Why do the smartest retailers make it easy for customers to return or repair products? One reason is to create a customer relationship that endures throughout the lifecycle of a product. 

The sharing economy adds another dimension to the concept of creating enduring customer relationships. More than ever, consumers are reluctant to simply dispose of old products. They'd rather find a way to reuse or exchange them. Why toss an old cell phone or sweater in the garbage if someone else in the world--or in your community--would gratefully use it?

All of which means that companies have an opportunity to endear themselves to consumers--and even boost their sales--if they can find a way to simplify all of the reusing and recycling. The idea, notes Diane Hessan of marketing agency Communispace, is to build sharing into your pipeline by "extending a product's lifespan, or incentivizing customers to trade or share, rather than to throw away and buy new." As an example, Hessan cites how H&M customers can trade in used clothing of any brand for store credits. The old clothes get resold or recycled into new fabrics.

Preserve, a company whose signature product is a toothbrush made almost entirely out of recycled plastic, has deftly figured out how to extend the product lifespan of a toothbrush. The results are on display at Design Museum Boston, which recently opened its Better Business by Design exhibit.

Of course, for many businesses, smarter design has been a major foundation of their achievements in sales and sustainability. Zipcar, IDEO, and iRobot were some of the Boston-based powerhouses whose design smarts were on display at the museum. But for me, at least, the exhibit about Preserve's toothbrushes rose above the rest. Here's why:

The Other Piece of Sharing

Considering product life cycles in their entirety was already baked into Preserve's business model. The company's mission statement is: "Nothing wasted. Everything gained." All of its products (not just the toothbrushes) are made from recycled #5 (polypropylene) plastics, which you can find in yogurt cups, lip balms, and Brita filters. As such, the products themselves happen to be recyclable. But a few years ago, there was one problem: Not enough consumers were actually recycling the toothbrushes. The toothbrushes were simply getting thrown away. 

So Preserve teamed up with Continuum, a Boston-based design firm, to create an innovative form of packaging for the toothbrush. The packaging doubles as a return envelope, called a Mail-Back Pack. "Customers can use the original packaging to send old toothbrushes back to Preserve, who then recycles them into plastic lumber," notes the display at the museum. "Over 500,000 toothbrushes have been recycled through this system." (The campaign began in April 2010.)

Better still for Preserve, the Mail-Back Packs boosted sales, as did another campaign the company launched in April 2010, called "Gimme 5." The numeral refers to the recycled #5 plastic Preserve uses to make its products. At its root, the Gimme 5 program allowed consumers to simply drop off all of their discarded #5 plastics at participating retailers, such as Target and Whole Foods. Taken together, the Mail-Back Packs and the Gimme 5 campaign led to a whopping 45 percent increase in sales in the first three weeks they were rolled out. 

The Importance of Packaging

It's no secret packaging can provide a branding advantage. Recently I interviewed Wharton professor David Bell about it. For Bell, the author, most recently, of Location Is (Still) Everything, one reason geography continues to play a strong role in brand preferences is simple word of mouth. While gossip and friendly chatter will always be key word-of-mouth drivers, another factor is the packaging you see in your everyday wanderings. Think about it: You see an attractive, reusable shopping bag from Lululemon Athletica at your yoga studio, and the next thing you know, you're familiar with a brand that's targeting you.

One example Bell likes to point to is Soap.com, whose boxes "came in vibrant mixed colors like teal, orange, chocolate, and magenta, with Soap.com written on them in white letters," he writes. Bell also suggests that entrepreneurs ship their eye-catching packages to destinations with maximum visibility. If you ship to a home, then perhaps only the resident sees your packaging and takes notice. If you ship to a workplace, you get a multiplier effect. That effect is further magnified if the recipient shares a photo of the gorgeous packaging on social media. "The principle is just do your best to make the product socially visible," he says.

He points to Warby Parker and Birchbox as companies who are smart about shipping to offices rather than homes, if possible. Perhaps not surprisingly, those two brands both believe in physical locations that support and complement their robust e-commerce channels.

All of this helps explain why Preserve's sales saw such a leap after introducing its new packaging in such high-traffic locations. And now you can see why, of all the business cases on display at the Boston Design Museum, the Preserve-Continuum design partnership stood out. Not only was it a clearly quantified "win," in terms of increased sales, but it was also a textbook case of how high-concept design can inform and influence the everyday consumer products whose looks and utility we often take for granted.