The Future of Packaging: Connected Print

The technology for connecting printed packages to online content has improved. Now designers must help brands develop content that will deliver results.

Want music to match your wine selection? Use a smartphone app to scan the label of a bottle of wine from Notaviva Vineyards. Or, would you be amused to see Walking Dead zombies smash through your smartphone screen? Use the Living Wine Labels app to scan the packaging of Walking Dead Cabernet Sauvignon. These are some of the augmented reality experiences that can show up on your smartphone when you scan digitally connected labels. 

The concept of connected packages and labels has been around for years. But it’s receiving renewed attention as brands realize that packaging can be a powerful, brand-owned media channel. Brands can communicate with consumers in stores or at home and measure the effectiveness of their messaging or experiences in real time. 

Of course, connected packaging is used for other functions besides marketing. Codes activated through mobile devices and scanners can help speed up checkout, detect potential food spoilage, or track the delivery and authenticity of products.

Gartner research and advisory company predicts the number of connected products will increase from 5.2 billion today to 20.4 billion by 2020. Smithers Pira predicts the intelligent package market will grow to more than $7.8 billion by 2021.   

Print service providers and marketing agencies can tap into this growth by offering cloud-based intelligent packaging portals through which brands can store and update the linked content of connected packaging and track the results of the campaigns. 

Let’s review some buzzwords, key players, and a few creative applications so you, too, can be a part of this connected packaging market. 

The Jargon

The vocabulary of emerging technology is often confusing. In the packaging world, “interactive packaging” often refers to designs that promote physical interaction. Cleverly designed packages can be reused as board games, battery testers, mini chalkboards, clothes hangers, or placemats. 

In the printing community, “interactive print” refers to the ability to connect all types of printed materials (packaging, books, magazines, posters, and T-shirts) to online content. “Interactive packaging” refers to packaging connected to digital content. 

Intelligent packaging uses sensors to send and receive information between the package and the consumer. RFID (radio-frequency identification) sensors can communicate information over distances and NFC (near field communication) sensors allow wireless short-range communications. NFC technology is used to make “smart labels” for loss prevention, time-and-temperature tracking of food shipments, and links to e-commerce websites, recipes, recycling information, expiration notices, tutorials, and usage guidance.  

Active packaging uses advanced forms of barcodes that allow customers to engage with content controlled by the brand. 

Many forms of active packaging are designed around Digimarc’s “Barcode of Everything.” The Digimarc barcode can digitally activate any visual content, including shelf labels, P-O-P displays, posters, books, magazine ads, TV ads, and digital signage. The imperceptible codes are applied directly into the images during the design stage. These “digitally watermarked” images can be printed with analog or digital printing processes onto many types of substrates. 

When a connected package is activated on your smartphone, you might see a video, music, game, contest landing page, or a properly translated version of a multilingual package insert. Or, the connected package could trigger an augmented reality experience.

Augmented reality (AR) is a layer of additional content that appears over an image that is scanned by the camera on your smartphone. You view the added content in the environment in which you are using the smartphone. 

Augmented reality is considered a whole new communication medium. It will be used for much more than packaging. When you travel, you can use AR to translate signs and menus. Or you can see how a piece of furniture in the IKEA catalog might look in your own apartment. 

Learning from Past Mistakes

Companies started experimenting with interactive print after QR (quick response) codes were introduced for use with mobile devices in the mid-’90s. Many attempts failed because consumers who took the trouble to download the app and scan the code were disappointed by the online content. Often, the QR code took consumers to a website that hadn’t been designed for smartphone viewing. 

A unique code on this wine bottle (either a watermarked image, QR code, or barcode) enables the recipient to view a personalized greeting from the gift giver. The video, photo, or audio greeting is stored on the Linkz platform and appears when the recipient scans the wine bottle label with the Linkz app. (Photo: Linkz/Rods and Cones)

Today, even companies that experienced minimal results with QR codes can see the potential of connecting print to online content. Changes in smartphone technology and consumer behavior make it more likely consumers will activate the codes embedded in the printed designs. Here are a few trends that portend success: 

It will become easier for more people to access digital content from printed pieces. Apple enabled support for QR codes and NFC in iOS 11. Together with QR code support in Chrome, up to two billion devices can natively scan and interact with products. 

With the iPhone 8 and iPhone X, Apple introduced its ARKit framework of sensors and software. Apple technology will enable AR app developers to create vivid AR adventures that put virtual objects smoothly into the viewer’s environment.

Multimedia content can be stored and updated in the cloud. Content opened from advanced barcodes can be updated and refreshed. 

Many consumers want more product information than what can fit on the package. Online content linked to the package can include a detailed list of ingredients, assembly instructions, or information about whether the product is organic, contains allergens, or is ethically produced. 

Brands are paying closer attention to developing compelling content. Presentations at Adobe Max and How Design Live conferences are encouraging web, app, print, and package designers to imagine what’s possible when printed materials are connected to digital content. 

Creative services agencies are sensing a massive opportunity to help clients realize the potential of augmented reality as a new form of communication – not just with packaging but with all forms of marketing, education, and training.

Technologies Are Advancing

One way to track emerging technologies for connected packaging is to follow the Active and Intelligent Packaging Industry Association (AIPIA). AIPIA is an information-exchange community of 800 companies, including brand owners, major packaging manufacturers, logistics firms, technology developers, and suppliers. 

Below are a few companies heeding AIPIA’s recommendation to convert various technologies into integrated, usable solutions that will provide real, long-term value to brands.   

Digimarc has developed imperceptible barcodes that can embed digital information into images, printed materials, audio, and video. For packaging, the barcodes can carry the same Global Trade Identification Numbers used in UPC/EAN consumer barcodes but can also include serial numbers or other information. Digimarc serves grocers and household brands that are eager to deliver interactive content to consumers, drive faster retail checkout, and improve quality control for product manufacturing. Digimarc codes for packaging can be applied to images through a Photoshop plug-in. The company’s barcodes are licensed to HP and other technology providers. 

HP Link Technology creates a fully interactive, cost-effective link between printed and online communications. It can give every single package (or other printed materials) coming off a production line its own unique identity. For example, serial codes can track user interactions with marketing messages, authenticate products across the supply chain, or better manage product recalls. 

To enable the high-speed creation and embedding of variable-data Digimarc barcodes, HP tools include a SmartStream Composer and Designer plug-in, and open APIs for workflow software integration.

Linkz is a cloud-based content-delivery platform for interactive print. How-to videos, recipes, coupons, contest entry forms, and other content can be stored on custom portals and activated through whatever method a brand wants to test. The Linkz app can read QR codes, standard barcodes, Digimarc digital watermarks (see this month's Insight), physical triggers such as NFC and RFID, and image-recognition technologies. 

Print service providers and marketing agencies can set up customized Linkz portals for each customer and help them execute their campaigns. Analytics, content creation and management, and testing are included with the portals.  

In the US, Linkz platforms can be set up through Rods and Cones, a San Francisco-based color-management company that has spent the last 20 years helping hundreds of publishers, agencies, and print service providers cope with continuing changes in digital workflows. 

Zappar specializes in AR-enabled products and infotainment experiences. They help companies create augmented reality content that can turn almost any item into an interactive media channel. AR experiences are activated by Zapcodes that can be incorporated in the designs of packaging and other printed products. A Zapcode lets users know that an augmented reality experience is available and tells the app which piece of AR content to download to augment the image.

Angry Birds
“Angry Birds” maker Rovio partnered with Zappar to release a billion “Bird Codes” through various consumer products and brand promotions, including PEZ dispensers. Users unlocked an AR mini-game and posed for photos with their favorite “Angry Birds” characters. (Photo: Zappar)

To help make AR technology more accessible to everyone, Zappar developed a ZapWorks content-authoring tool that enables creative agencies to design their own augmented reality content. 

Evrythng is a cloud-based Internet of Things data-management platform. Its founder believes that every physical thing will eventually come to life through its own unique, real-time digital identity. Evrythng enables companies to develop new web services and experiences from the data that flows from digitally connected objects. Brands use the Evrythng platform to collect, manage, and apply real-time data from smart products and smart packaging. 

Last fall, Evrythng and Zappar announced a partnership to bring augmented reality to smart products at scale. 

Thin Film Electronics ASA (Thinfilm) uses scalable printed electronics technology to make NFC mobile marketing and smart packaging solutions. Their SpeedTap technology gives each tag a unique digital ID for targeting marketing campaigns and advanced analytics. The tags can be easily integrated into product labels or bottle caps. 

Avery Dennison’s DirectLink interactive packaging solutions use NFC sensors embedded in “smart labels,” and product tags. The technology can also be used with posters and promotional materials.

Encouraging Brands and Designers to Get Started

WestRock is a global company that produces billions of packages, in-store designs, and displays annually. Last year, they launched an integrated connected packaging solution that combines Digimarc’s barcode technology with Evrythng’s Smart Products Platform.

But some brands remain skeptical that connected packaging will generate a high level of consumer activations. Some package designers question whether shoppers would prefer using their smartphones to connect to online reviews and price-comparison sites instead of brand-controlled content. And some consumers may be leery of how much information is being captured from their phones. 

Zappar has worked closely with Crown, a manufacturer of metal cans, to create codes that can be variably printed and placed under the ring pull of cans or bottle tops, delivering a wide range of content and experience to consumers. (Photo: Zappar)

Because success will depend on the types of creative strategies and content that are developed by brands and their design teams, companies are striving to educate designers. 

At the 2017 Adobe Max conference for creative professionals, Zappar showcased their AR content-authoring tool, ZapWorks. 

“With us, there is a big focus on the quality of the content that is served to end users,” says Jeff Ridgeway, SVP of business development for Zappar, North America. “If there isn’t a payoff for the consumer, they won’t be coming back.”

HP and AIGA, the professional association for design, are partnering to advance digital print technology and digital user experiences. 

“AIGA designers represent a powerful group of visual communicators, who serve every industry with design excellence,” says Julie Anixter, executive director, AIGA. “They are committed to designing experiences that drive business impact. They know that it’s a digital and print world, and that the best experiences marry both mediums seamlessly.” 

Anixter notes that “some brands have been using connected packaging technologies fluently and with great impact for years.” The successful early adopters have been design and marketing companies that value craft and technology equally.   

At the Dieline Conference at the 2018 How Design Live conference in Boston in May, attendees will learn about the future of packaging design and branding. According to conference organizers, “Packaging is no longer just about setting yourself apart on the shelf. It’s now a medium for brands to boldly stand out in our social media feeds and create unique brand experiences.” 

Creative Executions

One of the most successful applications of connected packaging is the talking labels on bottles of 19 Crimes wine produced by Treasury Wine Estates in Victoria, Australia. 19 Crimes wine celebrates the rebellious spirit of men and women exiled from 18th- and 19th-century Britain to Australia after being convicted of 1 of 19 crimes. As pioneers of a frontier penal colony, they forged new lives and a new country. Through the AR experience encoded in the wine labels, these rogues come to life and share their stories. 

19 crimes

The creative services company Tactic brought the concept to life by combining its expertise in character animation and visual effects with knowledge of AR for mobile devices. The 19 Crimes app has been downloaded more than 500,000 times.

Treasury Wine Estates updated the app for use with its Walking Dead brands of wines. Viewers can use the Living Wine Labels app with The Walking Dead Blood Red Blend wine label to see Sheriff Rick Grimes fight the walking dead in the wine aisle of the store. Viewers of The Walking Dead Cabernet Sauvignon labels see a horde of zombies breaking out of the label onto the phone screen. When the two bottles of wine are viewed side by side, the AR experience shows the characters fighting each other. 

Mesh Omnimedia produced AR-enhanced wine labels for Notaviva Vineyards in Loudoun County, Virginia. When the consumer views the wine label, it plays music that corresponds to that wine type. The AR technology also triggers a video showing the tasting room at the winery and links to information about the wine blend, music playlists, and overnight accommodations at the winery.

“Notaviva was founded on the vision of providing customers an opportunity to heighten their enjoyment of wine by inspiring them to consider the correlation between music, their emotions, and their sensory perception,” explains CEO and wine composer Stephen Mackey. “Using AR for our wine labels is just the first step in building this technology into our brand experience. We are incorporating AR technologies into our tasting room processes, using it at wine festivals, and leveraging it for our professional services such as corporate retreats, team-building, and private events.” 

Why Digital Printing Companies Should Care

Teaching more designers about what’s possible with connected packaging and interactive print will help drive the growth of digital printing and development of value-added content. 

Twenty-five years ago, wide-format graphics didn’t gain popularity until a few designers and ad agencies posted eye-catching bus wraps, billboards, and building wraps in major cities. Today, creative application ideas, best practices, and new business models for connected packaging can spread like wildfire on social media

Depending on a company’s goals, packaging might not prove to be the best channel for connecting print with online content. Some brands might want to test interactive print technologies with other types of printed materials, including T-shirts, coasters, posters, or P-O-P displays

For example, Campari America has worked with Thinfilm to develop NFC-enabled refrigerator magnets for six of their popular brands of liquor. When you touch your smartphone to the magnet, you can have bottles of Wild Turkey or SKYY Vodka delivered directly to your door through the Drizly online beer, wine, and spirits marketplace. The NFC chip prompts Drizly to open the specific website page for the brand and gives the consumer the option to add the item to the cart and check out. 


“Packaging doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” notes Zappar’s Jeff Ridgeway. “Point-of-purchase displays, receipts, and marketing collateral can all be leveraged with AR content.” He says that as companies track the usage and effectiveness of campaigns in real time, they will make updates that will increase their chances of success. 

Global brands won’t be the only ones interested in connected packaging. Some start-up, local, or online brands might prefer to keep their printed packaging clean and simple, and use AR to deliver additional, updateable content about the brand’s values. 

Experiential marketing firms may also be interested in interactive print. Codes can be added to gift packages, T-shirts, or water bottles, or on wall murals and signs. Triggered AR experiences can be shared on social media. 

Erica Aitken, president of Rods and Cones, believes connected print represents a huge opportunity for brand owners, publishers, creative agencies, and printing firms. She chose to work with the Linkz platform because the solution is sophisticated, mature, and easy to use. 

Rods and Cones can help print service providers implement a few test projects or set up portals through which they can sell print-to-digital platforms to their clients, like they did for this month’s Insight

“Everyone is a winner,” says Aitken. “Agencies and printers can offer print-to-digital services via their Linkz portal. Brand owners and publishers can benefit from higher customer engagement and loyalty.” 

Learn More About It

To learn more about connected packaging, visit the AIPIA website and attend events such as Dscoop, How Design Live, the Digital Print for Packaging Conference hosted by Smithers Pira, and WFX: Wide-Format Exchange

If your company has already started producing connected packaging, send us some pictures. We’d love to share your success stories. 

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