Unpacking a $50,000 Consumer Digital Camera: Why A Good Customer Experience Starts Right Out of the Box

Today let’s not think outside the box. Instead, let’s think about the box.

The box – more specifically, packaging — is a key element of the consumer experience. Done right, packaging can attract the attention of the consumer, help the consumer make a decision, and enhance the anticipation a consumer feels once the decision to buy has been made.

But more than that, thoughtful packaging can help forge an emotional bond between the consumer and the company that made the product. Packaging contributes to the “magic moment” when shoppers are transformed into customers. If the emotional bond is established, loyalty often follows.

Think about it: Do you still have the boxes that your MacBook and iOS products came in? A lot of people do, even if they routinely toss away the boxes for other products.

Why? Because “for Apple, the inexpensive box merits as much attention as the high-margin electronic device inside,” Adam Lashinsky writes in his book “Inside Apple.” Apple even has a special packaging design room in Cupertino that is said to be “so secure that those with access to it need to badge in and out.”

In the room, Lashinsky writes, one packaging designer spent months opening hundreds of prototype iPod boxes, seeking to find the one that provided the best customer experience.

The message sent: Apple really cares about the entire customer experience. Apple cares about me.

In return, customers really care about Apple. They form a subtle (sometimes not so subtle) emotional link to the company – a human connection — and they become loyal customers.

Sure, there’s more to that customer experience than packaging. But we all know that first impressions matter. For consumer products, the first impression often comes from packaging.

How else to explain the wild popularity of “unboxing” videos on the Web? Millions of people log on to watch complete strangers unwrap new gizmos and gadgets.

Typical is this one, showing the unboxing of the then new iPhone.

Not so typical is this one, showing the unboxing of a new camera. No, not a $500 point-and-shoot. Not even a $5,000 professional camera. It’s a $50,000 Leica Edition Hermès Série Limitée Jean-Louis Dumas. For that kind of money, one expects the packaging to convey the value of the device inside. It wouldn’t quite be the same experience if the camera came in a flimsy cardboard box. The luxurious packaging might even help the consumer to forget, for a moment at least, that he or she has paid $50,000 for a camera that is already scheduled for a model upgrade next year.

Compare the Leica video to this unboxing video for one of the Apple iPad competitors, the Google Nexus 7. More than 1.6 million people have watched this video. Ouch. Do you think Google has a secret packaging design room at its headquarters?

But at least it’s not as bad as those infernal plastic clamshell cases that are designed primarily to thwart shoplifters. The message: We assume you are a thief, and we care more about stopping theft than we do about pleasing our paying customers.

A recent survey conducted by a business professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas found that nearly 80 percent of consumers “expressed anger, frustration or outright rage” with plastic packaging materials.

Although the focus here has been on physical products, the same principles also apply to services, Web sites, the retail experience — basically any situation where you want to sell something to someone.

Am I saying every company should give all its products the white-glove packaging treatment? No. But if you’re trying to think outside the box to create and launch a new premium product or experience, don’t forget to think about the box itself.