For the past 20 years or so, I've had a bad habit. I buy compact discs. Only one or two a week — but one or two a week adds up. So last week, I threw out what had become my collection of more than 1,000 CDs.
Well, I didn't really throw out the CDs. I threw out the jewel boxes that the CDs came in. With the new CD changers that hold 300 CDs each (for only $250!), it's just easier to store CDs in the changer than it is to keep them in their jewel boxes.
I gathered up stacks and stacks of jewel boxes (which weighed a ton) and left them on the curb for the garbage collectors. And in the 24 hours that followed, at least a dozen people in cars pulled over, got out, and started to paw through the boxes.
It took them only a few seconds to determine that the jewel boxes were empty. But that didn't stop them: Each and every person kept pawing through the pile. They couldn't bring themselves to believe that so many CD cases, usually coveted, were now worthless. One guy even took a few of the empties with him — for what reason I can't begin to imagine.
Of course, the jewel boxes are worse than useless without the music. They take up space, and they're not particularly attractive. Few home decorators rush out to buy jewel boxes in bulk to distribute in key locations around a house to give it that finishing touch before the photographers from Architectural Digest arrive.
Here's the question that the whole episode suggested to me: What is it about packaging — about a wrapper — that is so important?
Here's my answer: People are quick to attach emotional memories to packaging, all the more so when the substance within that packaging is ethereal. Anyone who has paid to put her wedding dress in storage knows what I mean. You're never going to wear it again, your kids are unlikely to want it, but you keep it because it's an important wrapper. It was the packaging around a romantic, once-in-a-lifetime — and hard-to-recapture — personal experience. Long after the cake has been cut and the rice has been thrown, it's the one tangible thing that you can take with you. That wedding dress is the wrapper on your wedding day, the physical manifestation of a warm and fuzzy concept.
In the old days, virtually everything had to come with some sort of wrapper. The packaging was as much a part of the product as it was a part of the brand.
As our economy continues to become more digital, the role of the wrapper becomes a vitally important concept. Some pundits riff about all products becoming services and all services becoming products. I don't think that's what it's about. I think it's about us starting to separate goods and services from their wrappers.
The music business, of course, has this very problem coming out of its ears. If first you throw out the jewel boxes, and then you throw out the polycarbonate discs, can you really charge $14 for the music? Napster is a huge threat precisely because it makes clear just how many layers of wrapping come with the music — and just how little value such wrapping actually holds.
But it's not only in the land of the CD that we find this problem. The past few months have seen quite a kerfuffle in the book business as well. When authors can throw away the paper and the cover, charge $4 or $1 — or nothing at all — for a book and still profit from the exercise, it gives book publishers an excellent reason to quake. After all, publishers have organized themselves to be in the wrapper business. But if the wrapper is nothing but a lot of pre-landfill material, everyone in the book-wrapping business will have a lot of trouble making sense of their existing business.
And those are the easy examples. How about your cell-phone? Is it an irreplaceable, useful object, or just a wrapper for really valuable things such as conversations and data exchange? Tellme Networks Inc., a startup in Silicon Valley, is betting on the latter. Dial 800-555-TELL, and you can have a really fascinating phone conversation with a computer. It will look up stock information or weather, and will even dial an airline for you — all for free. And Tellme doesn't care at all which phone you use. Phones will get cheaper and cheaper, but if Tellme does its job right, its service will become more and more valuable. In a few years, cell-phones are going to be very close to free — a wrapper without value. What we do with them, on the other hand, will be where a ton of money stands to be made.
At the same time that we're abandoning some traditional wrappers, some businesses are becoming ever more obsessed with the wrapper. They understand that their businesses are really about wrappers, and so they offer their T-shirts, their soaps, their teas — even their computer workstations — in wrappers and packages that satisfy our inner need for beauty. The pleasure that we get by pulling out a Palm V when everyone around us has a IIIe is irrational. It's based on the kinesthetic joy that we get from holding the latest and greatest. That's worth something, and Palm understands its worth. Go to a Fast Company RealTime conference, and all the "irrelevant" wrapper stuff — the uniforms, the look and feel of the place — makes the rest of the conference that much more important and enjoyable.
In an age of email and fax, do we really need to use FedEx Envelopes to send most documents? Unless a document is an original that must be signed, probably not. Yet businesses continue to use them. Why? Because the envelope (FedEx's version of the jewel box) makes it more likely that the letter will get read.
So who's in danger? How will the increasing chasm between wrappers and contents make life difficult for some companies? I think it will happen to companies in the middle, the ones that hesitate to go for the edges. Here are a couple of quick thumbnails to get you thinking about your choices.
If your company makes contents, get out of the wrapper business as fast as you possibly can. Giving away your e-book will dramatically increase the number of people who read it. More than 400,000 people have read Unleashing the Ideavirus (Do You Zoom Inc., 2000) so far — all because I got rid of the physical stuff that makes a book expensive. If you're in the wine business, and your wine is well reviewed and has a huge following, maybe it's time to sell a special vintage directly to your customers, bypassing liquor stores and forgoing fancy bottles. Sell the wine — not the bottle!
If you're in the wrapper business, get better at it! Beer should come in truly beautiful bottles, and those bottles should make a great noise when they are opened. Emulate the cosmetics industry in your packaging, Nordstrom in your customer service, and Apple in your sheer sexiness. Too many companies are afraid to admit that they're in the packaging business. They're happy to invest big money in a new plant, but they view spending similar money on user experience as some sort of soft expense.
Here are a couple of tests: Take a page from the New York Times, cut out a 2-inch square from it, and give that piece of paper to a friend. Odds are, she knows exactly what newspaper she's reading. Have another friend shut his eyes, get into a Mercedes-Benz, and close the door. Odds are, he'll know exactly what kind of car he is sitting in. At first glance, neither of those experiments has anything to do with the actual "products." Yet they have everything to do with them. The way that the Times looks and feels affects how I interpret the news that I read within its pages. The way that the door on a Mercedes shuts is at least as important to most drivers as the car's acceleration.
I walked into a supermarket in Saranac Lake, New York last week. It was part of a big chain, one that has some pretty upscale markets around the country. Not here, though. The lighting was poor. The shelves weren't very well arranged. I knew within five seconds that I wasn't going to make any silly, spur-of-the-moment (read: "profitable") purchases.
Of course, this supermarket, like all supermarkets, is nothing but a wrapper itself. It's a giant jewel box for food, a wrapper designed to convey packaged goods from companies that make them to consumers who buy them. A supermarket is a wrapper filled with more wrappers. And because the store's manager had stopped trying to make all that wrapping attractive, that store was leaving huge profits on the table.
I know that this idea of being packaging-obsessed seems, at first, to be superfluous and wasteful. But if you've chosen to thrive in the packaged world, then that is the path you've chosen. To go halfway down that road, to go to all the trouble of having a product, a sales force, and even real estate, and then not to finish it off by creating joy in the process for the end user — what a waste!
The Web has really ripped a hole through the wrapping that has been sheltering the wrapper folks. On the Web, you can't hear the crinkling, see the lighting, smell the leather, or enjoy the sultry sound of a handsome salesperson's voice. The Web, the engineer's revenge, is all about content and commodities, not sexiness and wrappers. What do you do? I would do three things:
1. Make your Web site crisp, simple, and elegant — but don't try to replicate the joy or the wonder of your wrapper. Instead, first do no harm. Go to most consulting firms' Web sites, and you'll see that it is too easy to do too much online. Get what you need from your prospect's attention — and then stop.
2. Get permission from people to follow up with tools that support your packaging. Send them a certificate for a free test-drive of your latest BMW on a nearby racetrack, or get them to call your ace customer-service people by phone.
3. Create unique intermediate products that are either cheap or free in order to get people started with your experience. Burt's Bees worked with drugstore.com Inc. to give away a free 10-pack of its lip balms and skin creams to anyone who made a purchase on the site. If the product experience is strong enough, your effort will have been money well spent. Why? Because once I use some of Burt's stuff, I may fall in love with the experience and buy from Burt's again and again, paying handsomely for the package each time.
There's one other thing that you can do if such approaches fail: Get out of the wrapper business. Rededicate your company to making things that do something better. Because, while wrappers are fun, sexy, and media-worthy, you'll never go hungry in the long run if you can offer people something that is really and truly better. After all, as Freud once observed, a cigar may be just a cigar. But no one thinks twice about the cellophane wrapper.
Seth Godin (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers Into Friends, and Friends Into Customers (Simon & Schuster, 1999) and Unleashing the Ideavirus (Do You Zoom Inc., 2000). Get his latest book for free on the Web (www.ideavirus.com).
A version of this article appeared in the April 2001 issue of Fast Company magazine.