Packaging during a pandemic

The future of branded packaging and technology

16 & 17 February 2022 | Hall 1 NEC Birmingham

Packaging during a pandemic

When we originally locked down we had very little idea what to expect or indeed for how long. Major behavioural changes have come about as a result of the ongoing pandemic and our lock-down experiences, but what has been incredible to watch, as someone who has spent many years studying consumer behaviour, is just how big an impact the Covid pandemic has had on developing new habits and emerging trends, and what that means for packaging?

Packaging Perceptions

People’s perceptions of packaging have changed during the course of the pandemic. Its fundamental role as a ‘first line of defence’ to protect our products came under scrutiny in the first lock down. With many questioning whether packaging itself could actually be a ‘super-spreader’. Due to that fear, we adopted many precautionary measures and questioned the integrity of packaging. For example, every crate of food that was delivered to my front door was sanitised! It became a family event, getting bags of new products out on the worktop and wiping them down with disinfectant! Plastic bags that had once been banished became a ‘disposable saviour’ in the handling of food quickly and efficiently without prolonging time at the front door, in the awkward moment of interaction with delivery drivers. Although I found this behaviour irrational after a few weeks, especially after the FDA and other respected bodies announced there was limited data to support the notion that Covid could be transmitted via interaction with packaging, astonishingly, a snap poll of people interviewed by communication agency G&S, stated that 44% of respondents were continuing to clean products with disinfectant, up until December of last year. Although this cleaning frenzy has now subsided, (my family quickly switched back to the normal habit of letting me pack all the shopping away, single-handedly)… the Covid pandemic has left a significant mark on everyone’s relationship with products and packaging.

Packaging interactions & brand communication

Many marketing campaign’s focussed on this changing behaviour with varying levels of success last year. McDonald’s #TOUCHTHIS campaign in Germany directed people towards their pre-order app using the nostalgic 90’s MC Hammer track ‘U can’t touch this’. Nescafe, more sensitively promoted optimism and togetherness with their Good Morning campaign, encouraging people to start the day with a positive mindset over a coffee. One global soap manufacturer considered the launch of new label designs across some of their brands in the midst of the pandemic. They told me recently that there was an immediate U-turn due to the consumer need for reassurance about hygiene. In this case ‘kills 99.9% of germs’, was a more reassuring message for consumers than ‘lifestyle and aspirational’ messaging. It’s clear that consumer reassurance is a heightened priority and will continue to be. 

A great case in point, when it comes to our relationship with packaging and how we handle our food, is fruit and veg. As part of the backlash against plastic, supermarkets were being encouraged to remove single use plastic wrappers around these items. But ‘naked’ vegetables, shrouded in protective shrink wrapping, have proven favourable over loose items during the pandemic, outweighing the various sustainability pros and cons. Clients in the beverage category have recently been exploring ways to generate new forms of secondary carry handles, that enable consumers to pick up part of the pack that has not been handled by retail store staff, or indeed anyone else within the supply chain.

Clearly, in bricks and mortar stores, which still account for a huge percentage of retail, leveraging consumer auto-pilot decision making that’s been influenced by a heightened awareness of risk avoidance and safety, will naturally present opportunities for brands to stand out, especially in commoditised categories where points of difference and unique product positionings are increasingly hard to find.

Packaging convenience

Being locked down has changed some of our behaviours and the things we value. In some instances money savings has been a priority with reduced incomes, elsewhere others are looking for alternatives to holidays opting to spend on home improvement’s and ‘hometainment’ instead. At the premium end this shifted consumers to become resident bakers, chefs and mixologists as they spend spare time upskilling to replace the bar and restaurant experiences.

Nestlé, reported their e-commerce sales growing 49% in the first six months of the year to reach 12.4% of sales compared to 8.5% of sales in 2019. Ironically, despite the enforced closure of their Nespresso boutiques, Nespresso sales have increased, due to e-commerce sales with coffee shop consumers looking for that barista-like coffee quality at home. We’ve seen a huge increase in ‘direct to consumer’ enquiries for everything from cereal and cookery recipes to cocktails that can simply be posted through your front door. This accelerated adoption is witnessed across age groups, with some technological barriers for those uninitiated and isolated. However, for the boomer generation who have been later to the e-comm party, its convenience has proved to be an irresistible lure.

Of course, convenience has always been king in our purchasing decisions and the packaging we are attracted to. But this need increased during lock-downs, as pre-packaged meal kits dramatically rose in popularity and enabled us to conveniently avoid the shops altogether. Gousto reported challenges in keeping up with demand on their packaging lines. Similarly, Mindful Chef, reported a 425% spike in new recipe box customers during the first lock-down period. McKinsey reported that consumers have continued spending more time cooking at home and that most expect that the impact of Covid on their routines to have a residual impact on lifestyles and behaviour. So as we re-evaluate how we want to shop post lock-down, it will be interesting to see if pre-packed food delivered straight to your door dwindles or continues to go from strength to strength. What is evident in this increasingly buoyant e-commerce era, is that excessive packaging is at odds with manufacturer, retailer and consumer commitments to move toward less packaging.


The pandemic has amplified consumers foundational packaging needs towards safety, trust and the associated reassurance it provides. It has exposed many associated consumer foibles and anxieties, that are far removed from scientific facts but have become engrained as consumer truth’s, requiring the FMCG industry to respond.

It has also catalysed the adoption of online shopping and e-commerce, which is especially appealing to those who might prefer to shop in convenient and reassuringly distanced ways in future. Businesses are playing catch-up, with packaging that is largely designed for on-shelf display in traditional retail channels. But we have yet to reconcile this with the increasingly important need to move away from excessive single use packaging, in light of the climate crisis. Innovation is essential in balancing the critical needs in a new era of packaging that can reassure, add value and address environmental impact. We’re partnering with some of the world’s largest FMCG companies to help them solve with this conundrum, amongst others, that will define the future for the category in this increasing brave new world.

James Harmer is a speaker and writer for industry publications and events with over 20 years’ experience in the Design and Innovation industry. His role at Cambridge Design Partnership (CDP) is Planning and Innovation Strategy Leader with a focus on consumer goods, packaging and sustainability. CDP is an end-to-end innovation partner delivering earliest insight and strategy, design and technology development, through to manufacturing transfer. Located in Cambridge (UK) and Raleigh, North Carolina (USA), they collaborate with international clients across consumer, healthcare and industrial markets. If you wish to discuss packaging challenges and innovation opportunities contact James Harmer at

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