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.