Designs & Displays: Using Shopping Bags to Promote Your Brand

Shopping bag as prop (at The Dance Bag in Modesto, CA): With tissue paper peeking out, the shopping bags in the window suggest the pleasure that awaits the customer who makes a purchase.

Do your customers recognize and thrill at the sight of your shopping bag, the way so many do when they see the robin’s egg blue Tiffany bag, the Bloomingdale’s kraft-paper “medium brown bag” or Chanel’s glossy black bag with its iconic lettering? “Buying something new is exciting, so that moment is very important,” says Mona Barber, vice president of market development at Direct Source Packaging Co. LLC, a manufacturer and distributor of luxury packaging, whose clients include Tiffany & Co., Gap, Bloomingdale’s and Abercrombie & Fitch. “A well-branded packaged product signifies quality. It’s part of the experience.”

As your brand ambassador, the shopping bag makes your brand statement both inside and outside your business, from the cash wrap to the arm of a customer on the street. So what are you doing to keep this ambassador exciting, meaningful and top of mind?

First, regularly assess its effectiveness as a branding tool. Then focus on all the ways you can use it to communicate. And always remember to keep it fun.

Begin with your brand story

Your shopping bags reinforce the recognition of your brand and the experience customers associate with it. They are a chief way to compete in the greater world, even with online merchants. After all, what delights a customer more: Prying open a cardboard box with a pair of scissors at home? Or your pretty bag, lush with tissue paper, when the salesperson hands it over at the cash wrap, and then swinging from the client’s arm as she strolls out the door? The gift-giving effect is repeated when she takes her treasure from its wrapping at home. No cardboard box can deliver that experience.

So you want to make your bag exciting and also on-brand. Bag manufacturers have in-house designers who can help. They will work with you to optimize the placement and size of the logo; colors; location of website URL, message and tag line; and any special touches, such as handle treatment and complementary ribbon or tissue paper. “Every packaging piece is a custom project—whether you make something out of cotton in the style of a tote bag or a nonwoven polypropylene material or a paper bag with your foil-stamped logo,” says Barber. Ask to see samples of what the manufacturer has done for other clients, and tell them your budget. It’s their job to come up with an affordable solution.

Even the simplest kraft bag can look chic: Add tissue and ribbons in colors that match your brand or the season.

For an effective rendering of your logo, it should be big enough to read and recognize instantly, and it should be legible. This is where many bags fail, and that includes national brands. Take a look at the bags people are carrying when you walk into a shopping center. How many do you recognize? How many make you smile? The bag color and logo should work in tandem to alert anyone who sees it that this is your brand. “You will have a walking billboard for just pennies a bag,” says Joni Compton, advertising/tradeshow coordinator for Nashville Wraps, a wholesale distributor of packaging products.

All of the bag is advertising real estate, too, not just the sides. Home furnishings brand Jonathan Adler employs a bold rendering of its name on the broad side of the bag, and the turn top (the inner flap that folds down to form a smooth, finished edge) shows the website address on one side and an inspirational message on the other. “It’s zero additional cost to print there; it’s on the same side as the front of the bag,” says Barber. Think, too, about placing a pretty pattern on the narrow sides of the bag, to make it even more recognizable. The prettier the bag, the more likely customers will keep it, like an accessory, and reuse it.

Use the bag to promote your brand

The shopping bag becomes an exceptional marketing tool, because it telegraphs your brand wherever it goes. It functions as:

Advertising, outside the store on customers’ arms. When you create a bag that pleases the eye and can even do double duty as a reusable tote, your brand circulates in your community. Think about it: For the price of the bag alone, you have a local advertising campaign.

Merchandising, inside the store as props for displays. Well-branded bags are a quick and effective form of signage when grouped in a window or on a table. It’s a thrifty tool, since you already paid for the bags, and you can use them once the display changes.

Incentives, to drive sales. When the customer receives a bag with her merchandise, a transaction has been completed. Why not continue the transaction by incentivizing her to participate in another transaction that benefits her (and you!). Holly Bertucci, owner of The Dance Bag in Modesto, CA, used a promotional bag to get customers to return to her store. “When we first offered mesh bags, we attached a note telling clients, ‘If we see you carrying our bag, you’ll get a $5 gift card,’” she says. “Each staff member had a business card she would sign, if she saw someone using a Dance Bag mesh bag in public.”

Materials always matter

With so many types of bags available now—paper, plastic, cloth, nonwoven polypropylene, with lots of customization possible within those categories—you can find something serviceable at a price you can afford.

Heavy coated paper was once the benchmark. Think Tiffany and that matte/glossy bag that says quality and substance. Or Victoria’s Secret, with its sexy combo of hot pink and black on a glossy surface. Consider what you want your bag’s material to say about your brand. Classic? Fun? Environmentally conscious? Some areas of the country have passed or are passing laws that restrict these choices. However, there is still room in which to maneuver to tell a story of quality and value.

While paper bags maintain a presence in many markets, and nonwoven polypropylene also stays strong, two other materials are trending now: frosted plastic and canvas. “Not only can you see through clear frosted bags,” says Compton, “you can also change up the look, depending on what color or design of tissue paper you use. They also look great hot-stamped with your store name.”

Canvas, while customizable, is an investment, and one you can probably get your customers to pay for (more on that later).

On a strict budget? Even a simple kraft-paper bag with a stamped logo can be made memorable. “To save money, retailers can use solid-color bags and change up their tissue paper and ribbon according to the seasons,” says Compton.

Handles, too, do their part. You can customize width and length, and even incorporate the handle look into your bag’s overall design to make it memorable—say, using a ribbon that appears to feed into the lush, fluid lettering of your store name.

Seasonal bags make a statement

National retailers often switch to a one-time bag for their biggest selling seasons, specifically, the holiday season. Admittedly, they have the budget to do this. “Anytime you do a separate run, the cost will bump up, even five cents a bag, so it’s a bigger spend,” says Barber. “In that case, why not splash it up with a promotional bag?”

Customers may even be willing to pay for a seasonal tote that’s fun and practical, like this one from The Dance Bag.

While you weigh this one-time expense within a year’s operating costs, consider the ways other retailers make this choice provide a justifiable return. While long known throughout her community for The Dance Bag’s distinctive hot-pink plastic bag with die-cut handles, Bertucci creates nonwoven totes for her customers on special occasions. When the store moved to a new location, she developed a black bag with pink lettering that proclaimed “Grand Opening.” She opted for a pink bag with black lettering for the store’s 20th-anniversary celebration. This past Christmas, she launched a red holiday bag for her holiday open house, also with the store’s logo, as well as a four-color rendering of two nutcrackers. “Customers love getting these totes,” she says. “We normally require a $125 purchase to receive a free tote, or they may purchase one for $4.”

Recyclable bags transcend trends

As a retailer and a consumer, you likely are familiar with nonwoven polypropylene bags and have your opinions as to their benefits and drawbacks. They are made from polymers, spun into long fluffy threads that are then pressed together for a fabric with a weave-like texture. Because the bags won’t fall apart when wet and can hold some weight, they last longer than paper bags and can be used repeatedly. These properties allow for the claim that the bags are “recyclable” because they can be used again as a bag to carry groceries or other items beyond their original purpose. As such, they meet some municipalities’ demand for a recyclable bag, although they won’t break down when tossed in a landfill. The benefit to you, as a retailer, is that customers can carry your advertising into the community and beyond.

The versatility of this “new” material and its facility for customization—coating and colors—has the potential to elevate shopping bags to a kind of brand hero. When IKEA created the crinkly plastic Frakta bag in the company’s branded shade of blue, its colorful utility excited customers to the extent that they were willing to pay 99 cents. This excitement became so notable that it motivated high-end international fashion manufacturer Balenciaga to do its own variation on this roomy blue tote—for $2,145. The point of the story is not to be extravagant or trendy, but rather that a well-branded reusable bag has many lives, and all those lives bring customers back to the birthplace: your brand and your store.

Legislation as to suitable materials for bags that qualify as recyclable—while limited to a few states, such as California, or municipalities, such as Austin, TX—will become more widespread in the future. Happily, packaging manufacturers have already begun to offer greener options, including bags made of postconsumer recycled content, so you can begin to make these choices before they are forced on you.

Perhaps no other part of your marketing strategy plays so many parts as the shopping bag. When you consider how much this seemingly simple packaging can do for you, at far less than a dollar apiece, maybe it’s time to invest a little more?

Charlotte Barnard is a writer living in New York City who frequently reports on retail trends, design and branding.


Photos: by Allan Photography; courtesy of Nashville Wraps; courtesy of The Dance Bag 

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