Get interactive with your customers using Smart Packaging

As the ‘Internet of Things’ continues to become more commonplace in our day-to-day lives and interactive products become more prolific, consumers will expect each and every item around them to offer something more.

In the retail environment, there is a wealth of opportunities for consumer products to offer an engaging or immersive brand experience beyond just the static packaging on the shelf. 

Whilst most of the technology used in smart packaging and proximity marketing isn’t new, smartphones are still inconsistent in their native functionality to take advantage of the techniques. However, if you can provide enough reason for the user to download an app and engage, there are plenty of opportunities to get creative and stand out from your competition.

From in-store communications to on-pack activations, what technology should brands be looking at, how can it be applied and who is using it?

Near Field Communication (NFC) chips

What are they?

A NFC chip operates as one part of a wireless link, once it’s activated by another chip (i.e. in a smart phone), small amounts of data between the two devices can be transferred when held a few centimetres away from each other. It is the same technology that is used in contactless bank cards, Apple Pay and Android Pay.

How can they be used?

The NFC chip can be hidden within product packaging or on a product tag, and when a connected NFC enabled phone taps the chip, it can instantly launch a digital experience such as a website, web application or video.

How easy are they to use?

Android phones are built to natively read NFC chips, although they do need the NFC chip reader enabled. It is only certain iPhone models have the ability to read NFC chips with iOS 11 or later installed, and only then it is usable with an app such as ‘GoToTags’. 

Who has used NFC chips and how?

In 2016 Coconut rum brand Malibu launched 40,000 connected bottles as part of their #BecauseSummer campaign. When consumers tapped the Malibu sunset logo with their smartphone they could access a range of digital experiences including exclusive content, an instant win competition, recipes and more.

Guinness installed over 11,000 drinks dispensers equipped with NFC functionality in bars and pubs across the UK and Ireland encouraging drinkers to tap their phone to access unique content and the chance to win a free pint.

It’s not just alcohol brands that are using this technology. Online furniture store have used NFC chips to align their online shop with their ‘brick and mortar’ London showroom. They incorporated NFC chips within their product tags in-store to enable users to tap to retrieve more information about a product and create a wish list.

What’s good about NFC chips for marketers?

  • As NFC chips can link straight to a web page or progressive web app, it is relatively easy to update and manage the content
  • NFC chips are relatively cheap
  • It is possible to a personalise an NFC chip to a specific product unit, this can help with proving authenticity or history of a product’s life.
  • They can provide geolocation information, so the specific location of the product can be tracked.

What are the drawbacks?

  • The ease of accessibility on iPhones is a barrier.
  • There is a need to educate the user to enable NFC capability either by downloading an app for iPhone or ensuring the functionality is active on their Android device.
  • There must be a strong enough incentive for the consumer to overcome the obstacles and make the effort to enable the NFC reader functionality and tap the chip

Quick Response (QR) codes

A QR code is a two dimensional barcode first designed in 1994 for the automotive industry in Japan. It is a machine-readable optical label that contains information.

How are they used?

A QR code can be scanned by a QR code reader, most commonly an android smartphone with a QR code reader app installed or an iPhone on iOS 11 which has a QR scanner built into the camera.

A QR code can be used to link instantly to a web page without the need for the fiddly typing of URLs, it could also link to online maps or YouTube videos. QR codes can also be used to store bank account information or be designed to work with particular payment provider applications, a very popular method of paying in India and China. QR codes have also been used for verification of transcripts and degrees in countries such as Mexico, Thailand, India and China to reduce forgery of academic document.

Who has used them and how?

A relatively old, but still good example, is how Tesco (Home Plus) wanted to enter a new market without expanding physical stores. Aiming for no. 1 position in the saturated South Korean market, Tesco analysed the work ethic of the inhabitants and the inconvenience of doing grocery shopping. To combat this Tesco decided to bring the supermarket to the people with virtual stores.

In high traffic places, such as the subway and at bus stops, they created virtual displays to look like their supermarket shelves, with each product having a QR code that could be easily scanned and added to the customers online shopping basket. The idea being while people are waiting anyway they can do their shopping and save their precious time.

tesco virtual store

Image source: Business Today

In 4 months, 11,000 visited the online store, 65,000 people had scanned the QR codes and sales from the initiative were $28,000 a week. This led to Tesco Home plus overtaking the market leader to become No.1.

QR codes are seeing a resurgence in interest as social media platforms have now started embracing them, including Facebook, Spotify, Pinterest and Snapchat. Last summer, Pepsi launched the ‘Get it while it’s hot’ campaign using Snapcodes. Users open the Snapchat app to read the codes and access social media lenses, geofilters and a Pepsi game to win prizes.

What’s good about QR codes?

  • QR codes are easily recognisable and more globally used than NFC chips
  • iOS 11 automatically recognises QR codes in the camera application.
  • Free QR code reader apps can be downloaded for Android.
  • Social media platforms are embracing them driving their popularity
  • They are a cost effective tool as they only require printing
  • QR codes can be designed as illustrations to align with brand identity

The drawbacks

  • The QR codes need to be printed on either a bottle, carton or tag adding to design and print costs.
  • QR codes are less unique than NFC chips
  • You need to make sure the ‘destination’ of the QR code is managed. If the destination is a microsite, it should be monitored for as long as people have access to the code to avoid a poor experience.


Developed by Apple in 2013, iBeacons use Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) to send information between from the beacon device to a receiver (smartphone). Eddystone is Google’s open beacon platform launched in 2015.

The beacons can be used to trigger a location-based, real-time action such as a check-in on social media or a push notification. The beacon technology market generated $519 Million in 2016, predicted to reach $58.7 billion by 2025

How are they used?

The main issue in the past with beacons was the need for users to have an app installed in order to receive the notifications. However, Google’s development of the Eddystone beacon technology means that Chrome-browser-based notifications can be send with no app required.

Other beacons will require either a native app to be downloaded or a ‘Pass’ to be downloaded and stored in an Apple Wallet for iPhones. A pass is a piece of digital content, it could be a membership card, loyalty card or ticket, which can be accessed via a qr code, link or web page.

Who has used them and how?

Gatwick airport installed 2000 beacons to offer an indoor navigation and an augmented reality wayfinding service to guide passengers to specific locations within the airport terminal via overlay arrows in the camera view of their smartphones. Beacons are a good solution in places where GPS is unreachable.

UK supermarket Waitrose started using iBeacon technology at its relatively new experimental Swindon store to deliver promotional messages to consumers when they were near a particular aisle or food counter. The beacon-enabled Waitrose app also allows a consumer to scan barcodes, read customer reviews of products, add items to a virtual shopping basket, and pay via a mobile wallet. The app also allows a consumer to call for assistance. A member of the staff receives the request informing them that a customer is waiting for help. The staff member also receives information about the customer and his/her previous shopping history which helps them get a better idea of how they should approach the customer.

Beacons have also been used in the AmazonGo store in the US. With no checkouts, the shop monitors the customers’ product selections using cameras, beacons and other proximity sensors in order to track and charge the transaction accurately.

What’s good about beacons?

  • They don’t need access to GPS
  • Beacons provide real time data. Information can be sent to a customer at the point at which they are viewing a product
  • Beacons are relatively inexpensive
  • They can provide data to analyse consumer behaviour e.g. the day and time when shoppers are more likely to download a particular coupon in-store

What are the drawbacks?

  • In order for a transmission to be received, a smartphone needs to have bluetooth switched on, however due to security fears or the need to save battery life, many users keep their bluetooth switched off.
  • Consumers can also choose to opt in or out of notifications from a business.
  • There should be a clear opt-in path for users to receive messages

In summary

Whilst this technology has been around for years, the barriers to accessibility are lowering and it is important for brands to recognise the opportunities available. There will be a narrow window until the market becomes saturated and so being an early adopter here will gain stand out.

For success with these technologies the key will be the relevance and value to the consumer. Giving them what they want, when they want it, can help improve the customer experiences and drive revenue.


This article was originally published on the DotLabel UX and Digital Agency website

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