Chapter 6: pack talk | internet mama drama | beef: it's what's for dinner
Spiropack, flexi-hex, and dyed dunnage - oh my! A conversation about better ecommerce packaging
I’ve never been able to fully square away ecommerce and the impact it has on the environment. There’s no question that the volume of packaging produced by online shopping has serious environmental implications, especially since we now know that recycling programs in many municipalities are highly ineffective.
I shudder when I think about all the cardboard boxes and plastic mailers that showed up my doorstep over the past few years when my volume of online shopping increased during Covid. (I’m not the only person that used online shopping as a way to cope and feel something during those dark times of spring and summer 2020 right? RIGHT?!)
I think most ecommerce brands would prefer to use more sustainable packaging, but it’s easier said than done. A couple of issues I’ve experienced when developing packaging:
cost: plastic packaging is can be significantly cheaper than paper or other biodegradable forms of packaging.
quality and performance: plastic packaging is waterproof and usually more durable than other materials.
brand experience: the ‘unboxing’ moment has become a big part of an ecommerce business’ overall branding strategy. As much as I think that I don’t care that much of about how a product arrives, I received a pair of shoes in a sad scuffed up bag the other day and the overall experience kind of sucked.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the delivery packaging for Huhu and how to balance sustainability, cost and giving consumers a more elevated experience. I know I don’t want crazy fancy packaging with bells and whistles. A soft goods product like a backpack also thankfully doesn’t need a whole lot of packaging to keep it intact during the shipping process. But I also don’t want to ship products out in a plain white plastic baggie. I asked Will Brown, Director of Packaging at Stord for his advice on sustainable packaging. Will knows his sh*t. We worked together when Will was managing projects at a company that was the packaging supplier for many large DTC brands like FabFitFun, Figs, Casper.
Q: What do you think are some ways ecommerce brands can implement more sustainable packaging practices?
A: There’s a number of ways address this, but at its core this breaks down into three areas:
Remove and/or replace. At its core, the most sustainable packaging strategy is to use the least amount of packaging possible that (1) adequately protects the products in transit (nothing less sustainable than replacing broken product) and (2) delivers the unboxing and customer experience that matters most to the brand. One area of packaging that comes to mind as ripe for removal/digital replacement: most marketing inserts and product related pamphlets. Why? Since Covid began, QR codes have had a renaissance and instead of a static pamphlet with a referral code, offer brands an opportunity deepen a digital engagement with the customer.
Choosing the right form factor. This one is box-specific, but there is a huge degree of variance between box styles of the same dimensions, and the amount of material needed to produce each box. Understanding how material efficient a given packaging form factor is is very important, and something that can often get glossed over at the design phase. Asking your packaging supplier or design expert to walk through these considerations at the design phase is key.
What actually shipped. This one actually has very little to do with the packaging and a lot to do with the fulfillment partner. Brands can put a ton of work into designing and producing the correct box sizes, but if the incorrect size for an order is picked-and-packed at the fulfillment center, then it’s all for naught. Understanding what logic w/r/t to container choice is used or what system is being used in box selection at the order level is critical to ensuring that all the great work that brands are doing is operationalized correctly.
Q: How do you think brands should think about the trade-offs between that exciting and visually appealing unboxing experience vs. environmentally friendly packaging? Are there creative ways to have both?
A: Things to avoid:
foil (hot and cold)
metallized films (can only end up in the landfill)
films that are made up of multiple types of plastic that cannot be recycled.
Some of the most exciting developments of the past 3 year are actually around dunnage (materials used to keep product in place and protect from shipping damage, like packing peanuts, crinkle paper, air pockets.) While brands (for good reason) are tired of crinkle paper, butcher paper etc, there are new entrants to the market that offer
the ability to dye dunnage to a specific PMS color
much more elegant visual appeal - like Spiropack.
different types of heavier-weight tissue paper that can be flexographically printed to offer an elevated unboxing.
Q: What are some innovations in the packaging space that you are really excited about, that address some of the environmental problems associated with ecomm packaging?
A: There’s three I’ll share today. The first is and second will be most relevant to apparel/fashion brands.
There are new paper based mailers on the US market that are produced with a very very thin poly coating on the outside of the mailer envelope. This offers a high degree of water resistance in transit, but because the poly coating is so thin, it washes off naturally in the recycling and re-pulping process. These paper envelopes offer the many fashion companies shipping pants, sweatshirts etc all in poly mailers a universally curbside recyclable alternative, which is a big deal.
The second is a patented material called Flexi-Hex. If you’ve ever been frustrated by the proliferation of air pillows and other plastic types of dunnage you’ll get in an Amazon or other kind of box, Flexi-Hex is game changing. It’s a honeycomb based paper packaging that is incredibly strong and capable of protecting breakable items (glass, ceramic, wine bottles) from being dropped at significant heights.
And last, there are finally enough paper padded mailer options being produced in N America to offer brands a viable alternative to bubble mailers. For many many years, brands that wanted to avoid a bubble mailer had only one option: a Jiffy mailer filled with macerated newsprint, that oftentimes got all over the place when you opened it. There’s at least 5 national manufacturers producing padded mailers in N America at varying price points and sizes now. I’m optimistic to see continued adoption of these specs.
Q: I see a lot of dubious sustainability claims out there. How much can we trust the sustainability claims that suppliers are making and how can brands verify whether the claims are accurate?
A: First and most important is understanding whether or not a certification is for a material or a finished good. Take for example the AS5810 which is an Australian home compostable certification, or ASTM D6400 which is industrially compostable in N America. Many times, the actual manufacturer that owns the certification may only have it at a material level. So, using the example of a bubble mailer, it could be that both the bubble and the flat film hold the certification, but that the actual finished product has not been certified. This actually does matter given that the total thickness of the bioplastic will affect speed of degradation. So, getting really clear on if it is a material or finished certification.
Also, asking for samples is huge here. Brands often want to show off these certs, so usually have them printed on their products. This is a great opportunity to spot check.
If you want to learn more about ecommerce packaging, here are some additional resources:
Follow Will on LinkedIn - he often writes about the sustainability and innovations in the packaging and logistics spaces.
If you have 3 minutes to spare, please help fill out this short 6 question survey I created to learn more about people’s ecomm packaging habits and preferences. Thank you for your help!
Parody Marketing isn’t just for April Fool’s Day
I’m in a Whatsapp chat with a group of friends who are all now also parents. We ask each other for advice on things like sleep training and bottle feeding. We complain about useless fake school holidays like “Spirit Week” and “100 Days of School”. (I don’t know who needs to hear this, but no one has time to dress up their 6-year-old like an old person to celebrate the fact that the school year is almost over. It doesn’t even make sense and is just weird!) It’s like there is a little troll who sits in the basement boiler room of an elementary school and spends all their time brainstorming more creative ways to torture working parents. We also forward around funny parenting memes. A couple of weeks ago, a friend forwarded this Tik Tok video to the group chat:
I watched the video and didn’t even think this could be satire. I live in Berkeley - you wouldn’t believe some of the outrageous crunchy stuff I’ve heard parents utter around town. But to any normal person, I think it’s very obvious that all of the content on the @reallyverycrunchy account is meant to be a joke.
Recently, there were whispers on Tik Tok about the identity of the woman behind the account and her ‘ulterior motive’. Because people can’t believe that someone with 400K+ followers on social media isn’t trying to promote or sell something, and could possibly just be doing this for fun. Internet detectives started researching the origins of the person running the account and came up empty. Then the conspiracy theories came: one was that she’s the brainchild of the Marketing department at Young Living, an essential oil MLM company. Another theory is that she’s in cahoots with Earthley Wellness, another essential oils plus personal care brand.
Well, Buzzfeed covered the ‘micro-drama’ and talked to the person behind the account. Her name is Emily Morrow, she is in fact a self-proclaimed ‘crunchy mom’ and is making fun of herself and creating content for fun. I was a tad disappointed to find out that this wasn’t an elaborate joke from Young Living, because it would have been brilliant. But, then again, essential oil businesses take themselves way too seriously. They would never make fun of themselves. This whole episode did get me thinking about parody marketing (fictional advertisement/campaign for a fake product) and the role humor and comedy has in building brand awareness and reaching new consumers. There are a lot of reasons and benefits to running a parody campaign:
differentiate from competitors and stand out: there is an endless amount of content to consume. In today’s world, for branded content to capture a person’s attention, it needs to be unique and interesting.
get earned media impressions: ad campaigns usually only get press coverage if there’s 1. a celebrity attached to the campaign, 2. it’s a large multi-channel campaign with a $$$ media dollars attached to it or centered around a major media event (i.e. the Superbowl), 3. it’s truly unique and there are organic conversations happening around the campaign. For a small brand or start-up with limited resources, options 1 and 2 are nonstarters.
engage and retain existing consumers: beyond the standard new product launches and sales/promo content, this can be used as a fun and different way of connecting with your existing consumer base and help you stay top of mind and relevant, without being overtly sales-y.
Here are two examples of parody campaigns from smaller brands that I think were done really well:
To celebrate April Fool’s Day, Bearaby, a brand of weighted blankets, created a landing page announcing Hogger, a weighted blanket for hedgehogs. The idea is clever, the copy is fun, and they really committed to making every element of the landing page tell the story, while still communicating the value props of their real product for humans.
Cloud Paper, a brand of bamboo-based toilet paper, made an ad for a fake tree-based toilet paper called Flush.
The video is entertaining and walks the tricky tightrope of satire well - completely ridiculous but also sort of within the realm of possibility, so you aren’t totally certain that it’s meant to be a joke.
It also wasn’t funny just for the sake of comedy - it put a spotlight on a real problem and used the video as a vehicle to educate viewers on how Cloud Paper is different from other brands and provides a solution to the problem. Cloud Paper created a separate website that kept the joke going, but after Earth Day 2021, the site content switched and revealed its true meaning.
Parody content has its share of risks: you risk alienating consumers, spending time and resources on a fake campaign for a fake product to indirectly sell a real product feels like an unnecessarily long and windy path to a conversion. Plus you’re going to have a bunch of people who are just not going to get the joke and will flood your Instagram account with comments like “I don’t get it”, “this is dumb”, “I’d like to speak with the manager.” But in a world full of branded content that takes itself way too seriously, I think we could do with some more levity.
Instant Pot Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup
I love my Instant Pot. I’m a member of not one, but two Instant Pot recipe groups on Facebook. I started an IP recipe group chat with some friends on Whatsapp. There are a lot of Instant Pot cookbooks out there and if you are going to invest in one, this one is it. The pictures are beautiful, the instructions are easy to follow and all of the recipes are really, really good.
My daughter calls this dish “Beefy Noodles” and she loves it (not the beef or carrots, just the soup and noodles. But I’ll take it.) It’s also super flavorful, so it’s an all-around favorite, not one of those terrible bland dinners you make to appease your kids and the adults end up drinking a ton of alcohol to make the food taste better. Here is a picture of the recipe in its entirety. There is a copy of the recipe online, but it’s behind a paywall.
I’ve made these soup dozens of times and here are my notes and suggested recipe modifications:
This soup takes a long time. Minimum 90 minutes. Active cooking time is not very long, only 15-20 minutes or so. But it takes a long time to tenderize the beef in the Instant Pot. Keep that in mind when you’ve got hungry kids pulling at your shirt asking for dinner.
exclude the chili powder to make it non-spicy.
the meat to veggie ratio is kind of off. (My daughter calls it beefy for a reason.) Reduce the amount of meat down to around 1 3/4 pounds. Increase the amount of carrots to 6-8 medium carrots.
1-2 stalks of lemongrass is enough. Also ok to omit the lemongrass entirely.
scoop out all of the spices before serving or use a spice bag or ball to keep it all together.
serve over dried thick cut noodles, like these
A picture of the finished product:
Did the @reallyverycrunchy drama pique your interest in the strange corner of the internet where ‘mommy bloggers’ and ‘momfluencers’ live? Here are some resources where you can learn more:
In my last post I mentioned the clip of Paris Hilton talking about NFTs with Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show. She recently launched a collection of NFTs, ownership of one of them unlocks access to perks like: a virtual meet-and-greet, a shopping spree with Paris and being gifted the bridal robe Paris wore during her wedding weekend…
It seems crazy to me that people are willing to pay this kind of money for personal access to a celebrity. But it’s certainly an interesting case study on the explicit monetary value of fandom.