These Boxes Won’t be Boxed In

img_20160624_113838Unboxing is awesome. And it’s become quite a thing; a very real, very lucrative thing. Whether it’s the latest iPhone or that unforgettable birthday present from your childhood, the universal delight of opening a box is a feeling that never fades no matter how old or jaded we get. Hello, mystery.

Unboxing. Even the word itself has a charming, crinkly crunch to it. 

One of the downsides of living in an increasingly digital world is that there are fewer and fewer opportunities to interact with good, old hand-crafted analog packaging. It’s especially true for those of us who work in advertising, branding, and PR. We all get (and send) dozens—if not hundreds—of marketing messages every day, but when was the last time you received a truly well-made piece of physical mail: something that made you pause, smile, and really engage in a campaign—something you actually held onto. Opening an email just can’t compare to opening a box

Here at Grady Britton, that line of thinking has been at the heart of a number of recent projects for our clients. It all started—as do many things worth doing—with plastic building blocks.

Travel Portland

You can read about it, look at pictures, and watch videos for months, but you can’t really understand the essence of a destination until you visit. Travel Portland wanted to give a select group of warm prospects the next best thing. The DMO tasked us to make our city stay top of mind for event planners, businesses, and convention organizers. We challenged ourselves to exceed our previous year’s work and further bridge the gap between being there and being here, Portland-style.

The result: completely customized plastic building block sets representing the themes, landmarks, architecture, public transit system, and food that make Portland so  Portland-y.

We completely nerded out on all the details: figures’ t-shirts, sandwich boards, food cart license plates, and so on. The boxes and instruction manuals feature gobs of subtle design Easter eggs as well, which gave us the opportunity to draw recipients’ attention to specifics—like Portland’s 0% sales tax—in a fun, authentic way rather than through a dry fact sheet.

But engineering these sets from the ground up also presented several serious logistical questions. Are there enough green cylinders in stock? Is this the right size for a desk? Is a 50-brick set too simplistic? Is a 200-brick set too complicated? We wanted the sets to have substance, but not so much complexity that recipients would abandon construction midway through. And, with all this in mind, how do we ensure the cost per box stays below a certain parameter?

Then there were quality control challenges. After receiving sample sets from our supplier, we assembled two at random and discovered they weren’t complete. Not the most fun day at the office, for a few reasons. (You ever step on one of these things?)

Nonetheless, everything worked out fine in the end. Travel Portland was thrilled with the idea, recipients loved the execution, and we got better at, er, putting the pieces together to make an effort like this work… which was great, because we’d be doing another one again almost immediately.

Bob’s Red Mill

Sometimes the stars align, and work for one client inspires a creative campaign for another. As we were finalizing the building block sets for Travel Portland, Bob’s Red Mill called. The company wanted to introduce itself to buyers for large retail distributors in a remarkable new way.

We started by considering what a day in the life of a retail food buyer is like, and the connection to boxes became obvious fairly quickly. When you’re in touch with so many food and beverage manufacturers, you’re inundated with free samples, stickers, keychains, mugs, and all sorts of doodads that usually end up tossed out or lost in some dark corner of an office or the trunk of your car. What could we do for Bob’s that would stand out?

We conceived a ready-to-mail kit bursting with personality and rich in detail. In putting the box together, we focused on the recipient’s tactile experience: What should the box feel like? What are the ideal dimensions? What will be the first thing they see? The resulting package takes full advantage of its form, offering a classing unboxing experience. The goal was to create a box as appealing and substantial as what’s contained inside. We wanted it to look too pretty to throw away.


We’re happy to report that Bob’s fell in love with the presentation style and form factor. One box led to another, and another. Although the basic canvas remains the same, each box is substantially different from the last, and each has found success with its audience. Matt Cox, Vice President of Marketing for Bob’s, tells us:

“The pitch kits are big hits. The comments from our trading partners are flooding in, all of them going something like, ‘this is the best sample kit I have ever seen.’ We are getting fast acceptance of these new items and I think that quite a bit of the launches’ successes are due to your brilliant work.”

Our latest box for Bob’s highlights the company’s Muesli line. We wanted the packaging to relate to the product’s roots, so we decided to thoroughly embrace Muesli’s Swiss–German heritage, Matterhorns and all. The box resembles an old leather suitcase covered in travel stickers. Each label refers back to a Muesli ingredient; for instance, Bob’s sources Australian blueberries, so we included an Australia sticker. The inside of the box is printed with a crossed spoons pattern and the contents are packed in European-feeling, rose-colored newsprint, which is printed with information about the product. Bob’s wanted to highlight its new packaging, so we devoted a section of the newspaper to resealability. Peppered with “Swenglish” phrases, the copy further underscores the Alpine quirk.

Oregon Convention Center

Meanwhile, our building block sets for Travel Portland caught the attention of the head of marketing at the Oregon Convention Center, who contacted us to do a similar project. The Convention Center wanted to reach a group of corporations and influencers in Portland who tend to hold large meetings. Rather than heading to the newest, hippest bar, why not book the Convention Center—the mothership of throwing big parties? After all, not only is it the largest venue in the Pacific Northwest, but its culinary staff have earned top distinctions from the Culinary Institute of America.

To help the Oregon Convention Center assume (and frankly reestablish) its rightful place as a go-to venue for event planners, we pushed ourselves to create what would turn out to be our most ambitious box yet.


Our designers created an artisanal jigsaw puzzle styled like a vintage poster, made out of wood and cut into large, chunky pieces. The completed image overlays the Convention Center on top of an illustration of Portland rendered like a cartoon from the 1940s or 50s. We encapsulated the theme in the phrase: “I love when it all comes together.”

  • It’s a good thing we had some practice putting these boxes together before, because production turned out to be far more challenging than we expected. Our production partner hit a number of snags along the way, but ultimately they enjoyed learning what it takes to complete projects like this one. And we all developed a much greater respect for jigsaw makers.

Expo West

There’s one final box I’d like to mention. We weren’t an exhibitor at this year’s Expo West, but as an agency focused on the natural and organic food and beverage industry, we wanted to leave an indelible impression on the contacts we came across.

So, we put together—what else—a few little boxes. Enclosed in each one was a prepaid cell phone (the kind you can buy from a convenience store) programmed with our contact information. Think of it as a direct hotline—whenever you need marketing work, you can call us directly. Of course, a card was included as well, and the box itself was printed with more details about Grady Britton.

View this post on Instagram

#Expowest prep! See you soon, #foodie friends.

A post shared by Grady Britton (@gradybritton) on


Okay, one more: you can also see yet another box, which we made for Maker’s Day, at the top of this blog post.

What We’ve Learned Along the Way

What can you expect from a similar campaign? Here are some things we’ve learned from putting these boxes together over the past year:

  • FOMO plays a big role in the success of a box. Though “make other people jealous” hasn’t been part of a creative brief, it’s a positive outcome: the box should create a ring of desire. You want people around the recipient you target—their colleagues, coworkers, and friends—to think, “I wish I had one of those too.” It’s basic word of mouth, in microcosm.

  • Nostalgia plays a major role as well, and frequently informs the design. These boxes remind recipients of their childhood, and the act of unboxing tends to excavate a trove of memories related to gift giving and receiving.

  • The three-dimensionality of a box provides so many opportunities to incorporate branding material and include fun messaging. As a result, we treat every box as an end product, working hard to make packaging that expresses everything great about the client and delights the recipient. We believe that if something is unique, detailed, and appropriate enough, it should stick around, have a shelf life, and be a rewarding experience unto itself.

  • At their core, boxes may be a well-worn idea, but people regularly tell us what a fresh and exciting idea it is. Perhaps it’s because of the level of detail we try to infuse. And maybe it’s the cultural pendulum swinging backward, just a bit, from super-slick modern technology.

  • Every box we’ve done has been both incredibly effective from a business standpoint and personally rewarding from a creative standpoint—although it’s getting harder to top ourselves every time!

A final thought, since you’ve made it this far: I bet some of you have been expecting a certain something, a saying, to rear its ugly head at any time, but guess what? More than 1600 words about boxes and thinking and not one mention of that awful, lazy, clichéd-to-Hell-and-back metaphor. You know the one… Proof you can still be surprised by the thinking in the box. 

Post Date
October 21, 2016
None yet
Sharing is Caring