20 July 2012 - 9:33am | posted by | 8 comments

Don't just stand there... entertain me - how technology is shaking up packaging design

Steve Osborne of brand design consultancy Osborne Pike considers how packaging is fast becoming its own advertising.

Suremen transformed its cans into game controllers Suremen transformed its cans into game controllers
 When sure cans were pointed at a webcam, players could face adventurous challenges
Google glasses could herald the dawn of interactive transactions
Taggie app helps inform children of the origin, cultivation, variety and nutritional values of fruit & veg

There was a time when the very idea of packaging was new technology. Napoleon is often credited with spawning the idea by offering a prize to anyone who could find a way to preserve food for his much-travelled armies. Nicolas Appert won the 12,000 francs and more or less invented the canning process.

Appert’s invention was all about functionality, but by the time packaging became widely available in the late 19th century it had started to take on a new role – replacing the people who previously mediated in the buying and selling of goods, and telling a story about the product and its manufacturer. As one of the very first packaged brands, Quaker’s name and symbol epitomised the most popular of all brand stories: trust and dependability.

Nowadays we’ve become used to packaging as a sophisticated marketing tool, using the subtle interplay of form, materials, colour and design to appeal to our sense of self. Without saying a word packaging speaks to us, earning it the reputation of ‘The Silent Salesman’.

But now digital technology is changing the game again – souping-up our view of the real world with an overlay of virtual information, which brands are moving to exploit. Far from being the silent salesman, packaging can now broadcast its own advertising, show you a 3D version of its contents in action, or take you to a microsite or app, all with the swipe of a smartphone.

Brancott Estate, for example, now features a QR code on its back label that opens the digital door to 14 different brand experiences, prompting its marketing people to dub it ‘the world’s most curious bottle’.

It’s innovative, but trying it at a dinner party I was in danger of becoming the world’s least interesting guest, as I downloaded the app and presented my phone to the code repeatedly so I could tell my friends about the New Zealand climate, or what we should have been eating with this wine. By that time they were on the dessert.

Much as I applaud this exploration of ways to enhance packaging communication, I didn’t find the point of consumption to be the best moment to take it all in.

Nor would I imagine is the point-of-sale. The thought of a Friday evening in Asda, dozens of smart shoppers hovering smartphones over smart packaging, doesn’t feel like ‘augmented’ reality, more an inconvenient one.

But sit me down in a comfy chair with a glossy magazine and it’s another story. Ardaich water cleverly used augmented reality to illustrate its defining story of ‘the water that whisky drinkers choose’. The AR-enhanced print ad dives beautifully into this theme, playing an epic film about the ‘cold, mineral rich waters of the raging North Atlantic’ on your smartphone or tablet.

Now if the real bottle could suddenly trigger this story again from the shelf as I walk past, we might just be in business, and of course this kind of interactivity is surely where we’re heading.

Google glasses, currently in test phase, promise to superimpose informational or experiential graphics on top of real world objects, triggered not through codes but more advanced object recognition technology.

Nutrition and price information could appear midaisle, a nod of the head present us with recipe ideas, and a satnav function would avoid us having to ask where to find the cupcakes.

It might be a while before we have access to the kind of infographics Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) enjoys, but the likes of Google, Layar and Aurasma are clearly working to provide new interactive experiences and transactions.

But back in the present day, digital applications capable of enhancing the brand experience created by packaging are springing up everywhere. Suremen transformed its cans into game controllers which, when pointed at a webcam, let players face a range of adventurous challenges in a bid to win prizes.

Dutch design graduate Niels van Hoof meanwhile has created an app called Taggie, intended to encourage children to access information on the origin, cultivation, variety and nutritional values of various products.

Brands will argue that this is exactly what the consumer wants – more informed choices. Yes, we do want to preserve the environment, we do want healthy options, we may be calorie counting or allergic to nuts and we are interested in provenance; but no, we haven’t got all day. Research by experts in business, psychology and neuroscience has shown that in many fields a wealth of information is creating a poverty of attention, meaning that as consumers we make a lot of short-cuts (technically known as choice heuristics) in arriving at our decisions.

Typically we will ignore most of the available information and rely on a few important cues, like good oldfashioned pre-digital packaging design.

Technology-enhanced ‘experiential’ packaging design will no doubt flourish in the coming years, but it must go beyond the level of a short term technology ‘hit’ if it is to achieve true brand engagement.

One thing is for sure: brands and their agencies are all going to face plenty of challenges, but also have a lot of fun, as we explore this brave new world.


31 Jul 2012 - 10:08
phild66653's picture

Great piece Steve, and you're right about the mental short-cuts. Science has proved that the brain wants to operate as efficiently as possible (termed 'cortical relief') so the more effective we can make the recognition cues the better.

13 Sep 2012 - 08:49
SteveOz's picture

@phild66653 Thanks for the comment Phil, I only just checked I had any! The Heuristics topic is explored in great depth in the recent bestseller 'Thinking Fast & Slow', featuring some great 'characters' like the emotional 'system 1' and the lazy 'system 2'.

31 Jul 2012 - 10:11
cauke13357's picture

I think it's a great point about the Brancott Estate pack and an inevitable result of the exploration of new technology - some slightly ineffective applications. To truly engage consumers, new technology needs to enhance the brand experience at the right moment, rather than add complexity / effort.

Chris The Big Picture Design Research

13 Sep 2012 - 08:55
SteveOz's picture

@cauke13357 Thanks for commenting Chris (as you can tell I only just discovered there were some comments). I think we're seeing a technology in its infancy here, only for early adopters who can 'feel' the possibilities and want to be there first, despite the clunkiness. This field will be unrecognisable in 2 years, and I'm keen to explore this new 'UX'. If you have any experience with consumers on this one I'd love to know more. Steve

31 Jul 2012 - 21:12
nancy17536's picture

A very good read, Steve. A very interesting short-cut. Thanks for sharing.

1 Aug 2012 - 08:23
TBPresearch's picture

Great article. It's clearly early days for this technology, but the potential is great. While much of its application at the moment feels rather lightweight and gimmicky, moving forward the ideas which stick will be the ones which offer genuine consumer benefit.

Stuart Chapman, The Big Picture

9 Aug 2012 - 12:18

Well put.

13 Sep 2012 - 08:51
SteveOz's picture

@edwardhissink How did you get your picture and real name in this comment Ed? I ended up with a number and an outline!


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