For the last few years, packaging industry professionals have been curious about the future of smart packaging. While barcodes and quick-response (QR) codes, once considered the “next big thing” in packaging, have proved successful, worries remain regarding cost, feasibility and consumer engagement. With the potential to be a breakthrough in the industry, will brands be able to find the key to unlocking smart packaging?
The industry is already seeing some progress in the design and production needed to cost effectively incorporate near-field communication (NFC) technology into packaging, especially now that Apple has announced iOS 11 will have support for reading NFC tags. While ambitious, NFC has the potential to revolutionize the way customers interact with food packaging. By reinventing packaging as a fully interactive customer engagement tool, packaging could be elevated from a simple functional relationship to providing a useful and valued service.
It also opens up a realm of new possibilities by connecting a new host of everyday objects to the Internet of Things (IoT), the interconnected network of household objects that can collect and exchange data.
The idea of high-tech packaging poses the possibility of a symbiotic relationship between the packaging industry and tech companies aiming to establish the Internet of Things as a core feature of the modern household. Imagine food cans alerting you the product is about to expire, a milk bottle that texts you when you’re almost out of milk or pasta boxes that can suggest new recipes incorporating other ingredients in the kitchen. By weaving connectivity into our everyday lives, smart packaging has the potential to showcase the long-term future and practicality of NFC technology and the Internet of Things.
The potential for where smart technology in food packaging could go has no limit, but in the short-term future, here are four key prospects as to where we could see smart technology being embedded.
By scanning NFC chips embedded in packaging, consumers could gain access to recipes, cooking instructions and inspiration for specific products, offering a richer experience with much more information than could otherwise be included. By helping brands to engage with customers in this way, smart packaging could play a significant role in boosting brand engagement and helping to spur additional product purchases.
By alerting consumers when they are running low on a specific product, smart packaging can help brands to motivate (or even automate) replenishment, stimulating customer loyalty and avoiding competition from other brands at point of sale.
In a similar vein, brands can use this technology to detect when a product is about to reach its expiration date, thus helping customers to avoid food waste by prompting them to use the product. As the technology develops, we could see smart fridges that can detect the consumer’s buying habits or plan a week’s worth of recipes around those products and quantities.
The opportunity for packaging to aid authentication to ensure it is genuine and hasn’t been tampered with could be a real differentiator, especially in emerging markets where food quality and safety is a major concern for consumers.
Will consumers be receptive to their packaging becoming smart, or should the industry focus on certain categories, like high-end, luxury goods? Furthermore, with this large investment, what return on investment will companies see from this technology?
For smart packaging to survive as more than just a novelty, we in the packaging industry—alongside food and technology brands—must ensure that the technology is not only cost effective, but offers real value to the consumer with a consistent yet manageable availability of additional content and services. If we’re able to strike a balance between cost effectiveness and functionality, however, smart packaging has the potential to revolutionize the packaging industry and ensure packaging maintains its role at the heart of the customer experience.
Ian Lifshitz is the vice president of sustainability and stakeholder relations for the Americas for Asia Pulp & Paper Group (APP). He is responsible for leading the company's sustainability and related stakeholder engagement programs across Canada, the United States and South America. Lifshitz is also charged with leading the company's North American CSR activities, translating and communicating many of APP's successful conservation, biodiversity and social community programs to North American audiences.