This article will look at some of the ways in which brands are using shipping containers for marketing, advertising, and branding purposes – particularly in Europe and USA.

It’s a fact that shipping containers are more readily being applied in architecture all over the world, and have been for some years. International brands such as Starbucks, Nike, and McDonald’s are using these structures for practical reasons, but also as a reflection of their PR message and brand association.

We’ll look at the current landscape, and why shipping containers have achieved so much traction over the past decade. The theoretical and practical reasons will be explored, and we’ll look at how some of the biggest global companies are using shipping container solutions.

Trends & Relevance

Branding and marketing specialists are successful in their profession because they understand what an audience wants, and they deliver it to them by the most effective means. These people experience trends in a particular way, with a view to attaching their tactics to drive brand awareness.

We see this all the time, in explicit and implicit examples. To start with, there’s the famous (or infamous!) Twitter hashtag hijack, so-often attempted by social media marketers. The lifecycle of this was explored in some depth by Brandwatch in 2014, which is worth a read. This can happen in two ways; a brand may promote their own hashtag, in-tune with audience sentiment and aligned with a timely topic. Alternatively, a brand may offer a contribution by hopping onto an existing trend. Both tactics can go wrong, of course.

“A brand is a voice and a product is a souvenir” – Lisa Gansky

At the heart of effective marketing and advertising is relevancy. An explicit example is the Twitter trend-hopping, and also the pro-liberal advertisements during the 2017 Super Bowl in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential victory. An implicit example would be the alignment of a brand with their audience’s popular discourse. This involves subtle positioning, copy and imagery nuances, language preferences, and partnerships with other brands that operate within the same target audience groups.

Some trends are manufactured by marketers and advertisers from their inception, whilst organic trends are also at the mercy of them once popular. Arguably, the popularity of shipping containers has developed from a starting point of practical necessity. Indeed, the first use of shipping containers for retail purposes was in the former USSR countries. Ukraine has the biggest market in Europe, which is constructed from shipping containers left by a bankrupt German firm.

As the approval of these structures does reflect certain identities and ideologies in western societies, shipping containers are now being exploited by brand-builders, marketers, and advertisers.

Industrial Design & Nostalgia

Arguably, one can partially attribute the shipping container conversion boom to the widespread acceptance – and indeed obsession – with industrial architecture and rustic design for interiors and exteriors. This has evidently taken hold for coffee shops, pubs, offices, and homes alike.

During recent decades, heavy industry has been moving away from the inner cities. In some cases, this will leave vast empty spaces that are ripe for conversion. If you take a stroll along the River Lee in Hackney Wick, London, you’ll experience overt gentrification in an industrial area flanked by the Olympic Park and new high-rise flats. A similar thing has happened in many major cities around the UK.

This is often characterised by an acute appreciation for the original industrial architecture, and the use of rustic tones and functional features throughout spacious buildings. Conversions are often much more expensive than they appear, yet developers benefit from affordable derelict buildings and defunct land.

According to Leana Leahy at FROY;

“[Industrial design] is a look that hearkens back to the turn-of-the-century industrial era. It emphasises liberal use of exposed steel with distressed wooden elements, frequently complemented by exposed brick walls. The modern variant commonly includes copper-tone accents. In terms of general feel, industrial decor is often rustic and mature.”

These days, new and shiny is outdated. This conjures the perfect landscape for the innovative reuse of shipping containers, which are inherently rustic beasts with character and history. The practical benefits combined with an ever-pursued sense of nostalgia presents them as an ideal solution for brands and businesses that are tapping into this design trend.

Environmental Awareness

In many countries across Europe, the principles of recycling and renewable energy are at the centre of the public psyche. In Germany, the government plans to end coal-burning by 2040, and currently only buries around 3% of its municipal waste (contrasted to near 100% in countries like Bulgaria). According to reports, 45% of Germany’s waste is currently recycled, and 17% is composted.

Scandinavia is also a leader in this field. Sweden is moving towards zero waste, and has even offered to take Norway’s rubbish. Denmark is aiming to recycle 50% of all waste by 2022.

In the UK, there has been a huge shift towards an environmentally responsible outlook, which has been bubbling away for the past decade. Over 44% of waste was recycled in 2015, compared to just 10% in 2000/1. The infrastructure has improved, awareness has been raised, and habits have been changed.

Many citizens will now engage in greener behaviour passively, as part of their everyday lives. Experts will say that this is long overdue, and indeed too little, too late, to save our planet from the troubles it faces over the coming decades. Nevertheless, this has been a massive change, and is to be commended.

From a business communications perspective, this sets a baseline discourse to which brands can tap into. A general consensus has emerged in many countries that being good to our planet is a good thing. The recycling and reuse of shipping containers certainly plays into this trans-national understanding, and encourages a positive outlook on brands that make use of this opportunity.

It’s a no-brainer. Shipping containers form affordable solutions for storage and construction, and receive almost universal applause from those who support social and environmental responsibility.


Such is the popularity and impressive growth of this brand, we feel that it deserves a specific mention. BOXPARK claims to be the world’s first pop-up mall, based in London’s Shoreditch and Croydon. Similar retail parks have opened all over the UK, in cities such as Bristol, York, and many others. London also has Pop Brixton; a temporary project that uses shipping containers to rejuvenate disused land.

Constructed from refurbished shipping containers, BOXPARK visitors enjoy a huge selection of food, drinks, and shopping from independent vendors. Traders benefit from more affordable and flexible retail space in the heart of London when compared to renting a traditional store. Although still an expensive endeavour to hire space, the location does ensure customer footfall and solid ROI.

The BOXPARK brand message leans heavily on modern flexibility and the wealth of consumer choice. The shipping containers perfectly reflect immediacy, youth, and creativity – right in the heart of London’s most innovative startup zone.

Global Brands & Shipping Containers

Shipping containers have not gone unnoticed by the world’s biggest and best companies. In fact, many of the major global brands have hopped onto the shipping container boom to some extent. Let’s have a look at some of the most remarkable examples of their involvement.

Starbucks: In 2011, Starbucks started to open drive-thru coffee shops built entirely from converted shipping containers. In this post from 2012, the Starbucks Director of Concepts, Anthony Perez, labels this structure as a “Reclamation Drive-Thru” and cites the brand’s focus on waste reduction and global responsibility. The rollout has been implemented in different countries across the world, and is hailed as one of the coffee chain’s most prominent green initiatives.

Nike: Considering Nike’s audience and customer demographics, it’s not surprising that this brand jumped on the shipping container trend with a travelling pop-up store for Toronto and Vancouver.

You can see more images here. Indeed, Nike not only used a shipping container for promotion in Canada. The “Fast or Last Tour” used an expandable converted shipping container to travel the USA and deliver an interactive Lacrosse experience. Nike was also one of the notable inhabitants of London’s BOXPARK.

Puma: Not to be outdone by its sportswear rivals, Puma had already constructed Puma City some years prior, which won a number of architecture awards in 2009. These structures are popular with sports brands. Adidas has also opened pop-up stores and retains a space at Dubai’s BOXPARK. Reebok also got in on the action, with its self-contained portable gym, housed within a converted shipping container.

Holiday Inn: As part of the InterContinental Hotels portfolio, Holiday Inn is one of the world’s most popular budget hotel chains. In autumn 2016, they began work on a shipping container hotel near the Trafford Centre, Manchester. This received national media coverage across some of the biggest websites and newspapers, and helped to reflect the brand’s key principles of speed, efficiency, and affordability. In addition, upcycled shipping containers contribute towards their greener message.

McDonald’s: The world’s most popular fast-food chain adapted a 40ft shipping container for its “Create Your Taste” road trip across Australia in 2015, with assistance and inspiration from their PR agencies. The container was designed to incorporate a kitchen and order point, and extended frontwards to include a covered dining area. The initiative was to raise awareness about their personalised meal range. This acquired online and offline media coverage, and real-world impact within the cities it visited.

Coca-Cola: As an exercise in social enterprise, Coca-Cola used a shipping container to create a modular community market, run by local inhabitants. It also provides drinking water, solar power, and wireless comms to the poorest areas. These EKOCENTER constructions have been launched across Africa; in Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Ghana. They’ve also been used in Vietnam, and are due to be extended globally over the coming months and years. In addition to helping people, social responsibility activities assist in the long-term brand perception of Coca-Cola, in emerging markets and existing ones.

These brands have something in common; they all promote socially responsible enterprise through PR communications, and cite the use of shipping containers as an environmentally-friendly and efficient solution to their brand promotion. Moreover, these structures are rustic, innovative, and cool.

In itself, this highlights the philosophy of their audiences, and an awareness about what will resonate with customers. It speaks volumes about how trends can combine with social and environmental awareness to create compelling brand opportunities. Shipping container structures appeals to multiple ideologies; some advocates will be impressed by the environment aspect, whilst others will be dazzled by the architectural innovation and design prowess.


We’ve looked at the theory behind shipping container popularity and their application for brands and marketers over the past decade. But it’s not all fashion over function. There are very real practical benefits of using shipping containers for branding and marketing purposes. So, what are these?

Affordability: Shipping containers are extremely affordable, and become more so if they need extra TLC at the time of purchase. Containers can be hired or purchased, either brand new or second hand.

Durability: These things don’t wilt away in the wind and rain, nor do they appear bruised from extended periods of exposure. When shipping containers are decorated with the right materials; direct-to-metal or oil-based paints (spray or roller), they stay bold, bright, and strong.

Size: Shipping containers are available in various sizes and shapes, which means they’re suitable for most applications. They can be easily stacked to create larger constructions, and manipulated into different positions to create remarkable architecture.

Transportability: The very purpose of a shipping container is for it to be transportable. This provides its owner with flexibility on location, and freedom of movement. We’ve seen that many brands use containers as pop-up stores, trade how stalls, and travelling brand experiences – so transportability is key.


Shipping containers provide a supreme branding opportunity, and the biggest global corporations have quickly taken advantage of their popularity. The current landscape welcomes innovation, environmental responsibility, and immediacy – especially among the younger middle class, often labelled “millennials”. In using shipping container structures, you meet all the above factors.

From a business perspective, shipping containers offer an affordable and flexible solution. They present a large empty canvas on which to paint (or wrap). The structures can be converted and reconverted, depending on the requirements at any given time. They’re strong, durable, and retain their value – thus proving a worthwhile investment for the long-term.

The wide popularity of modular architecture, combined with an enthusiasm for creative recycling and upcycling lends itself perfectly to the shipping container boom. Industrial design trends and the passion for minimal themes also help to advocate the use of these structures.

At the moment, shipping containers are remarkable. Remarkable items get attention from the public, and therefore attract brand managers and advertisers. It remains to be seen whether this trend will falter as the market becomes saturated, as it’s clear that shipping containers will continue to be adopted more readily for construction projects, temporary stores, and much more. We may start to take them for granted as a permanent feature of our everyday, and therefore the impact factor is far reduced.

In any case, it’s clear that shipping containers have made their mark on the world of construction, marketing, and brand-building and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Words by Matt Goolding | Photo source: ISOspaces