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What Every Brand Needs to Know About Adaptive Packaging

What Every Brand Needs to Know About Adaptive Packaging

The Future 100: Trends and Change to Watch in 2022” report from the Wunderman Thompson Intelligence trend-spotting group cites adaptive packaging as a biggie for brands this year.

“Brands must think about adaptive packaging in order to be truly customer-centric,” wrote Christina Mallon, an inclusive design expert who led the Wunderman Thompson project to create the Degree Inclusive deodorant. It’s the world’s first adaptive deodorant designed for people with visual and upper extremity impairment.

So, what exactly is adaptive packaging—sometimes called inclusive design—and why should brands consider offering it to customers?

Basically, adaptive packaging means making products easier to use to meet customers’ needs.

Woman in a wheelchair looking at the camera from her laptop
Image via SeventyFour.

That can range from helping people with dexterity issues by offering easy-opening jar lids, or opener supports to assisting people with limited or no vision through such features as high-contrast labels, Braille text, laser etching and, on tech products, tactile keyboard labels.

In recent years, brands such as Olay moisturizers, Degree deodorant, Herbal Essences Bio:Renew shampoos and conditioners, Microsoft Surface tablet computers, and Kellogg’s have announced, or begun offering, adaptive packaging.

The number of potential customers is one reason why.


The Market

An estimated 48.9 million people in the United States and 1.3 billion worldwide live with a disability and, Allure.com notes, the U.S. Department of Labor says Americans with disabilities have $175 billion in discretionary spending power. The World Health Organization says 285 million people are visually impaired; 39 million of them are blind.

Beauty and health product makers are leading the charge toward adaptive packaging.  

Pretty woman holds a jar of Olay moisturizer up with a smile on her face
Image via Olay.

“They’re ready and open to do something radical and making these small changes to packaging can have a huge effect on someone’s ability to use these products, which has a huge effect on someone’s self-esteem,” says Mallon, whose arms are paralyzed.

In 2018, Procter & Gamble’s Herbal Essences began putting raised stripes and dots on its bottles to help blind and low-vision consumers distinguish its shampoos from its conditioners (only 10% of blind people read Braille).

Last year, Cleanlogic rebranded its packaging to include Braille, donating a portion of sales to organizations supporting the visually impaired.

Images via ThamKC and TRADOL.

Also, in 2021, Unilever announced Degree Inclusive and P&G made waves introducing its Easy Open Lids for Olay moisturizers.

Degree Inclusive, currently a prototype in trial phase, has a hooked container designed for one-handed usage, as well as magnetic closures and enhanced grip placement. The modifications help users remove the cap and put it back on.

Degree Inclusive isn’t in stores or online yet, however. Unilever is gathering feedback from people with disabilities, with plans to update its progress later this year.

Images via Olay.

The Olay jars, also in prototype, are for people with dexterity issues, limb differences, chronic issues causing joint pain, or vision impairments. They have easy-open lids, winged caps, extra-grip raised lids, high-contrast labels, and Braille text.

The limited-edition products are sold on the Olay.com/opentochange site, but not in stores.

“We heard a desire from our consumers for a more accessible Olay jar and we took action,” says Loren Fanroy, Olay senior communications manager. “We believe all consumers deserve to have access to products that serve their needs and fit seamlessly into their daily lives.”

P&G isn’t patenting the lid, hoping that other beauty companies will use the design to make their products more accessible, too.


The Movement

The adaptive packaging trend is partly a result of blind and visually-impaired beauty bloggers, like YouTube’s Molly Burke and CoverGirl’s Lucy Edwards, championing the initiatives.

Burke, who is blind, recently told Allure: “When I started seven years ago, there were just a handful of disabled content creators. Now, I see thousands.”

Adaptive packaging has been growing due to media attention, too.

Allure now has a bevy of “most accessible” product category winners in its Best of Beauty awards as writer Chloe Toscano, who is an amputee, noted.

Packaging World Editor Matt Reynolds wrote that Degree Inclusive’s structural design is “a package that’s completely of its time.”

Reynolds told me he thinks brands have “an increased focus on people with disabilities and general equity.”

One example: Microsoft. Its CEO Satya Nadella has made inclusive design a core part of his company’s business model since he took the reins in 2014.

Young couple shopping at a supermarket
Image via bodnar.photo.

The pandemic has also played a role in boosting adaptive packaging.

“I think COVID has shown that there is a need to think about underfunded communities and brands,” says Mallon. “The brands want to see how they can make the world a better place and packaging is something they have control over to be better citizens of the world.”

OXO Good Grip brand kitchen meat shedding claws
Image via melissamn.

Adaptive and inclusive packaging isn’t wholly new, though.

Kitchen-products maker OXO started selling its Good Grips line in 1990. L’Occitane has had Braille labels on most of its products since 1997. In 2005, Target’s ClearRx initiative redesigned its prescription drug bottle labels to make them easier to read and the products more identifiable.

When customers see how helpful adaptive packaging can be, says Brandon Bach, president of Consumer Convenience Technologies (it created EEASY Lid for jars in 2019), they enthusiastically buy products with it.

Bach’s company conducted a twelve-week case study of the EEASY Lid on Darci’s pasta sauce and found sales increased 306% in one week and 785% by four weeks.

Senior woman in a wheelchair at a supermarket wears a mask while looking at the camera
Image via Bignai.

The Benefits to Older Consumers

Older consumers with mobility, vision, and dexterity challenges are often especially eager for adaptive packaging, says Richard Caro, co-founder of Tech-Enhanced Life, a company exploring the intersection of aging and technology.

But, its community of “Longevity Explorers” in their 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s, Caro notes, often complain about packaging problems they face.

“They want to talk about complicated plastic packages that are almost impossible to open for anybody,” he says. “And, that the print is tiny and light gray on a white background, so it’s very, very hard to read unless you have 20/20 eyesight.”

Brands need to walk a delicate balance between tweaking packaging to be useful for older adults and doing it in a way that might offend them.

Says Lisa Hollis-Sawyer, the Gerontology Program coordinator at Northeastern Illinois University: “Older people might say: ‘I don’t have a disability. Why would I use that?’”

Or, she adds, if a package says it’s age-friendly, the older consumer might see that and say, “Oh, I’m not older” and put it back.

Rob Chess, a Stanford Graduate School of Business lecturer told The New York Times that companies sometimes employ “stealth design,” addressing needs of older consumers in a form that doesn’t scream “old.”

Caro thinks brands haven’t shown much interest in adapting packaging for older consumers, overall. But, he adds, “I think now there’s a lot more interest in it than five or six years ago.”

Images via yurakrasil, belushi, and Dusan Petkovic.

The Challenges

One reason more companies haven’t jumped on the adaptive packaging bandwagon, says Ken Smith, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity’s Mobility Center and leader of the center’s annual Design Challenge—inattention.

“When I was in product engineering-type roles, oftentimes the packaging kind of got left to the end of the product project. People weren’t necessarily thinking about it,” says Smith.

Another concern—cost.

Companies are often looking to squeeze pennies at the end of a product-manufacturing cycle, Smith says. So, packaging is a natural cost target. Reynolds says the packaging system “is built to make as many products as quickly as possible as cheaply as possible.”

A L’Occitane Foundation spokesperson told Vogue Business that research and implementation for the brand’s Braille labels “led to an additive cost of about 25%,” but that the company was willing to pay that “because this is so meaningful.”

However, Reynolds says smaller brands may not have the flexibility or financial ability to alter packaging for a slice of their customers compared to larger brands.

Experts on aging say that making packaging more useful for older adults is often beneficial for the brands’ other customers, too.

Andrew Barraclough, former vice president of design at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) wrote on the Packaging World site that although GSK’s pain relief brand Voltaren’s tubes were designed so its caps could be opened by people with arthritis, they’re easier to open for everyone.

Hollis-Sawyer puts it this way: “A product with clear instructions or better color contrast or an easier tab to pull actually benefits anyone. Making packaging more aging-friendly is making it more people-friendly.”

In order for the idea of adaptive packaging to become more of a reality for brands, however, Reynolds says “consumer education needs to happen” so potential customers understand what’s changed and how that can help them.

Mallon is hugely optimistic about the immediate future for adaptive packaging. “I definitely think we’ll see more brands doing it in the next year or two,” she says.


Cover image via AnnGaysorn.

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