We’ve all been there: That feeling of “Why am I here?” when we attend a trade show connected with our industry: The interminable schlep round stall after stall; the warm wine; the forest-killing bag full of business cards and leaflets that may never be looked at again. Am I right?  However, I think we can re-boot our interest and re-frame our involvement if we approach trade shows with the eye of an outsider – a cultural spy if you like.

Els Dragt in How to Research Trends, discusses how trade shows can be a fantastic place to learn about the status quo in a given industry or category. A litmus test for cultural orthodoxy, if you like your phrasing a little more grandiose. My feeling is that trade shows can be great stimulus for thinking, for observing the culture and the dilemmas of a category or an industry at first hand; a place of observation and diagnosis.  A place to harvest tensions. Conversations with other delegates can be just as valuable as any stand or presentation.

So where is the innovation in luxury?

One show this year was a case in point: The Packaging Innovation / Luxury Show, in London Olympia back in October.

The packaging industry faces some fascinating challenges.

First, that ‘/’ between Innovations / Luxury in the trade show title feels like a very big and un-resolved line. We saw little evidence of luxury packaging that was innovative in the direction of sustainability. There was lots of beautiful, novel packaging to encourage purchase, particularly for gifting, but there was little evidence of the luxury packaging industry having concern for future sustainability issues. One of the issues, as I discussed with another delegate over a lunch of salad in a cardboard box with plastic cutlery (irony not lost) is that we have preconceived ideas about the materials which are associated with luxury.

Would you ever drink a malt from a cardbox box? Would you think a drink was more premium because it came in a heavier glass bottle? One of the solutions that this delegate has is to design packaging that can be de-branded. This is brave for brands, of course, but how likely are you to want to reuse a branded box again (for example) once you have finished with the original product? Probably more likely if it’s not covered in branding or instructions. And if the packaging is sophisticated and iconic without the branding then perhaps it will become a cherished object in its second life?

Sustainability isn’t yet front of mind for luxury brands

Many of the keynote presentations, and even more of the questions asked to panels, discussed this need for sustainability. DS Smith went furthest; during the presentation of one future scenario they predicted that increased online shopping would lead to anti-packaging protests as early as 2019. I’m not convinced that this will happen so soon but I’m sure I’m not the only one that experiences annoyance when my online order arrives and one shirt, or one paperback is contained in a giant, empty box. DS Smith are right to point out that packaging needs are going to change as we continue to shop even more online.

With this in mind, walking around the trade show exhibits troubled me because much of the packaging on show focused on secondary, even tertiary packaging for luxury goods. Beautiful. And yet totally unnecessary. Because a lot of our work is with alcohol clients, I was of course drawn to look at the alcohol packaging. Here there is more luxury than innovation. Or rather the innovations centre on beauty and gifting and not on sustainability. There are clear trends for creative packaging that will suit gifting or compel people to hashtags and small batch designs, for example to encase Highland malts, and personalisation were key themes. Of course if a malt is going to be saved for many years then packaging that protects it from the elements is functional, as well as glamorous, but I was concerned to see that gins that are seeking to look premium but are unlikely to be saved for decades at a time are following the malts packaging cues with their own sophisticated cartons.

Is a generational shift coming?

Secondly, presentations by Bulletproof and Butterfly Cannon discussed the need to appeal to a Gen Z, (or Gen Real as Bulletproof prefer to call it). These young people are apparently usurping hedonism and gloss in favour of frugal purchasing, health and sustainability concerns. But the luxury products present were clearly not targeting their consumption. Sure right now this generation might be too young to buy expensive malt whiskeys or other luxury products, particularly when the accompanying box costs an additional £10 to make. But this generation are the future. And they are also an extremely large portion of society – up 35% of the world’s population and 4/10 consumers worldwide. Brands and packaging designers alike need to prepare products that will appeal to this generation or begin to manage their decline. What are brands doing to reimagine and reconfigure their products, and their packaging, for this generation?

The trade show inspired another strand of thinking about whose responsibility is it to drive change towards sustainable innovations? DS Smith clearly think it’s their own, and that regulators and consumers are likely to demand it in the not too distant future. But Ben Carter from Just Eat discussed the complications of their supply chain that involves small independents working to small profit margins feeding ‘lazy and impatient’ consumers ordering food from their mobiles. Is it the job of the online platform to drive change?  Or is it the responsibility of the consumer to stop being so hangry and start thinking more about how they consume food and where their takeaway box is going to end up. After all a big problem for Just Eat is litter.

Cultural spies find future trends in the gaps and shadows

The trade show provided far more questions than answers for me but it’s a fantastic opportunity to take a look at the current status quo of packaging and upcoming challenges. In our work at pluralthinking we often face these types of business problems about how willing consumers are to engage in active recycling, or what new formats products can be packaged in. Of course, because our work is in consumer insight we’re usually establishing whether consumers buy in to ideas as much as the brands who commission the products, but there are interesting debates to be had about who should be driving innovation towards sustainability, and whether luxury packaging can ever be sustainable.

My broader point is about how best to make use of trade shows. It pays to take a step back from the specific to the general. Ask yourself what dilemmas you have identified, what tensions seem to exist in this particular industry. Think about not just what trends are evident, but taken together what seems to contradict what?  Trends in isolation are often meaningless; trends interacting is what results in culture change. So, the next time you’re at a trade show, don’t collect business cards – instead harvest the tensions.