Posted by Andrew Buckles ● May 4, 2018 1:10:39 PM

Product Packaging—and the Secret Life of Paperboard

Your paperboard choice for a custom box sends a subconscious message to shoppers.

When asked about product boxes, the first thing most people think about is color and shape—what they see on the shelf. Visual elements are important, but a custom printed box is more than what you see.

Let’s start with print itself. Reputable studies on the science of touch (haptics) have shown that we engage on a deeper level with print than we do with online media. Combine this with the fact that product packaging simply cannot be replaced by digital, and you realize how important it is to get the physical box just right.

Paperboard and corrugate substratesIn the case of retail packaging, paperboard is simply a thicker version of ordinary paper. It can be printed with an extraordinary range of colors and finishes. (Our Packaging Design post goes into this.) The alternative—corrugated board—is a laminated material designed for maximum strength but does not have the same printability.


These can be used separately or combined to produce custom boxes that are both strong and beautiful. Both have attributes that send the user a subtle, subconscious message.Paper blog 2



Some messaging-related tips for choosing substrates:

  • Strength and durability. This is both practical and aesthetic. Strength includes both thickness (or “caliper”) and resistance to tearing or perforation. A flimsy box carries the risk of a product falling out or becoming damaged, but it does more harm to consumer perception. Subconsciously, a flimsy box communicates a cheap or undesirable product, while a substantial, well-constructed box conveys the opposite. 

    Also remember that product packaging is subjected to frequent handling before it reaches the shelf. Not every substrate can withstand this without showing wear and tear. Choosing a durable substrate will create a positive perception of the brand itself.
  • Weight. Every substrate has a “basis weight” that relates not only to its strength but also to practical matters like shipping costs. While the product itself usually makes up the majority of the total weight, the box contributes to a subconscious perception of value.
  • Cost and quality issues. It is tempting to reduce costs by selecting a cheaper brand of paperboard, but the resulting construction issues may undo those savings—or worse. Some substrates are softer, less rigid, and less receptive to glues, making a poor impression on the shopper. Depending on your branding goals, you may want to prioritize the construction qualities of paperboard over cost factors.
  • Color and reflective qualities. Paperboard can come in many different colors, levels of optical brightness, and surface reflectivity. These all affect how light bounces off the surface and reaches the eye, communicating an emotional message as well as a literal one. There is no one rule for selecting the right color or brightness, however. Some products may benefit from a sharp, precise color image (on bright, glossy stock), while others from a more subdued or diffused look (on uncoated or colored stock). This is where a service provider can prove invaluable—helping the designer pick the right “canvas” to convey the best emotional message.
  • Tactile qualities. Paperboard and corrugate have a wide range of qualities people can touch. These are either how the substrate was originally made, or applied later on, as with embossing or other finishing effects. A substrate’s feel can convey an emotional, subconscious response, which becomes more important with higher-priced products, or those facing intense competition on the store shelf.

In other words, the paperboard containing your product is constantly speaking to the consumer—perhaps in support of your overt brand message, or possibly against it. Intuitively, the consumer makes many purchase decisions without a totally logical, conscious process. In an environment where visual competition is intense and unforgiving, the subconscious voices of the substrate you use may well be the deciding factor.


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Topics: Retail Packaging, Retail Moments of Truth, Packaging As Marketing, Design