The packaging for Sonos Roam sets new standards in environmental sustainability without compromising on a premium aesthetic. Find out how Sonos prioritized the planet—and the unboxing experience—at the same time.
We all know the old saying about never judging a book by its cover, but in today’s world that sentiment feels less and less relevant. Whether we realize it or not, packaging plays a vital role in all of our lives: shaping global commerce, influencing how we use our products, and prompting difficult questions about the legacy we’re leaving for future generations.
Sonos thoughtfully considers how it packages its products—from crafting a simple, joyous unboxing experience to ensuring that its packaging prioritizes ecological sustainability. The groundbreaking packaging system it developed and introduced with Roam, offers a fascinating glimpse into how all of these complex threads weave together.
Michelle Enright, Head of Packaging Experience, has led Sonos’s packaging team since 2012. Roam’s launch represents the culmination of years of tireless work to refine the design, materials and manufacturing processes involved. For Michelle, creating beautiful and tactile packaging goes hand-in-hand with reducing Sonos’s environmental footprint. “We wanted the unboxing to feel like it’s your birthday,” she says. “But the beauty of Roam’s packaging is that we didn’t need to sacrifice other priorities to achieve that. By making a few strategic trade-offs, we were able to get what we’d always dreamed of.”
“We always design with sustainability in mind,” she explains. “When I joined Sonos, we had one product which was packaged in paper pulp rather than less sustainable materials. But that created a precedent. We’d done it once, and it worked, so we knew we could do more.”
“For Roam, we wanted to set the bar higher and have as much of the packaging made from paper as possible. Our development focused on uncoated paper as a material driver during conceptualization, progressing to sketches exploring surface treatments, then CGI mockups, and finally, working with our suppliers to bring it all to fruition.”
That conceptual phase included thinking not only about what Sonos’s packaging was made of, but also about what it said. “We looked at other packaging across the tech industry and saw a sea of samey black-and-white palettes,” Michelle explains. “We decided with Roam that we wanted a visual design system that moved away from that. Something we could distinctly own. But we always think about our packaging as part of a family,” she continues, “which means that Roam’s packaging also needed to live alongside our existing products.”
Michelle and her team aimed to create a design which would set Sonos apart, but also felt like a natural evolution from earlier branding, something which embodied the premium quality Sonos is known for and significantly reduced environmental impact. Part of what makes Roam’s packaging so special is the harmony the team found between those potentially conflicting goals.
“From the beginning, we wanted to find a paper that we didn’t have to laminate,” explains Michelle. “Most packaging that you’ll see in stores will have a plastic coating to prevent scuffs and fingerprints. It also makes those materials far less recyclable. We tested a number of off-the-shelf papers, but we ultimately created our own, working directly with a paper mill: we developed everything from the colour and smoothness to the way the paper wraps around corners.”
That process included understanding how the physical qualities of this bespoke paper impacted other aspects of the design process. “One of the challenges with uncoated papers is that they all react differently to ink,” Michelle continues, “so the visual system we created had to cater to the specific qualities of this new paper.” She shows off a huge A1 sheet printed with varying designs, ink colours, font types and logos, underlining the exhaustive process undertaken by her team to align Roam’s visual identity with the materials.
“Uncoated kraft paper isn’t generally considered premium, but we wanted to change that paradigm and create a tactile experience for our customers, so we used a foil stamp to create debossed and embossed areas around the box,” explains Michelle. “It’s things like that, combined with the feeling of the paper, the colour, the finish, the treatments and the graphics, which make the finished product feel premium. If one of those things hadn’t come together for us, it wouldn’t have worked.”
That sense of quality is a huge part of Michelle’s work. She explains how her team devotes hours to thinking about where a customer will first make contact with the box as they lift it from a shelf, or the order in which they’ll unpack the contents.
Nowhere is this attention to detail more evident than in the question of environmental impact. Michelle’s team were able to use 100% sustainably sourced paper for Roam’s box—even the hanging loop on the top is made from paper fibres—completely negating the need for plastic foam, a far less environmentally friendly substance. “Foam was never an option for us on Roam,” says Michelle. Even factoring in smaller elements inside the box for which plastic was the only viable option, like the product bag, the overall total for the packaging system is still 96.5% paper. A stunning achievement against an initial target of 85%.
In terms of what that means once Roam is shipping around the world, Michelle’s team have already crunched the numbers and estimate that by the end of 2021, their redesigned packaging, applied across the product portfolio, will have removed 62,000 kilograms of plastic from Sonos’s supply chain.
Deji Olukotun, Director of Policy and Corporate Social Responsibility, is hugely proud of what Michelle and her team have achieved, and sees the reduction of plastic packaging as a crucial part of Sonos’s wider commitment to social impact. “Packaging is an area where we’re seeing a lot of success. It’s great to be able to hold Roam up as an example and celebrate Michelle and her team."
When Michelle’s team finalizes a design, that isn’t the end of the process, but instead sparks a whole new set of possibilities. Deji explains that they will regularly go back and rethink old packaging designs: even something as simple as reducing the size of a box used to package an older product might enable us to fit more of them on a pallet or into a single shipping container, reducing their overall carbon footprint.
The impact of Roam’s packaging extends beyond Sonos too, from sharing recycling data with scientific researchers to applying for a Forest Stewardship Council licencing trademark, with the goal to display an FSC label on Sonos products by the end of 2021. “This is a really important signal that our packaging work isn't just greenwashing,” says Deji. “It's respected within the packaging business and by sustainability advocates, which helps set the bar even higher for the future.”
Ultimately, the future is what matters. The work undertaken by Michelle, Deji, and the team isn’t just about ensuring that products meet the needs of our customers today, but also preserving our collective tomorrow. When asked what motivates her, Michelle muses,“The greatest joy we have in our team is knowing that someone will open that box and love their product. But also as a mom I’m concerned about the future of the planet. In the end, it’s about making sure that we’re putting good things out into the world.”