels, the branding and packaging can disappear.

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This beer by Bavarian craft brewer AND UNION utilizes solid colors, simple names, and a unique texture. The color of the can corresponds to the type of beer, making it easier for today’s fast-paced consumers to quickly identify their beer of choice. It is lovable and memorable for how simple it is.

The anti-branding movement is an attempt to solve what anti-packaging also seeks to address. By creating a design that is more art than overt branding, it may push the consumer to keep the object. It has intrinsic value in its simple design. As AND UNION co-founder Rui Esteves said, “We wanted to create a can that you hesitate to throw away after you’ve had the beer. I end up leaving stacks of these empty cans in my kitchen because I feel bad throwing such a beautiful thing in the recycling.”

More for less

Consumer habits also continue to shift as brands step forward to offer value propositions that have hitherto not existed. As more brands cut out the middle man and deliver directly to the consumer through digital platforms, they decrease margins and build direct relationships. They utilize technology to enable customization at scale. Today, consumers are awash in products that were once luxuries only available to high-end consumers.

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Hawthorne is an online cologne brand for men. They are unique because they have a modern user-interface that helps each customer create a scent by taking a survey about their biometrics and lifestyle. Going beyond mere personal preferences for a scent, it also takes into account what a client eats and the type of work environment he has. After filling out the questionnaire, the user proceeds to the checkout with two scents for $100.

Hawthorne is a primary example of the modern approach to building a company by offering a human touch at scale. Technology has enabled this rise of scaling the illusion of high-touch, white glove experiences. You can witness it in almost every industry. Oscar is a health insurance startup that has designed their voice, approach, and customer experience in an incredibly human way. Lemonade, another insurance company, works to simplify home and renters insurance. Their brand relies on illustrations and simple language, but more importantly, they are able to be priced competitively because of the digital efficiencies. And even in today's world, as Nielsen reports, the top two drivers of consumer choice are price and convenience. "72% [of North American respondents] say prices drive them to switch stores."

Today’s young, entry-level consumers can wear designer Warby Parker eye wear and their own custom perfume while being driven by an on-demand private driver. They can have very personal relationships with their insurance apps. Yesterday’s luxuries are today’s reality for many.

Less costs more

Meanwhile, there is a contrasting push in the opposite direction of pricing strategy. Yesterday’s low-priced items are being redesigned and repriced. In a turn of events, consumers are willing to pay more for less. Perhaps working in tandem with the spare cash they have from the aforementioned low-cost luxuries, they are willing to pay a premium for traditionally low-cost items. Lattes are pushing $5, the once-humble piece of toast is now a common menu item priced over $4, and chocolate is an entirely new category in luxury.

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Remember when a chocolate bar used to be an innocent, idle junk food? Those days are gone. Today, chocolate bars are art objects. This era, ushered in by Brooklyn’s Mast Brothers, has led to a revolution in new chocolate brands each seemingly striving to differentiate themselves by packaging alone. Chocolate bars cost several dollars, though much of that must be to cover the cost of packaging.

Harper Macaw's chocolate bars are dedicated to tropical reforestation. Their packaging was designed to evoke the Brazilian rain forest by Design Army. UNELEFANTE, a unique gift store, teamed up with Chef Jorge Llanderal to create the Jackson Pollock of artisanal chocolate bars. We’ve also rounded up many of the latest chocolate bar designs. The designs are beautiful, featuring embossing, foiling, delicate handmade paper. The more absurd the better. Whether you actually ever open the packaging or not, the design looks good enough to eat.

Physical packaged goods are actually being aided by the rise of digital. As Google reported, "Foot traffic in retail stores continues to decline...yet during that same period, retailers have seen in-store purchases rise." This is because "87% of consumers do research before entering a store." So if a brand can connect with an audience digitally, their physical offerings will benefit greatly.

Answers are often found in their antithesis. Trends are driven by a desire to rebel against what came before it. This seems to be a constant: the taste for the new and the fatigue with the old continues to drive trends. The anti-establishment climate pushes out the old and creates a new establishment, which we quickly tire of and push out again to establish a new anti-establishment establishment. This cycle persists while the details of the trends continue to shift back and forth.

Today, brands are both being pushed out of the way and thrust into the spotlight. We want them to stand for values but simplify their designs and messaging so they can be repurposed for our own transforming needs. At the same time, we continue to grow more personal with brands—we hold everyday items to be more dear and formerly luxury items to be attainable. The lines between digital and physical are blurred. Shelves are disappearing, and in their place, consumers are reaching with outstretched arms. As innovative brands and novel packaging designs get smarter, more subtle, and more sustainable, consumers continue to rise up to find them.

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Grant WenzlauGrant Wenzlau is a writer and brand strategist in Los Angeles. He co-founded OSSO Design and Tinker Watches. He is the former editor of HOW Magazine and The Dieline. He has consulted for YouTube, The White House, and many startups. When he is not doing these super fun and exciting thinks he is most likely driving in his Jeep.