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27th IAPRI Symposium on Packaging 2015
Wrapping up your message;
sustainable storytelling through packaging
Renee Wever1*, Raisa Schermer2, Laureen Smit2 and Linda Vos2
1 Design Engineering department, Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands
2 student, Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands
Corresponding author name. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Keywords: advertising, sustainability, storytelling, consumers.
Within the topic of packaging and sustainability, historically, the first and main focus has been on
reduction of the environmental impact of the packaging itself. Recently, in line with the strong societal
attention for food waste, the notion of sustainable packaging is shifting towards optimizing the total
packaging-content combination [e.g. 1-5].
Besides contributing to the actual sustainability performance of a product-packaging combination, the
packaging can also play a role in communicating about sustainability. Such green marketing aspects of
packaging may either focus on the sustainability credentials of the packaging itself, or on the
credentials of the product contained (or even the company or brand). Communication about
sustainability can be explicit either in words or labels (see e.g. ) or implicit through materials,
images and/or colours. The strategic use of colour in packaging is a field on its own . Such an
implicit form could be described as sustainable aesthetics. The explicit form can be presented either
as factual information or in the form of stories.
People engage more with stories than with factual information, as it allows for easier connections with
previous experiences . Hence, storytelling makes for a compelling marketing tactic. Storytelling has
for instance been shown to interest consumers for food products otherwise deemed uninteresting .
Woodside et al  give five reasons why stories are such strong marketing mechanisms:
1. People think in narratives,
2. A large proportion of memories are anecdotal,
3. Remembering and retelling stories is a positive experience,
4. Brand stories help people to be who they want to be,
5. Stories help bring clarity.
Abstract: Besides contributing to the actual sustainability performance of a product-packaging
combination, packaging can also play a role in communicating about sustainability. Such green
marketing aspects of packaging may either focus on the sustainability credentials of the packaging
itself, or on the credentials of the product contained (or even the company or brand). Communication
about sustainability can be explicit (in words or labels) or implicit (through materials, images and/or
colours). The implicit form could be described as sustainable aesthetics. The explicit form can be
presented either as factual information or in the form of stories.
People engage more with stories than with factual information, as it allows for easier connections with
previous experiences. Hence, storytelling makes for a compelling marketing tactic. Instead of telling a
story yourself as a brand, enabling and encouraging your consumers to tell your story to their peers
offers strong marketing potential as well.
This paper will explore sustainable storytelling through packaging by reviewing the literature on
storytelling within marketing, with a specific focus on sustainability and on packaging. Furthermore,
two small empirical studies will be presented, followed by a design case study.
Woodside et al  go on to explain what makes for a good story, without addressing the aspects of
packaging or sustainability, which are the focus of this paper. Crittenden et al  argues that
sustainability is slowly being seen as an opportunity instead of a problem in marketing, and that
storytelling is one of the tools to change the DNA of an organisation to a more sustainable one.
Although it wasn’t included in an earlier attempt to map the social component of sustainable
packaging , but this topic could be perceived as a part of the social component of sustainability,
somewhat in line with the perspective of Nordin and Selke . Some research lines that focus on the
role of users in creating sustainable packaging, such as Lofthouse et al  on refillable packaging
and Wever et al  on litter prevention, may be considered to be related to storytelling, in so far as
those approaches would result in explaining to users for which sustainability reasons certain design
choices were made.
2 Some examples from practice
Academic literature does not provide many examples of sustainable storytelling through packaging,
although Jedlička  provides the example of backgroundstories.com, an attempt to offer consumers
insight into a brands environmental efforts through storytelling, without pushing it onto consumers.
She does not provide details on the actual application and or successfulness of this approach, though.
In practice there are however many companies utilizing storytelling in relation with packaging and
Unilever, for their Dutch detergent brand Robijn, ran TV commercials that were quite literally
storytelling, as it involved a physical pop-up book, with a child as voiceover, telling about the
sustainability success of concentrated detergents, resulting in less packaging, and less distribution
(and therefore less scared hedgehogs).
Tony’s Chocolonely is a Dutch brand striving for fair chocolate. Their chocolate bar is divided into
irregular pieces, which is meant to represent the unfair distribution of profits along the value chain of
chocolate. This story is further explained on the inside of the wrapper.
Innocent smoothies is a brand well-known for their stories. They worked with dedicated copywriters
for the jokes that are on their packaging (such as the rules for riding a dinosaur). In between the
jokes they communicate about their story of the ethics of the brand and the quality of their
Boxed Water starts their story with a friendly ‘hello’, continuing with an explanation why they believe
that “Boxed water is better”, which has to do with their packaging supposedly being more
environmentally friendly than bottled water in their geographical context.
3 Conceptual framework
Brands can communicate about the sustainability of their packaging or can communicate through their
packaging. As mentioned before, this communication can be on packaging, product and brand level. If
we map the practical examples from the previous section, we get the classification presented in Table
1 below. Such a classification or taxonomy can be useful in exploring options when considering a
The examples in section 2 are all primarily aimed at telling the brand story to their consumer.
Although the story of Tony’s Chocolonely is on the inside of the wrapper, thus aimed at the eater
(who need not be the purchaser). However, as Figure 1 clarifies, the packaging may also help in
having your consumers spread your story to their peers, either directly or through social media (which
will be further explored in section 5, the design case study).
Table 1: classification of sustainable storytelling and packaging.
Figure 1: Packaging as story in two different conversations.
4 Exploratory studies
In order to obtain some insight into how consumers evaluate sustainable storytelling through
packaging, two small studies were executed. In study 1, 35 people exiting a Dutch supermarket
(Albert Heijn) were asked to quickly rank 5 different packages with regards to sustainability
. The participants were Dutch, aged 16 or over, with 14 male, 21 female.
These five packs (see figure 2) applied sustainability-connected communication, some usuing
sustainable aesthetics (e.g. brown colours), while others used more storytelling techniques. Besides
Innocent and Tony’s, which were mentioned in section 2, there was a green box of ‘Blije Kip’ (‘happy
chicken” in Dutch) with several sustainability-related labels. There was a box of Dorset cereals, which
didn’t hold any sustainability claim, but utilizes a graphical design strongly linked to sustainability,
through non-gloss printing in brownish colours. And there was a box of Homemade traditional Dutch
cookies. This cookie mix is packed in a brown FSC certified cardboard box, with simple graphics.
After completing the ranking task, participants were asked to explain why they ranked the packs the
way they did. In this study the storytelling packages scored worse than the sustainable aesthetics
eggs were the most popular, followed by the two brown cardboard boxes (Homemade and
Dorset cereal). Most people looked at the material (and colour of those materials). That is the main
reason why the green and brown products scored the best (see Figure 3). Due to those most
important factors, Innocent and Tony’s did not score so well. Another point which became clear, was
the fact that many people associate a certain product with (un)sustainability. Cereals for instance are
healthy and kind of organic and therefore associated with sustainability. Tony’s and Innocent were
ranked last most frequently (13 and 16 times respectively), see Figure 3. In this figure also the
average rank and reasons for chosen ranking are provided.
Figure 2: The five packs used in study 1. The top 3 were also included in study 2.
After the first study, the common opinion about a sustainable appearance was quite clear. However,
the two packs that were considered as having the least sustainable appearance were the Tony’s and
the Innocent. These packages tell their sustainable message through storytelling, not by their colours
or materials. In the first study, none of the participants based his or her choice on storytelling.
However, this may be based on the time-limited research method. Hence, a second study was
In study 2, a different sample of 35 people was interviewed in more depth about three storytelling
packages, to gain more insight into what works and what does not. In this study the top three packs
from Figure 2 were used.
The goal of this second research is to find out which way of storytelling is the most effective for an
average consumer. To be sure that participants understand our objective, it was explained to them
how every package tells its story. In this way, everybody got the same information before choosing
the best packaging. Participants were allowed to look at the products carefully and then chose the one
which they liked or which attracted the most. The different ways of storytelling are the colours, big
text (eggs), the jokes and pictures (Innocent), and the story inside the package of Tony’s.
Figure 3: results form study 1.
The Blije kip eggs scored the best again (54.3%), because most people wanted to see the story at
first sight. After that the Innocent drink scored quite good (31.4%), because of the little jokes and the
presence of many coloured pictures. The fact that Tony’s puts its story inside the wrapper is
considered as the least attractive (first pick of only 10.3%). The wish of participants to see the story
at first sight corresponds with the findings of the first study. However, participants who were in favour
of Tony’s actually appreciated the fact that it was inside. It should be said that nearly all participants
who chose Tony’s as favourite, knew the product beforehand. The other two products were also
chosen by participants that were not familiar with those products.
5 Design case study
The two surveys in the previous section were part of the analysis phase of a student design project
for the packaging of a new smartphone for the company Fairphone. Fairphone is an Amsterdam-based
company striving to bring fairness to the supply chain of mobile phones. With their Fairphone 1, which
launched late 2013 in a limited badge, the focus was strongly on conflict minerals used in the
production of mobile phones. Within the Fairphone 1 box, users already received a set of postcards
that told the story of the phone, see Figure 4. However, it turned out that people did not send out
these postcards to their friends. Instead, they posted pictures of them on social media. This let the
design team to a concept integrating social media ‘props’, allowing users to integrate them in selfies
posted on social media. The props are an integral part of the box the students designed for
Fairphone. In this way the packaging becomes more intriguing, thus communicating more effectively
between the brand and the user, while simultaneously inviting the user to communicate with their
social network. As Fairphone does no direct advertising themselves, having their story spread by users
through social media is fully in line with their communication strategy. As such,
Figure 4: The postcards coming with the Fairphone 1.
6 Discussion and conclusions
Green marketing is a well established field, in which packaging can play and has played a role as a
communicator. All to often this role has been on communicating through private or third-party labels.
While in green marketing, in general, the power of storytelling is acknowledged, in relation to
sustainable packaging, this attention has been limited in academic literature and sustainable design
guidelines (notwithstanding that there are many examples from practice).
However, sustainable storytelling through packaging may well result in an increased value perception
in the eyes of the consumer. As such, it is a sustainable design strategy that by itself does nothing to
reduce the eco-burden of a packaging, but does add to the overall sustainability of the total design,
when viewed from the Eco-costs/value ratio approach .
This paper has provided a first analysis of the different approaches to sustainable storytelling through
packaging, and has pinpointed some of the challenges. These challenges mainly lie with the current
marketing attention on packaging having a focus on the so-called first-moment of truth, i.e. the
communication power of a packaging on a retail shelf. It is known that this in-store communication
window has a very limited timeframe, which is a challenge if you want to tell a story. Packaging
design that strives to tell a sustainable story may perform worse on first impressions than packaging
design based on green aesthetics or eco-labelling. However, it is aimed more at the later options of
communication, striving the have a lasting conversation with users once a product and a brand have
entered their lives. This does mean that evaluating the effectiveness of a design concept requires
different research techniques, as packaging design testing is often focussed on first, or at least quick
impressions [e.g. 18-20]. However, focus groups, which are often used in the packaging world, might
be highly suited.
This paper distinguished between companies using storytelling in other media to tell about their
sustainable packaging, and companies using their packaging to tell stories about their sustainability
efforts, which can then subsequently be on a company/brand, product or packaging level. This paper
also distinguished sustainable storytelling between brands and their users on the one hand, and
between users and their social networks on the other. Both seem to provide strong opportunities for
sustainable marketing, and may well go hand in hand.
The authors would like to thank Fairphone, and in particular Miquel Ballester Salvà for his support of
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