When you’re competing in a crowded marketplace, there are few things more important than being instantly recognizable. Your brand has to feel like the perfect fit for the audience you’ve created it for. Getting your packaging design right is the most obvious way to achieve this and the first step on this journey is choosing between the 7 main types of packaging.
When it comes to packaging, brand recognition comes from two components: the type of packaging you choose and the design you put on it. Think about it: Starbucks cups are instantly recognizable almost anywhere in the world. Lots of people can spot a can of Heinz baked beans from a mile away. When you see a Tiffany blue box, you immediately know what’s inside.
As you map out your brand identity, take some time to determine which types of packaging are right for your brand and of these types, which is the best. You’ve always got the option to stick your product in a generic box or bag, but when you can avoid being generic, do. Read on to see all the different packaging types available to you.
Choosing the right type of packaging
You can’t store a liquid in a cardboard box (obviously.) When you’re working out the right type of packaging for your product, there’s a lot to consider, like:
- How the product is stored (in your warehouse, on store shelves, while in transit and in the buyer’s home).
- Your product’s fragility—does it need to be cushioned from any potential bumps or falls?
- Your product’s shelf life. Is it a perishable food or drink that needs to be kept fresh?
- How many products are packaged together. A canister of dry roasted peanuts needs different packaging than an individual cake.
- How heavy your product is—when you’re shipping it, you pay by weight. Choosing heavy packaging for an already heavy item can mean shelling out for shipping.
There is a hierarchy when it comes to different types of packaging:
The most durable segment of packaging, this is usually comprised of heavy duty boxes that can protect (sometimes multiple) products against bumps and bashes.
Inner packaging provides another layer to cushion any blows: imagine the tissue paper inside a gift box or the bubble wrap that protects delicate items during transport.
Product packaging is—as you can probably imagine—what stays nearest and dearest to the individual product. It’s the box of your favorite chocolates or the protective layer you peel off your new phone screen. Read our guide to product packaging to find out the logistics of designing great packaging.
Look at how other brands that offer the same type of product package their products. You don’t have to package your product the same way everybody else is, but it’s generally a good idea to see what’s working for other brands like yours… with some products, only one type of packaging makes sense. For others, you’ve got room to play around and potentially subvert expectations, like packing a pair of gardening gloves in a reusable screwtop jar or selling dried beans in a box.
Take a look at the different kinds of packaging out there. Many products use two or more types of packaging, like paper and a box or a bottle and a printed label. Consider how different kinds of packaging work together and how they can work together to showcase your unique product.
The 7 types of packaging
When we say “boxes,” we don’t just mean your traditional square cardboard box. We mean every kind of box, even boxes that aren’t square—or cardboard. Cartons are boxes, metal tins are basically boxes… if it’s an enclosed container with rigid walls that protect the contents from impact, you’ve got yourself a box.
Boxes are one of the most common types of packaging because they’re easy and convenient. Need your packaging to sit steadily on the shelf or on the ground? Put it in a box with a flat bottom and stabilizing corners. Need packaging that’s easy to stack in a larger box or a shipping container? Boxes are simple. You can put pretty much anything in a box.
When it comes to design, boxes can also be very easy to design. You’ve got flat, stiff surfaces perfect for printing logos and other designs onto.
Remember how we said boxes don’t have to be square? A uniquely shaped box can be an effective way to make your packaging a focal point of your brand identity. If your product is sold on store shelves, this is huge—the packaging is the first thing potential buyers see.
When you’re designing boxes, think of how the box will actually be viewed by the buyer. Will their first glimpse be one of the box’s sides displayed on a store shelf, or will it be the top of the box as they pull it from a larger shipping box?
Also, let’s be real here… kids and cats love boxes. And if you’re a brand for kids, for cats or for the people who care for them, you can build extra “wow” factor into your packaging design by printing a fun design on your boxes that inspires parents to rework them into toys.
If your product is aimed at cats and their people, this might mean printing a design that makes the box look like a cottage or a castle complete with a drawbridge for the cat to go in and out. For a kids product, this might mean shapes that can be cut out and fit together to make gliders or a box that can be cut and folded into a dollhouse. Think outside the box!
This is the part where things get fancy. We’re thinking sleeves, stickers, ribbons, labels, tissue paper, drawstring bags… you can get as frilly as you like with outer packaging. It’s decorative, eye-catching and shows consumers what your brand is about.
Hone in on your brand identity and unleash your individuality. Be practical with the material you use, whether it’s a velvet purse for fine jewelry or grease-proof paper for burgers, you’ll find that some materials suit certain products better than others. Consider how it will pair with the other layer(s) of packaging, because this style is certainly too flimsy to go it alone.
Take a cardboard sleeve, for example. You’d usually use this as an outer layer of packaging to protect something, like a bar of soap. However, you need a packaging underdog to provide support. An extra layer of protection, like an airtight sheer film underneath the sleeve, encases the soap and assures the consumer that the product is hygienic and high quality. It also provides a smooth segway towards our next type of packaging.
When most people hear the word “vacuum packaging” they think of airplane food. In hindsight, that’s maybe just me. Airplane food is commonly packed in vacuum packed wrappers, but lots of other things, like cosmetics and skincare products, snacks and pallets of boxed or bottled goods are packed up like this as well.
Unlike other types of packaging like boxes and bags, wrappers are applied with machinery and often heat-sealed or vacuum-sealed around the product to eliminate any risk of contamination. There are numerous types of airtight wrappers, which you can learn about in this post about the different types of packaging wrappers.
Bottles are a great go-to when your product is a liquid, a lotion, supplements or a genie (just kidding on that last one).
Bottles come in all shapes and sizes, and they’re as varied as the kinds of liquids stored in them. You’ve got disposable plastic bottles for things like soda and spring water and at the opposite end of the spectrum, engraved and embossed bottles that are works of art in their own right. Any kind of bottle, disposable or collectible, benefits from thoughtful design.
When you’re designing a label for a bottle, think about the shape of the bottle. Depending on your budget and brand goals, you might opt to design custom-shaped bottles, or it might be a better choice to go with a generic-shaped bottle. Going with a “bottle-shaped” bottle most likely won’t hurt your brand, but going for a custom shape can really up the wow factor.
Bottle design tends to involve more than just creating a nice-looking label. If you’re going the custom route, you’ll also want to determine the type of closure that works best for your brand: screwtop, a cork or a swing-top.
If your product’s a liquid and you don’t want to pack it in a bottle, a can is your only other option. And even if your product isn’t liquid, a can is still an option…but it’s usually not the best option.
When you’re designing a can, you face a unique conundrum: the shape. Whether it’s a tall can or a short one, a skinny cylinder or a fat wide-mouthed soup can, you’ve got to design with that can’s curves in mind. We discussed designing cans and the different printing options at your fingertips in a recent post on craft beer branding.
Although your typical can is cylindrical, not all cans are. Sometimes, cans are flat with pull-tops, like the sardine can in the example below. Designing for these kinds of cans is more similar to designing a box than designing a cylindrical can because you’re designing for a flat label.
A close relative to the can is the canister. You’ll usually find canisters containing dry goods like vitamins, supplements, nuts and coffee beans—anything that needs to have the freshness locked in. Like a can, a canister is cylindrical, so you should create your design with this shape in mind. But unlike a can, a canister can be reusable, especially if it’s meant for goods like coffee beans or loose leaf tea.
This type of packaging speaks for itself. Like any dating ad, communicating a “good sense of humor” to your target audience often is the dealbreaker between you and your competitors. Depending on your product, it shows that you relate to each other and humanises your brand to create trust and—if you’re lucky—longtime consumer loyalty.
One of the most exciting things we’re seeing right now are the individual innovations designers are making to create more sustainable products. In terms of packaging, it’s things like using less materials without losing any quality or protection. It’s choosing only recycled materials and considering how to create an ethical production process with zero waste.
It’s no secret that this aspect is becoming increasingly important in design and if your brand isn’t actively pushing boundaries towards a greener world, you’re more likely to lose the respect, trust and business of your audience.
Designing a packaging identity
If your product has multiple packaging components, think of these components as pieces of a larger packaging identity. For example, you might ship custom glass statues in boxes and stuff the boxes with crumpled paper to absorb any shock during transit.
To understand the concept of a packaging identity better, think about the idea of brand identity. Your brand identity is your collection of brand design elements like your color palette, fonts, print ads and digital footprint. It also includes your packaging designs.
In turn, think of your collection of packaging types as your packaging identity. They can work together to communicate your brand in fun and intriguing ways, like if your product is a toy reptile or bird, packaging it in a plastic egg with the toy itself nestled in gel inserts to mimic the protective membrane of an actual egg. Or you might decide to wrap your product in tissue paper in one of your brand’s colors and package your wrapped product in a pouch that’s another one of your brand’s colors.
Your packaging identity can also include variations on your packaging design for different types of packaging, like how Holly McAlister used the same color palette and font to create two unique designs below, one for a loose leaf bag and the other for individual teabags.
Pack it up perfectly
When you’re bringing a great product to market, putting it in great packaging can be the difference between moderate success and becoming the next big thing. Find inspiration for your packaging design in the different types of packaging other brands in your field are using—you might see what’s working great and build that into your branding, or you could see a huge opportunity to reinvent the wheel and wow your buyers with innovative packaging that makes your product unforgettable.
Remember, your packaging should enhance buyers’ experience with your product, not steal the spotlight from it. Create an enjoyable unwrapping experience by designing the perfect packaging.