Technology makes everything pretty – even cardboard boxes

by Joseph Flaherty on March 4, 2012

There is no better proof that we are living in a golden age of design than the fact that a simple cardboard box can be an object d’art. Over the past 18 months “Subscription Ecommerce” has become a popular segment of the online shopping market and brought forth a renaissance in the craft of corrugation. For those unfamiliar with the term, subscription ecommerce is basically a “fruit-of-the-month club” where you get cosmetics, shoes, or other goods mailed to you every month instead of grapefruit. The model has exploded based on some early success like BirchBox and StyleMint and is spreading into a variety of other product categories.

Luxury subscriptions bring a bit of random fun into the life of the customer and provide a steady revenue stream for the merchant, but also create a new set of challenges like creating a brand image with few touch points. With these services the brand is paramount. As a customer you are paying people to choose products for you, sight unseen. With no physical store to set the mood, retailers can only rely on their websites and shipper boxes to build the brand. Packaging is now a major part of the “value add” and is the primary way to assure customers that they have made a smart decision trusting the taste/style of a given marchant. Fortunately for customers, this has made getting a package in the mail even more fun.

Because of their market dominance and reputation for low prices, Amazon hasn’t really done much to dress up their up their boxes in over 10 years. They have a dominant position in the industry and a reputation for operations and delivery so a simple box fits their brand well.

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Alternatively, Zappos was one of the first major ecommerce merchants to set their boxes apart with a distinct color and brand identity. When you see their distinctive box on your stoop, you know exactly what’s waiting for you. This fits with Zappos’ CEO Tony Hsieh’s desire to build a brand around customer service and their white box has become a symbol that represents this goal.

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BirchBox is the biggest success so far in the subscription ecommerce market and they  have taken a cue from Zappos by staking out a brand position with the color of their shipper box. However, corrugated cardboard gets damaged and doesn’t create a sense of an upscale cosmetics brand so BirchBox also created a more refined, foil stamped inner box. This adds cost, but is necessary to make the experience feel worthwhile. They have also customized the box for partners like Cynthia Rowley in the past.

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Bluum, a subscription service for new moms, follows BirchBox’s style with a differentiated outer/inner package. Bluum also invests in a nice baby blue wrapping paper to help make the “out-of’the-box” experience as pleasurable as possible. Just as Godiva and Apple spend money to have their mall stores reflect their brands, ecommerce companies especially subscription based ones, will need to invest in presentation.

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LoveWithFood (subscription food samples) doesn’t do much with their design, but the bold red color helps it stand out from the rest, unless you compare it to Bluum. Because there has been so little innovation in mail order packaging design, there is an opportunity for startups to stake out a color identity for their packaging the Tiffany has with its distinct blue green boxes.

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This will create very real trademark issues. While Bluum and LoveWithFood are in different product categories, BabbaCo a service that mails new craft kits for kids out every month has staked out a bold green color position…

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…Unfortunately, so did their direct competitor KiwiCrate. Kiwi Crate and BabbaCo have essentially the same offering, monthly crafts for kids, but also share a color scheme that is confusingly similar. Their target user group of children under 6 years of age would be unlikely to recognize a difference between the “green boxes”. There is a bit of a land grab for colors in these markets and this highlights the limited real estate on the color wheel.

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Citrus Lane

Clever designers can use the nature of their materials to the benefit of the brand. Citrus Lane sends parents ecologically friendly baby toys and supplies.  Instead of a full color box they opted instead for a bright yellow stripe on an otherwise unadorned, natural paper fiber box. This design choice reflects the brand promise that you are getting natural products.

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Monthly gourmet food vendor Foodzie does a nice job reflecting their organic/small producer ethos with a package designed around imperfections from grungy type, crude printing, and unadorned cardboard. Once the box is opened though the presentation takes on a much more polished feel. Each mailer comes with a booklet that explains the origins of the food samples.

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Lollihop takes a similar approach to Foodzie, by providing background about the gourmet food samples they ship, but also add in thematic extras, like a package around Christmas that had little silver bells attached to the lid.

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Sometimes the best package isn’t a box. Because StyleMint is focused on shipping Tshirts they can eschew the box and instead wrap the small, light garments in brown paper packaging (tied up with string) saving on shipping while lending a cool, artisinal vibe to the product.
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Alula Editions

Alula Editions mails fiber arts on a monthly basis and packages them in exquisite envelopes that look almost as nice as the artwork inside. Each package is nicely finished with a ribbon and clearly communicates a brand image that exists outside of the individual contents.

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Quarterly is a subscription service where you receive “Wonderful Things” from interesting people. The interesting people are largely designers and hence the package is nicely minimal on the outside to reveal a bold and striking wrapping paper on the inside. The contents vary month to month, but they always seem cool.

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Shoe Dazzle

ShoeDazzle has a natural box style to use, but have created over the top feminine pink/flower graphics to tightly target a specific type of shopper. Their brand feels as real as any retailer.

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Stylist Pick

Stylist Pick ships cool clothing items every month and they emphasize it with a sleek, glossy, black shoe box. The items inside all come from different producers, but have been blessed with coolness by this slick package.

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Trunk Club

Trunk Club sends men several articles of clothing each month, which they can try them on, send back what they dislike, and pay for the rest. This design artfully takes advantage of the brown paper texture and incorporates the handle in a cute way that makes it feel just a little more like a trunk than a cardboard box. Even the random postage stickers and hand written notes added in transit help build the brand value for Trunk Club. The handle puts the design over the top.

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Virginia Postrel wrote a great book called the Substance of Style arguing how changes in technology and culture were increasing the aesthetic sensitivity of the population. She pointed out that an average consumer, shopping at Target, could choose between no fewer than six designer toilet brushes. She wrote that book back in 2003, but almost 10 years later, trends in technology, commerce, and culture only seem to be accelerating this phenomena. If the lowly cardboard shipper box can become an artwork, is there anything that can’t given the right market forces?



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  • @rkosully

    Great article (and, of course, the photos really help). Thanks for the roundup!

  • Joseph Flaherty

    Thanks for the kind words and for stopping by!

  • guest

    I’m surprised not mention of Apple Inc’s packaging. They’ve been doing some nice stuff for a while now.

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