What Will a Circular Economy Mean for Branding?

For centuries, we have relied on a linear model — take, make, use, dispose — at the expense of the environment. A circular model, on the other hand, will require us to design waste and pollution out of products, by keeping materials within a closed loop. This will dramatically change the way products are designed.

As FMCG companies grapple with the implications for their business models, it also raises the question, what will a circular economy mean for branding?

Let’s take a company that makes shampoo — valiantly saving civilisation from dry and frizzy hair. In the linear economy, the packaging is the prime real estate of the brand at the point of purchase. It’s the shiny exterior that differentiates what is otherwise an indistinguishable product.

In a circular economy, this will change. The shampoo may be dispensed from a large vat into a reusable bottle (either provided by the brand or consumer), or directly delivered to a consumer in a reusable bottle via a delivery / collection system such as Loop.

By removing the cheap and cheerful, throwaway plastic bottle from the equation, it will force companies to rethink how consumers interact with their brands in store and at home.

So far the response from brands has been fairly predictable. Unilever’s household cleaning brand, CIF, acknowledging that the vast majority of its product is water, has drastically reduced the amount of packaging by creating ecorefill capsules — they use 70 percent less plastic, while giving enough space for a healthy splattering of branding. Other brands are partnering with services such as Loop, which offers the delivery and collection of products in reusable packaging — for instance, brands such as Häagen-Dazs are creating reusable, insulated, metallic containers that are flavour-agnostic.

Delivery / collection systems will increase the importance of durability and product interchangeability over unique, eye-catching designs. While in store, brands will have little control over the vessel consumers decide to use with refill solutions. In these scenarios how can brands respond to maintain a place in our hearts, minds, cupboards and shelves?

Here are five predictions:

1. Bottles as objects of desire

Brands will develop beautiful, distinctive, durable bottles to contain their precious product. Much like Coke’s original, glass hobbleskirt bottle, Aesop’s brown glass or Stella’s chalice, a battle will be fought for the most desirable bottle, elevating the importance of shape, colour and texture.

2. Product & story

Stripped of its glitzy plastic clothing, brands will put more emphasis on both the quality and qualities of the product, ensuring it shines through whatever container it’s in. Brands will also have to work harder to differentiate their products, through stories of provenance, craft and sustainability.

3. Hermit crab branding

Those who can’t afford to develop beautiful bottles will have to think like hermit crabs. They will offer sticker packs to enable consumers to customise their chosen vessel, or to graffiti over the residual logos of competing brands.

4. Dispenser wars

Product dispensers will be a battleground for brands at the point of purchase. Not only will they offer prime real estate in supermarket aisles to advertise the product within, there will be competition for the most memorable refill experience. Sonic branding and sound design will also play a key role, as brands seek to engage their customers as their products are being dispensed. Alternatively, if retailers own the product dispensers, they will restrict the brandable area, and push sales towards unbranded products that make more money for the retailers themselves — forcing brands to compete in other areas.

5. The refill truck revolution

Brands will have fleets of electric refill trucks that will roam the streets, offering a premium refill experience; replacing damaged bottles with the latest designs, and pushing new product offerings. Those who operate a House of Brands will win, being able to offer a wider product offering; from tea to cleaning products. The trucks themselves will be works of art; milk floats on steroids.

While a circular economy will present huge challenges to the conventional, linear business models of most brands; there are huge opportunities for those who embrace and adapt to this change, seeing it as both a necessary and exciting change in the relationship between their product and the citizens who choose to buy it — while those who drag their heels with incremental changes will undoubtedly fall behind.


This piece originally appeared online in Sustainable Brands,
28th January 2020.