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Surprise & Delight: How Packaging Can Be Your Competitive Advantage with Dave Hopkins

If you’re preparing to launch a new product—or have ever relished the experience of removing one from its packaging—this episode is for you. The popularity of “unboxing” is just one illustration of how important product packaging has become. Packaging is no longer merely to “protect, deliver and entice;” but a highly experiential differentiating opportunity for smart product brands. Guest Dave Hopkins is a packaging advisor who believes great packaging aims to surprise and delight consumers—which translates into a sales and brand-building advantage.

Listen to Dave Hopkins’ “Quickie Podcast – Interviews for Graphic Designers” on iTunes or Spotify.

Episode transcript:

Andreas: This is Product: Knowledge, the podcast about creating and marketing products that improve people’s lives. I’m Andreas Schwabe, Director of Media Services at Graphos Product.

Andreas: In 2015, the Oxford English Dictionary added “unboxing” to its lexicon. More than ever, packaging is an important part of not just the brand and product experience, but the initial reviews about products and their packaging. Dave Hopkins is a packaging designer in Vancouver. He hosts The Quickie podcast, a daily show about the good, bad, and ugly of design as told by designers. Dave believes packaging can be fun and he says product packaging that engages consumers can be the edge a product needs. Graphos Product CEO Laurier Mandin kicked off the conversation.

Laurier: Welcome to the show, Dave. Thanks for joining us.

Dave: Guys, I am happy to be here. Thank you for having me.

Laurier: So Dave, you got an interesting background, let’s start off by you telling us a little bit about yourself.

Dave: I’ve been in the commercial print and packaging space for about 14 years now and I started in that space knowing nothing. Knowing nothing about printing and sort of wide-eyed walking into a print shop going what happens here. You know, the initial assumption is hoping that they print money but that usually is never the case.

Laurier: And the overpowering smell of printers ink, right?

Dave: No, that’s the smell of money, Laurier. The smell of money. That’s what the old saying is.

Laurier: I’ve heard that, yeah.

Dave: But yeah, so I started in that space knowing nothing about printing. Worked my way backwards through the print process. Did the finishing, die cutting, embossing, all of that sort of tail end stuff, the stuff that happens last in the print production process. Then I ran presses for probably the longest amount of that time, seven or eight years or so running presses in there, and I’ve been in the brand manager sort of sales side I guess you could call it side since. I guess that’s part of the process that I enjoy the most is getting to have great conversations with creative people and help them create something that is a lasting tangible experience printed experience for whatever consumer/customer is going to end up with that piece in their hand.

Dave: In the quest of wanting to pursue more of those conversations with people, I started a podcast called The Quickie podcast and the premise behind it was wanting to connect with a larger group of designers and creatives and have fun conversations with them and I wanted to do it in 30 minutes or less, which is sort of The Quickie, doing it quickly, you know what I’m saying? That’s sort of the premise behind it and episode 79 went up today. It’s a daily podcast and I love it.

Laurier: It’s really cool that you’ve worked as a pressman because I’ve done many, many press checks myself and I’ve always just been fascinated with the amount of difference that having a really good pressman makes on any print job, so whether you’re running a packaging job or the printed insert that’s going to go with the product, doing that right and having somebody who cares about it and makes those little what seem like almost invisibly minor changes on the press can create a very big difference in the end result. It’s just that the extent of the quality control that happens at that stage of the process and that must really inform the way that you are able to look at print packaging design for example because you’re seeing it in a totally different way because you’re looking at the minute details of it compared to the rest of us that have that long view. We just know it looks great. We have no idea what went into it. I imagine that informs everything that you do creatively because you have everything from the long view to that minutia view of those tiny, tiny details that make it perfect.

Dave: Mm-hmm (affirmative), and I think that was sort of my gateway to the customer management sales side is those press check interactions, you know? Being able to connect with the customer in a way a lifelong pressman might not be able to. You know, chat with them, be really good with them, be understanding of the changes they’re looking for, and just being good with them person to person in that experience and definitely the knowledge that I’ve had from that production process allows me to help guide a designer or an agency or studio through the print production process right from the file stage. You know, being able to say if you’re looking to achieve a spot gloss, you might not want to do it in that way, you might not want to have it and here’s my experience in that. Not from just seeing it but from running it.

Laurier: Absolutely and as product marketers we like to talk about the whole experience of buying a product, including how important unboxing has become. How does that affect your approach to packaging when it comes to considering that experiential part that is after the consumer has decided to buy the product, after it has successfully and safely been delivered, and now that iPhone box is in my hands and it’s got that perfect coefficient of drag as our last guest was talking about that Apple has spent a fortune engineering the way that the cover of that box lifts off the top from the bottom and it drops on exactly that perfect rate. Through millions of boxes, everybody is going to get that same drag coefficient on their iPhone box. How does that affect your approach when you’re going into designing and doing the quality control side of packaging?

Dave: I think probably the best way to answer that is going right to the start in sort of the process of the beginning of a packaging project. Are you alright if I start right there?

Laurier: Yeah, totally.

Dave: Perfect. So I mean when a product is brought to us and we’re asked to create a packaging piece for it, there’s a whole bunch of questions that we need to go through. Things like is this just like put out in the mail? Does this need to survive the mail? Will this be put into a shipping box? Does this need to go into retail or is it an e-commerce product that just gets shipped directly? We also get into what is the brand’s story behind this piece because if this is a business, for example, a cosmetic business, the majority of cosmetic businesses want a really pretty white package, really clean feeling, maybe with some soft touch. Something like that. There isn’t a whole lot of thought into recyclability and sustainability. It’s meant to just radiate value, high end value, and some of the best materials for that are virgin materials, not the most recyclable.

Dave: There are other brands out there that are really focused on environmental sustainability and wanting recyclable materials, wanting the product to be fully recyclable, and the brand itself is about sort of that earth friendly vibe and feel, that green feel, which would guide you into the direction of a recycle board or a chip board or something like that. That’s sort of the start, is what materials best align with the brand and the product and the story you’re trying to tell.

Dave: After that stage you get into the structural stage and structural design is a big part of design because you’re engineering something. You’re creating something that will need to potentially take a beating and the product inside still be great, so think of a jar of makeup or a makeup product that’s in a glass bottle or something like that. That needs to be able to be thrown around a little bit and still be in really good shape and the product inside obviously not broken or wrecked, so then there’s the structural piece of things where you work on the structural design.

Dave: From that point forward you’re into sort of the estimating stage of things. What are your budgets, quantities? You know, getting into that kind of conversation where you’re leaning toward looking into foils and specialty finishing options and different items like that and that’s where you can really play with that unboxing brand experience. Something as simple as having a clean white box on the outside but when you open it up the lid that you pull up and the under side of the lid has a funny message or an interesting saying, or the entire inside of the box is a bright fluorescent pink that you just weren’t expecting. All of those little things go into making a better unboxing experience which translates to a better brand experience.

Laurier: I love what you mentioned about having a surprise inside of the box, you know whether that’s color or some kind of element because especially with … I know you have a lot of experience with luxury products, when you have something the customer is buying and they’re looking forward to the product inside, when they get that plus something extra special I think that that speaks about the brand.

Dave: I have an example of that. Being a big computer nerd, I build all my own equipment. Building a new system, bought a new power supply, very nice power supply, opened up the box, there’s a velvet bag with the power supply and the cables are wrapped in a silk ribbon. It’s a power supply and I was completely floored. I thought it was awesome. Like somehow they just knew the right way to get the sweet spot for the nerd.

Laurier: Yeah, and then really changed your experience, right?

Dave: Totally.

Laurier: So your opinion of that brand is now forever altered because they’ve said there’s something special about this, this may be just a power supply but it’s really important.

Dave: Yeah, I just bought my third one actually.

Laurier: You’re going to rely on this power supply.

Dave: Yeah, absolutely.

Laurier: See, and in this Instagram world, you’re designing something that might end up on Instagram so if you create a really bad experience, something that is just kind of blah, where the product arrives and it’s shifted around inside or it’s not right, that could be shared and that’s not good.

Andreas: Do you actually consider Instagrammability as part of your design for unboxing?

Dave: Not really addressed directly, but it’s definitely conscious. You know, customers that I’ve dealt with that have a really heavy Instagram presence and get a lot of business from Instagram, it’s definitely something they think about but it’s not something everybody thinks about.

Laurier: And it makes sense, right? And it’s a good thing that not everybody thinks about it because that gives you … That’s what creates the power of the surprise, right? It’s not a surprise if you’re opening the box saying what unexpected thing am I going to discover in here? It’s only that you know one in a hundred packages that you open that have something really smart and innovative that’s going to not be expected when you open it and I think that’s what creates that Instagram opportunity is having something that makes people say wow, okay I can’t keep this to myself, I’ve got to share this with other people.

Dave: Totally. I have to share this. Sort of the two words that we always try and consider and remember when developing packaging is … You want to surprise and delight. If you can surprise and delight a customer. If you’re sending them a box of Kraft dinner and you open up that box of Kraft dinner or you pull that out of the package and it’s embellished with foil or embossing or something funny, something unique, something different, or just a ribbon tied around it, it’s a surprise and it’s delightful. Surprise and delight, that’s what makes a lasting impression.

Laurier: Yeah and even if the Kraft dinner inside isn’t anything special you’ve still surprised and delighted and created a standout moment for that customer, right?

Dave: Yes.

Laurier: And that’s something they’re going to want to go and talk about. They wouldn’t have mentioned that mundane lunch that they had otherwise but you found a way to take something and make it special, and if the product happens to be super good that just really reinforces it. That knocks it out of the park.

Dave: Definitely. That’s a win-win for sure.

Laurier: How important is the packaging, being the materials, the box design, the overall quality in a luxury product? Because I know that you have specific experience with luxury product packaging.

Dave: Extremely important. The packaging is the point where even if your product is thee best on the market, if your packaging doesn’t have that vibe, have that feeling to it, you’re kind of missing an opportunity. The process goes a customer will be walking by and this is you know specifically to retail right now, but a customer will be walking by and you’re going to get their eye, you have milliseconds with them looking at your box. If it’s interesting enough that they pick it up, your chances of a sale just skyrocketed.

Laurier: Yeah.

Dave: They look at it, they pick it up, and they hold it. If you can also have some sort of tangible or tactile experience with that, maybe it’s a soft touch, maybe it’s a really cool blind emboss feature or something like that, that’s even cooler. Not only did they experience a great visual thing with your box but now they’re experiencing a tangible thing with your box. You just closed a sale.

Andreas: This is Product: Knowledge, the podcast about creating and marketing products that improve people’s lives.

Laurier: What kind of things do you need to know about the consumer and about the market to get the allure and the experience just right so you’re not putting them off with something that’s part of that experience

Dave: This is a question that is probably different … There’s lots of different opinions on it. In my personal opinion, I have a very sort of unique and quirky personality so anything that I’m a part of that I want to create is I don’t really look at the competition and what’s out there. What can I do to make the customer raise their eyebrow, sort of develop a bit of a smirk or a smile? What can I do to create something clever? That’s my first approach because that will be different than the majority around you. The most basic portion of that is have your messaging clear, have the product labeling clear. What is in this box that I’m looking at?

Laurier: Yeah, that’s really important too is having that clarity of understanding a surprise is good but it’s got to be a good surprise, right? And if the customer doesn’t know what’s inside that box, they may never open it if there isn’t some indication that it’s for them. For that reason, the exterior has to … Something outside of the box has to be drawing you into it, right?

Dave: Mm-hmm (affirmative). If they are there for a lipstick and you’re selling a body wash and your packaging doesn’t clearly say body wash or is interesting enough, you’re not going to get their attention. They’re not going to look over at you because they’re there for lipstick. However, if your packaging is really clever and really interesting, on the way to that lipstick aisle that might catch their eye and they might buy that body wash even though they didn’t go there for that.

Laurier: Well, in certain categories that’s super important, right? I mean it’s comparable to how in sales if you’re buying clothing you usually don’t go to buy a belt but that’s something that the salesperson is trained to bring out, these upselling and cross selling opportunities and good packaging does that automatically because there isn’t always a good salesperson available to do that or you don’t always have Amazon saying people who bought this also bought that.

Dave: Mm-hmm (affirmative). With that Amazon in mind, I wanted to sort of touch on a couple of points with Amazon. As I mentioned earlier that when you’re ordering something through Amazon you kind of look at a picture, you look at some reviews, and then it arrives in a brown box. That’s the start of that process, everybody’s expecting that. We’re expecting that to arrive in a brown shipping box. If when they open that brown shipping box it’s just a product, just sitting there no other experience involved, I think again that’s a missed opportunity, but if they open up that brown shipping box and there’s something beautiful there, a beautiful box that feels nice in your hand or is interesting or unique to interact with or is fun to interact with, maybe there’s zippers or perforations that you get to play with or tear open or something like that with the box, if you don’t have an experience, even if you’re an e-commerce Amazon product, you’re still missing an opportunity.

Laurier: That’s a really great point because I think a lot of brand owners perceive that that’s wasted money but what they don’t recognize is that Amazon is a platform where what are you expecting consumers to do after that experience, you’re expecting them to go and write a review about it, right? So you got to blow their socks off. If you’re just going to give them something generic and mundane and say oh you don’t matter because you’ve already paid the money, you’re forgetting that next very important step, that is you want to delight them. If you’re going to delight them with the product itself and not part of the experience, the product had better be amazing but they may not even have the cue to tell them it’s amazing if you haven’t set the stage with great packaging and with a good unboxing experience.

Dave: Yeah, and Laurier let me give you an example of this. We’re an Apple family. We have iPads, we have Mac books, Apple family. We recently went on a trip to Ireland and Scotland and eight hours of flying time plus we were renting a car and driving around Ireland while we were there with three little kids. I didn’t want constant fighting in the backseat so I thought you know what, I’m going to buy them a tablet. I didn’t want to go spend $350 each child to get an iPad so I thought you know what, this is their first ever tablet, I’m just going to get them something inexpensive, some inexpensive Android tablet.

Dave: I bought them the Amazon Fire tablet. The way that that arrives is a missed opportunity for Amazon. When I open up an iPad, you guys know that Apple experience from an iPhone, from a Max book, to an iMac, to a tablet, it’s the same experience and it’s wonderful. Everything is nice tightly packed in there. You get that right coefficient of friction when you’re opening up that box. Everything feels right. When an Amazon Fire tablet arrives it’s basically in a printed card stock envelope. There’s nothing fancy at all.

Laurier: The messaging right away is you settled for this product, right?

Dave: 100%.

Laurier: Especially if you bought Apple products before where you still have that box in the cupboard because you couldn’t bear to part with it, right?

Dave: We have all of them.

Laurier: Yeah, and that’s the norm. We talk about that too much on this show and I think the reason is that it’s done so well consistently and everybody out there can relate to it. They’ve all had that same experience and said wow, okay where am I going to put this box because there’s no way I’m throwing it away.

Andreas: I like your example with the Fire. I had a … Again, something I talk about too much, 3D printing, bought a 3D printer from Amazon and it came in a box which had a box which had a box and that one had the printer. That’s a weird experience because it’s just this sort of delay and this mystery … Like what? And literally I remember thinking what is going on? This is so weird, like how small is this printer? Because it was sort of the Russian nesting dolls of packaging. It was so weird.

Laurier: So Andreas, think about this then, if they had had you open up that shipping box and then there’s another box there but there’s a perforation or a tear strip across the top that said something funny.

Andreas: Totally.

Laurier: Or something clever or something enticing, like oh my gosh, okay then you tear that strip open and there’s another box.

Andreas: Right.

Laurier: With a tear strip going in the other direction saying something clever again. You rip it open. It goes from an experience you’re like why did they use so much packaging to an experience of like oh my gosh, they’re really building the anticipation.

Andreas: Yeah, it’s sort of a game almost.

Dave: And it’s deliberate, right?

Laurier: Yes.

Andreas: Because that’s I think … I have a little game in our office. When I order something from Amazon and it comes in I’ve got to always go in and show this to the team because I just cannot believe how big the box is with all these little inflated bags and things inside of it compared to the size of the actual product, but part of the messaging I’m getting from Amazon is we don’t give a rip about the environment. What you’ve heard is absolutely true. There’s nothing deliberate about this except for whatever algorithm was used to pick this massive box and tell them how many inflatable baggies needed to go in there to make it so that the product isn’t going to get destroyed in shipping because it’s going to get shaken around so much inside this giant box.

Andreas: Dave, to wrap things up can you tell me … Can you give us three takaways that product brands need to consider when they’re trying to get into the heads of consumers and how they’re going to package a product in order to do that?

Dave: For sure, so step one I would say look at the materials available and what materials best align with your brand message. That would be number one. Number two I would say look at what you can do to surprise and delight. Maybe that’s foiling, maybe that’s embossing, maybe it’s just selecting a different material. Maybe it’s printing on the inside of the packaging as well. So surprise and delight. The third one is I would say never underestimate the consumer’s willingness to share. Good or bad, they will share.

Andreas: I love those takeaways, and especially the last two because I think those are things that the brands often don’t think about. They think about what the package needs to do but they don’t recognize that success is going to be in how well you surprise and delight and if you can get that customer to go out and show that experience to other people and say you guys have to check this out, you have to see this, this is a brand that deserves your attention. Now that’s a big win that a lot of your competitors are missing out on because they’re just going for the bare minimum, right?

Dave: You know what, I’m going to add a fourth takeaway. I’m going to break your rules, Laurier.

Laurier: Absolutely.

Dave: I’m going to say that don’t underestimate the quality of the product inside. If your box is beautiful but your product is not that still isn’t going to work.

Andreas: That’s it for this episode of Product: Knowledge and our conversation with packaging designer Dave Hopkins. Subscribe to Dave’s podcast The Quickie, interviews for graphic designers. Visit where you can find out more about Graphos, our services, ideas, more podcasts, and our blog. All our podcasts are transcribed for the deaf and hard of hearing. Reach out on Twitter @GraphosProduct or e-mail us through the form on Thanks for listening. I’m Andreas Schwabe.