Let’s get engaged – smart packaging

6 April 2017



Smart packaging, whether through QR codes, augmented reality or other forms of engagement via smartphones, will dominate packaging’s future. More than seven billion people are expected to own a smartphone by 2021, offering unprecedented opportunities for interaction between products and consumers. We speak with experts and brands to learn more about what’s in store.


Mobile communication is the new front line in the battle for consumers’ hearts, minds and wallets. Big brands are increasingly making use of augmented reality to enable frequent changes of content without any changes in packaging design: a cost and resource-efficient way to driving sales.

“It’s no longer just enough to put your brand on a shelf in the hope that your packaging stands out more than your competitors’,” explains Bep Dhaliwal, trade ,communications manager at Mars Chocolate UK.

This is why augmented reality (AR) is so popular: it goes beyond passive marketing to engage with customers, making them pick up packages and interact with them, and raising the possibility of a sale and repeat business.

Last June, the company collaborated with Zappar and Asda supermarkets to set up a game that could be played in stores. Customers used their phones or tablets to play the AR game, ‘Be a penalty shootout hero’, in which they had to beat a goalie from the penalty spot. After playing, a board displayed the best scores, and a picture of the winner’s trophy was shared on social media.

Better than the real thing

AR has also seen an increased role in seasonal marketing, enabling low-cost campaigns with potentially enormous rewards. Last Christmas, for example, food trays in McDonald’s included a Blippar AR-enabled advent calendar that came to life with games, camera filters and instant-win opportunities.

Customers downloaded an app, held their phone over the tray and watched a new advent calendar door come to life each day, with thousands of £10 Amazon gift vouchers up for grabs. The campaign launched with Juliette the Doll – a 90-second ‘film’ that focused on a vintage wooden toy that came to life, having been left on a shelf.

It’s no longer just enough to put your brand on a shelf in the hope that your packaging stands out more than your competitors'.

Emily Somers, vice-president of food and marketing at McDonald’s UK, said: “December is an incredibly busy time for everyone, and millions of customers will visit McDonalds [in December], so the company wanted to take this opportunity to thank them for their continued support and custom by bringing festive good times to thousands of people this Christmas. The tray mat is the firm’s first step into augmented reality and it is exciting to see customers using it.”

While 2017 will probably see the continued rise in applications for AR, and major brands, such as Mondelez and Nestlé, already have plans to join Mars and McDonalds in the near future, the other main tool in the smart packaging box is near-field communication (NFC). With a broad array of security and marketing capabilities available, there are a number of interesting developments afoot.

Schreiner PrinTronics has unveiled the world’s first printed radio-frequency identification (RFID) sensor platform, which features a complex label with electrical functions.

Using printed conductive traces, the label combines temperature and first-opening sensors with an imprinted antenna that enables an NFC chip to be read with a suitable smartphone. An RFID sensor platforms used to seal a pack performs two essential functions. It continuously measures and records temperatures across an entire supply chain during a label’s lifetime. A very thin, flexible battery embedded in the label enables long-term data logging. Another sensor, meanwhile, indicates whether or not a label has been tampered with, or opened. From potential to proven technology, Frito-Lay’s campaign for Tostitos tortilla chips told Super Bowl partygoers if they had consumed too much alcohol to drive.

Dubbed the ‘party safe bag’, NFC technology built into bags of snacks enabled drunk American fooball fans to summon taxis via the Uber app ride using their smartphones. The bags were offered through selected venues as a way to raise awareness about the dangers of operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol in conjunction with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), and targeted Super Bowl Sunday, which is recognised as one of the worst days of the year for road safety.

LED the way

The fronts of the bags featured LED lights and sensors powered by internal power strips. The user turned the bag on by pressing a button, then waited for an LED ring below the logo to go from spinning to a solid, blue circle, indicating that the sensor was ready for a reading. The user then blew on it from a couple of inches away. If no alcohol was detected, a green circle appeared; if alcohol was present, the circle turned into a flashing red steering wheel, along with the words, “Don’t drink and drive.” The sensor could only detect the presence or absence of alcohol on a user’s breath; it couldn’t measure the amount.

“The goal was to remove 25,000 cars from the roads that Sunday evening,” said Jennifer Saenz, Frito-Lay’s chief marketing officer. “By simply entering a participating Tostitos UPC code in the Uber app, fans nationwide received the discount on their Uber ride.”

The sensor can be used multiple times; how many depends on whether people turn it off, or leave it on between uses, says Roger Baran, a creative director with Goodby Silverstein & Partners (GS&P), the bag’s designer. It required no contact, so users wouldn’t have to put their mouths where someone else’s had been.

GS&P developed the bag in conjunction with converter Colorbar, which was responsible for integrated the technology into the product.

 “We had to figure out an entire different printing and assembling process for this design to work,” says GS&P partner, Sam Luchini. “From the thickness of the material, to the number of paint layers applied, or the material used to seal the bags and the seamless integration of the technology, the bag had to like an ordinary bag of crisps that turned into a somewhat magical experience.”

Safe, not sorry

One of the best attributes of smart packaging is that it can, to an extent, be all things to all brand’s needs. While Frito-Lay was keen to prevent drinking and driving, Pernod-Ricard-owned Malibu has been investigating smart packaging that can promote responsible drinking among millennials.

The company has launched two recent products, one of which allows bar-goers to order a refill without leaving their chairs. Developed in partnership with SharpEnd and launched in October 2016, Malibu Coco-nect cups communicate with bar staff using the internet of things (IoT), enabling drinkers to place their next order by twisting the bases of their cups.

Drinker’s exact locations in venues are triangulated, and then tracked by bar staff. A light on the bottom changes colour when the drink is being prepared, and then starts flashing to help bar staff identify the right person when the drink is ready.

“Traipsing to a crowded bar to face a lengthy queue for drinks can put a real dampener on many social get-together,” explains Malibu global marketing brand manager, Deborah Nunez, “while our research shows that FOMO – or the ‘fear of missing out’ – can be a real frustration for young people who don’t want to miss out on the fun of the party.”

Serving personalised content with seamless technology improves the relationship consumers have with an otherwise passive product.

The launch of these connected cups isn’t the first time the brand has tested IoT technology. In August 2016, Malibu and SharpEnd rolled out 40,000 connected bottles across the UK. These enabled users with NFC-enabled phones to access exclusive content, recipes, playlists and prizes at the ‘tap’ of a bottle. “The connected bottles programme is at the forefront of a series of planned initiatives to hit the market in the coming years,” explains SharpEnd’s founder Cameron Worth. “This pilot was launched to evaluate consumers’ willingness to interact with products, and the experiences and services in which they are interested.”

While there are other uses for NFC technology – such as brand authentication or product information – the main use currently seems to be in launching URLs that consumers can use to connect with brands. Instant wins seem to be the most popular part of the digital experience, which surprised Worth. “The insight was that users believed they had a better chance of winning the smaller prizes,” he says, “so this was a learning [curve] for the brand, and something it can apply in future to connected-bottle initiatives.”

Beyond the chance to win competitions, smart packaging provides much-needed support in the form of brand loyalty, something that is considered to be missing from the millennial minds and purses. “Malibu targets digital natives who are embracing the bottle as a media platform to engage this group in a new way,” says Worth. “Serving personalised content with seamless technology improves the relationship consumers have with an otherwise passive product and allows companies to be more in-tune with the sorts of additional experiences they might be after.”

Worth concludes by claiming that NFC offers the best user experience for engaging with smart-packaged products. “Once the iPhone opens NFC capabilities, we’ll see more brands coming to market with their own adapted uses for the technology that will in turn drive further uses and applications across the wider industry until it becomes a mainstream tool for brands,” he predicts.

Smart packaging is an adaptable, agile, engaging prospect that is seemingly only limited by the imaginations of those involved. Whether through AR, mixed media or NFC tags, consumers will continue to carry their smartphones and use them to engage with brands and stick with those that give them the best experience. 

Malibu Coco-nect cups use the internet of things to enable drinkers to place their next order by twisting the bases of their cups.
Frito Lays’ Tostitos packets warned Super Bowl Sunday drinkers that they were unfit to drive.
Schreiner PrinTronics RFID sensor platform combines temperature and first-opening sensors with an imprinted antenna that enables an NFC chip to be read with a suitable smartphone.


Privacy Policy
We have updated our privacy policy. In the latest update it explains what cookies are and how we use them on our site. To learn more about cookies and their benefits, please view our privacy policy. Please be aware that parts of this site will not function correctly if you disable cookies. By continuing to use this site, you consent to our use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy unless you have disabled them.