Is it time for brands to get connected? Why smart packaging is having a moment


By Imogen Watson, Senior reporter

October 20, 2020 | 7 min read

As society grows accustomed to scanning QR codes left, right and centre for track and trace systems, ‘connected packaging‘ is having a moment. The Drum explores the role of connected packaging in the current climate as brands seek to build relationships with consumers based on data.

Last week, Yeo Valley Organic launched ‘always on’ connected packaging across its product portfolio

Last week, Yeo Valley Organic launched ‘always on’ connected packaging across its product portfolio

One of the less famous side effects of the Covid-19 pandemic is the proliferation of QR codes in public. After years of unfulfilled potential, the humble code has found a use as a window to track and trace systems and digital restaurant menus, enabled by a public more comfortable than ever using their smartphones as enabling devices.

And connected packaging is having a moment of its own right now, as brands quickly catch up to customers and realise the possibities of everyday AR in supermarket aisles and cornershop shelves.

“Due to Covid-19, QR codes and other digital enablers have become even more useful and much more visible in consumers’ every-day lives,“ explains Amir Maslic, product and brand manager at Emmi. “Traditional marketing activities have been on a downward curve, and with the pandemic set to continue this, brands are finding the ‘new in the old‘.“

Last week, dairy brand Yeo Valley rolled out connected packaging across all of its organic products, giving consumers access to digital experiences related to the brand. Elsewhere, Emmi, the largest Swiss milk processor, engaged potential shoppers through gamifying technology. Unilever has been investing heavily in connected packaging, launching AR features on its Cif Ecoefill products, while Pernod Ricard has been experimenting with the IoT, baking that tech into its connected bottles.

But, what exactly is connected packaging?

Just one QR code can unlock a host of information for the consumer. Moving beyond the aesthetic realm, packaging is taking on a more functional role. Informing consumers exactly where the product was made, connected packaging can also link shoppers to tutorials like recipe ideas, or even open the doorway to interactive games and quizzes. One can only imagine what Warhol might have made of the option to embed a QR code on one of his Campbell‘s Soup cans.

While ‘connected packaging‘ does pretty much what it says on the tin, the blanket term encompasses a variety of different digital technologies. “The term ‘connected packing’ is currently a bit of a catch-all for any package that connects to the internet, either actively or passively,” explains Matt Klein, director of strategy at Sparks & Honey, a cultural consultancy.

The most ubiquitous activation is the QR code, which is finally having its moment after a decade of dismissal thanks to Covid-19. Presently, most restaurant menus are accessed from a QR code, while entry to most venues comes courtesy of a QR-enabled check-in.

“While technologies like QR codes have been used on product packaging for years, they’ve historically only been used to direct users to simple website destinations,” explains Michael Watson, head of operations at Aircards, an agency that specialises in AR and connected packaging. “However, times have changed, and we can use QR codes as activation points for a variety of experiences.”

Beyond QR codes are NFC tags (near-field communication). Here, the consumer phyiscally taps their device to the packaging to activate an experience.

While these features aren‘t new, Klein explains that “connected packaging is having a moment right now as the technology involved becomes democratized. Both Apple and Android devices support QR and NFC technologies, so we‘re talking upwards of two billion devices.“

Back in the dairy aisle, Yeo Valley‘s connected packaging gives consumers access to digital experiences related to the brand. Printing QR codes into its packaging, shoppers that scan will be taken to a landing page with Yeo Valley‘s ‘Put Nature First‘ campaign line.

“The flexibility of QR codes is we can change the message remotely without needing to reprint the packaging,“ explains Yeo Valley‘s managing director, Adrian Carne. “The communication potential is phenomenal. We could talk about anything from the recyclability of our packaging, to how to use our products in recipes. And we can tailor every QR code specifically to a product. This is how I see it evolving over time.“

Carne‘s excited by the possibility of showing consumers exactly where their product came from. “Since 2012, as food manufacturers, we‘ve seen an increase in interest from consumers for products that are sustainably and ethically produced,“ he claims. “There is certainly a growing appetite for people who want to understand where their food comes from and what‘s in it. And that is nothing but increased during the last 12 months.“

And to promote the launch of its oat milk and balance drink, last month Emmi partnered with Appetite Creative and Tetra Pak, using connected packing to engage potential customers. Using QR codes on the Tetra Pak, customers are taken to a jackpot wheel entry game, which users spin to randomly select a game to play.

“This new approach to packaging means we can put our customer needs at the forefront of our marketing strategy and respond better than ever before when it comes to product development,” explains Amir Maslic, product and brand manager at Emmi.

Data data data

But beyond ‘customer needs‘, brands are getting up to speed on what connected packaging can do for them. “Brands are understanding that connecting their packaging presents a very significant data opportunity and will help them to understand who buys and uses their products and enable them to transform their direct to consumer relationships,“ explains Cameron Worth, founder of SharpEnd – the first agency to specialise in the IoT, including connected packaging.

Klein says that: “Brands can now provide rich and detailed performance data that helps brands understand how connected packaging builds consumer relationships and drives brand loyalty. It can provide a range of performance metrics that most brands will be highly familiar with – unique users, session duration, geo-location, and conversion tracking.“

He says that while packaging is a brand‘s ‘silent salesperson‘, connected packaging helps strengthen a company’s role, reinforcing a product’s purpose, value and relationship with the consumer.

What does the future hold?

“It‘ll be everywhere,“ says Worth, predicting a new dawn for QR and connected packaging design. “On most products, delivering lots of value.“

Klein reckons connected packaging will act as a gateway to more advanced tech activations. “Imagine bringing home a newly purchased ingredient which interacts with your smart kitchen, and triggers an oven prep. Or imagine being able to check a piece of clothing’s supply chain and carbon footprint to inform your purchase decision in-store,“ he says.

Meanwhile, Watson says he‘d like to see an increase in creativity and analytic performance tracking. “Consumers deserve creative activations that provide outstanding value, and brands can benefit from granular levels of performance reporting,“ he says.

It‘s hard to predict how far companies can push integrated, connected packaging designs – it‘s fair to say that the Covid-19 has finally given QR codes their day in the sun.


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