18 retail startups that are using psychology, sustainability, and the internet age to reinvent how they package their products

Wildist's whimsical packaging of its natural body products is informed by its equally unexpected ingredients.

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Wildist’s whimsical packaging of its natural body products is informed by its equally unexpected ingredients.
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Wildist

  • As the first and often fleeting interaction that a brand has with a potential customer, its packaging condenses the most important features of the brand and product into an easily digestible form.
  • Visual design has always been a key component of great packaging, but as our time spent online increases and tactile interaction with products decreases, brands are focusing even more heavily on what you see.
  • They’re also considering sustainability and accessibility, values that modern shoppers have become less willing to compromise on.
  • The best packaging gives you a crash course about the brand, makes it easy and intuitive to use the product within, and does more good than harm for the environment. We found 18 retail startups making not only memorable products, but also memorable packaging.

In today’s busy, cluttered world, brands have just a few seconds to make an impression. Fail to capture the ounce of attention that makes us linger in front of a product, and they’ve lost a potential customer.

Before you even touch the product itself, brands have the opportunity to draw you in with their packaging. If a product is a full-length novel, then its packaging is the condensed, SparkNotes version, helping you decide whether you want to investigate further and commit to a purchase.

Allen Adamson, an adjunct professor of marketing at NYU Stern and cofounder of consulting firm Metaforce says the purpose of packaging is to “simplify your brand story and value proposition into a telegraphic item,” and that strong packaging design has become more relevant, but also more difficult, with the rise of online shopping.

Whereas brands only used to compete in physical store aisles, radio, and TV, they’re now up against the vast choice of the internet.

To stand out, they need to tap into basic understandings of human behavior – while also breaking a few of these rules along the way.

Humans, by nature, are a fickle and simple bunch. We make snap judgments and rely heavily on just a few senses, most notably vision. “Above all, our visual system is primarily drawn to contrast. We process sensory information in relation to the context,” says Dr. Matt Johnson, a professor at Hult International Business School whose research focuses on the psychology and neuroscience of consumer behavior.

“Contrast necessarily means that the competition’s packaging needs to be taken into consideration…this is effectively the ‘when everyone zigs, you zag’ strategy.”

Visually, this can mean new and interesting use of color, font, shape, and other features that aren’t typical of the product category. The cheery purples and reds used by healthy food delivery service Hungryroot, for example, are a far cry from the green and brown earth tones of many other vegan brands.

HungryRoot's packaging is bright and colorful.

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HungryRoot’s packaging is bright and colorful.
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Hungryroot/Instagram

Text and faces also get unique treatment. Johnson explains, “We actually have dedicated, specialized regions of the brain just for processing these types of stimuli. All things being equal, product packaging [that has] faces or easy-to-read text on it will draw in shoppers more so than packages that don’t.”

At the same time, we know that text, while helpful for educating the shopper, can sometimes overwhelm. Luckily, other factors can supplement packaging. Emily Page, CEO of product development agency Pearl Resourcing, says, “Online social platforms can educate more intensively in ways that brands can’t in stores, minimizing the need for packaging to do all [the] education.”

Her favorite example is Bulletproof: “Its packaging by itself doesn’t (and couldn’t) inform customers fast enough in a retail environment” about the brand’s keto, high-performance ethos, but the founder’s podcast did the talking so that customers could better recognize its minimalist packaging on a shelf.

The biggest disruption to packaging design is that many shoppers are now only looking at screens.

“In a 2-D environment,” Adamson says, “you’ve lost that dimension of being able to pick it up and turn it around.”

The loss of physical interaction makes things challenging for brands because of two important processes called encoding and the endowment effect, which Johnson describes below:

When we interact with something, it provides a boost to ‘encoding‘ – the process by which the brain converts experiences into memories. We’re much more likely to remember a package we interact with, as opposed to a package we simply looked at.

The longer we hold an object, the more we unconsciously feel like we own it. This leads to the endowment effect: We value an object more once we feel like we own it. And of course if we value it more, we’re much likely to want to purchase it.

AUrate's try-at-home jewelry box.

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AUrate’s try-at-home jewelry box.
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AUrate/Instagram

Online companies that offer try-before-you-buy options, like luxury jewelry brand AUrate or glasses brand Warby Parker, therefore, are on to something. With the chance to feel and inspect the product more closely and away from the distractions of other brands, you might feel a better connection and take a step towards purchase.

Overall, however, since most companies don’t have this service, visuals do matter more than ever. They have to tell you about the brand in a clear, succinct, and interesting way, while also standing out from the visuals of competing brands.

But shoppers aren’t only judging a book by its cover. They also want to know what the cover is made of.

“Packaging is increasingly the intersection of two major trends: e-commerce growth and concerns around climate change.”

So says Mike Newman, CEO of Returnity, a company that custom-designs reusable shipping bags and boxes for brands like Rebag and ThredUp. He notes, “Consumers continue to increase their e-commerce spend. At the same time, they are more aware of and concerned about the resulting packaging waste, resource consumption, and climate change it creates.”

While eco-friendly features like recyclable or compostable packaging “used to be a nice-to-have, it’s now a must-have.” If a brand over-packages today, they’re “incredibly vulnerable to being seen as out of touch,” according to Adamson.

Ethique's biodegradable shampoo bar packaging helps cut down on plastic waste.

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Ethique’s biodegradable shampoo bar packaging helps cut down on plastic waste.
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Ethique/Instagram

For both companies and shoppers, the pressure to reduce environmental impact at the individual level can feel overwhelming. Small changes, including using eco-friendly packaging, are actually manageable and doable for most people. Beauty and food brands are at the helm of sustainable packaging innovations, from certified B Corps that sell their makeup in refillable compacts to chocolate truffles that come in compostable wrappers.

As online competition heats up and shoppers expect products and brands they buy to align with their values, packaging is adapting accordingly.

As has always been the case, product packaging should tell a story in a memorable way. Now, it’s also counting factors like sustainability and accessibility into that story.

Below are 18 new brands doing cool things with their packaging


Vinebox

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Vinebox

Shop wine at Vinebox here

Vinebox delivers a curated selection of nine single-serving bottles of wine every season. This striking bottle design and size is perfect for sampling and discovering your next favorite wine varietal, but doesn’t compromise the actual wine quality. The glasses feature a patented bottling technology that preserves the taste and quality of the wine for up to three years, and they’re fully recyclable.


Act+Acre

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Act + Acre

Shop haircare at Act+Acre here

Act+Acre’s special cold-processing technology captures the full potency of active ingredients, leaving your hair smooth, shiny, and conditioned in less time and with less product. Cofounder Colm Mackin says, “We wanted Act+Acre to be a role model in the category…[to] signal an elevated yet democratic design. Although our products may seem designed purely for aesthetic, function for everyone was our North Star.”

The haircare startup consulted with inclusivity activist Sinead Burke among other experts to create bottles with oft-overlooked details, including a round shape and shorter size that people who don’t have full range of motion can still grip, as well as a soft-touch cap coating that can be easily opened, even with one hand.


Hungryroot

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Hungryroot

Order healthy food delivery at Hungryroot here

Hungryroot knows that if you open your fridge and are greeted by bright pops of color, you’ll be more likely to want to make and eat its healthy foods. It sends the components to make delicious, nutrient-dense dishes like Salmon Brussels Grain Bowls and Pad Thai Fried Rice in packaging that’s all recyclable.


Otherland

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Otherland

Shop candles at Otherland here

While all the traditionally giftable candles tend towards the clean, minimalist, and maybe a little haughty, Otherland (and its Disney-esque logotype) isn’t afraid to translate luxury and fantasy into something dreamy, artistic, and adventurous.

It’s a beautiful way to package creative scents like Chandelier (champagne, saffron, leather) and Ruby Root (sugarbeets, grass, ginger), which can be bought individually or put together in a three-pack. When you gift a candle, you can select from a variety of messages to adorn the matchbox.


Halo Top

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Halo Top/Facebook

Shop Halo Top ice cream at Amazon (Prime Fresh) here

Rarely will a dessert as decadent as ice cream display its calorie information prominently, but when your name is Halo Top and you’re making entire pints of ice cream with less than 400 calories, of course you’ll be proud to put those numbers up front. Its golden “halo” lids hint at the richness of these healthy-ish ice creams, of which you’ll devour the whole container without a second thought.


Wildist

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Wildist

Shop personal care at Wildist here

Wildist’s unexpected combinations of effective natural ingredients (“nighttime” toothpaste containing activated charcoal and chamomile, for example) inspired the whimsical packaging design of its toothpaste and natural deodorant.

Creative director Erin Rommel wanted the style “to feel lush and green and fresh, but also to have a little bit of the dark, mysterious side.” She explained, “It’s not exactly the same aesthetic that our audience has come to associate with modern, online-first brands and there’s a risk in that, but it was a risk we were willing to take. We want Wildist to be a brand that outlives current trends.”


Branch Basics

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Branch Basics

Shop cleaning products at Branch Basics here

Rather than sell you cleaning products that are half water, Branch Basics gives you the multi-purpose concentrated cleaner and the empty, reusable, and refillable bottles to “make” your own safe and natural cleaners at home. Depending on the type of surface you intend to clean, you add a different amount of water and concentrate, so you waste less money and resources buying one-use plastic bottles.


Drop Wine

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The Drop Wine

Shop wine at The Drop Wine here

This canned wine company might be called The Drop, but don’t worry if you actually drop your red, white, or rosé – it has a handy and secure lock top to prevent spills and leaks. Wherever your party takes you, your can (which equals 1.5 glasses of wine) can travel right along with you. Its Summer Can Club three-month subscription option lets you customize your own 24-pack for just $66 each month.


Magic Spoon

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Magic Spoon/Instagram

Shop cereal at Magic Spoon here

You can tell just by looking at most kids breakfast cereals that they’re not good for you. Shift your eyes over, however, and you have a row of brands with way too many mentions of bran and fiber to taste good. Magic Spoon is a healthy breakfast cereal that gives you the best of all the worlds: It’s low-carb and gluten-free, with 12 grams of protein per serving; it tastes sweet and delicious, like the cereals you grew up eating; and you won’t have to miss out on the fun characters and colorful boxes.


Tuft & Needle

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Tuft & Needle/Facebook

Shop Tuft & Needle mattresses at Amazon here

Tuft & Needle’s comfortable and supportive mattresses are made with adaptive foam to offer pressure relief no matter what position you sleep in. But it’s not just the mattress that should be great. The company’s whole mission is to make shopping for a mattress painless, all the way down to the packaging.

Tuft & Needle head of product experience Mike Fretto says the mission “informs simple things such as testing [the] orientation of box-handle holes to improve mobility, and it influences experimentation with improved mattress box constructions to make unboxing our product easier.”

Like many other online mattresses, Tuft & Needle’s comes compressed and rolled up in a box. This “giant burrito” of a packaging solution allows the mattress to be shipped more efficiently without negatively impacting its performance.


Care/of

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Care/of

Shop vitamins at Care/of here

To ensure its vitamins stay fresh and protected, personalized health startup Care/of covers its daily packs with moisture- and oxygen-resistant film. Until recently, this film wasn’t made from renewable ingredients, but as of April 2019, the now-compostable film is made from wood pulp and a fermented blend of corn, cassava root, and sugarcane.

They’ll disintegrate within 84 days in a municipal or institutional composting facility, so you can take your convenient daily dose of vitamins and supplements guilt-free.


Glossier

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Glossier

Shop skincare and makeup at Glossier here

Glossier’s Cloud Paint is as light and pillowy as its name suggests. As you squeeze the gel-cream color out of its paint tube container and dab it on your cheeks, you can’t help but feel like an artist bringing out your best features. Packaged similarly, the cult-favorite Balm Dotcom also elevates a simple multipurpose balm into something special.


Oatly

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Oatly/Facebook

Shop Oatly oat milk at Amazon here

As a small company in 2014 with a limited media budget, Oatly made its packaging its main advertising space, and with great success. Many people instantly spot its blue, brown, and gray containers and playful font peeking out of the fridge of their local coffee shop and breathe a sigh of relief that the precious oat milk is available. The clean packaging reflects the healthy, pure ingredients of the milk, while the spunky illustrations and copy hint that this is no ordinary milk.


UrbanStems

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UrbanStems

Shop flowers at UrbanStems here

Despite the beauty lying within, many flower and plant delivery boxes look plain and don’t tell much about their contents. UrbanStems, with its floral print gift tote for customers in NYC and DC, is a notable exception. The pretty package even has ribbon handles for easy transport on sidewalks and subway cars. For all other deliveries nationwide, the bouquet comes in a light pink floral print box that keeps the precious cargo protected during transit.


The Right to Shower

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The Right to Shower

Shop The Right to Shower personal care at Amazon here

Unilever brand The Right to Shower, which is donating 100% of its profits to mobile shower initiatives in 2019, conveys its mission-driven business prominently on its labels through its product names and iconography. The names – Dignity, Hope, Joy, and Strength – reflect the power of a simple shower and what it hopes to bring to hundreds of thousands of homeless Americans with each purchase. In addition, the bottles are made from 100% recycled plastic.


Clare

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Clare

Shop paint at Clare here

To get over your dread of repainting your house, shop at Clare, whose design strives to associate joy with painting. Founder Nicole Gibbons says, “It was important that every packaging touch point felt thoughtful and special. From our fun ‘Hey hue’ envelope that our swatches arrive in, to the bright shipping boxes for our paint, and even our collateral, every package our customers receive feels like a bundle of joy arriving at their doorstep.”

On its site, you won’t be scrolling for days trying to find the perfect color, and its paint bucket labels are free from unnecessary info, just like the paint is free from unnecessary chemicals and harmful ingredients.


Asarai

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Asarai/Facebook

Shop Asarai skincare at Urban Outfitters here

You’ll be hard-pressed to miss this bright yellow brand sitting on your bathroom counter. Regardless of your gender and skin type, Asarai is a brand that will make you smile. The 1% for the Planet company only makes six products created with Aussie botanicals, plus a turn key that clamps onto tubes so you don’t waste a single bit of its powerful detoxifying mask or its gentle cleanser.


Ethique

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Ethique

Shop Ethique personal care products at Amazon here

There’s not a bottle in sight in eco-friendly brand Ethique’s line of shampoo, conditioner, and body wash. Instead, these daily personal care products are made in solid bar form (and with a host of powerful natural ingredients) as a solution to the 80 billion plastic shampoo and conditioner bottles thrown away globally each year. The boxes they come in are made from biodegradable ingredients.