Packaging is already a concentrated form of brand communication, expertly coded by designers using form, materials, colors and symbols to tell a brand story; or to make an innovation approachable and understandable. Now that packaging is becoming part of the digital revolution, how can we best enhance its communication potential?

The old rules of marketing are being swept away by new digital and social media channels, making the world of brand management increasingly challenging. Far from the simple factory plus TV advertising-driven model that created the job description, the modern marketer needs to become a data-mining, hyper-connected digital native, fluent in new media terms and metrics.

Driven by technology, and its commercial Emperors in the form of Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon, the way consumers engage with brands, commercial messages and shopping itself is changing rapidly. Perhaps the best and most obvious example is the smartphone, which is on its way to a global penetration of 2 billion users, making Apple’s iPhone business at one point the most profitable company in the world.

The now ubiquitous tap, pinch and swipe interface changed the way we thought about our mobile devices, and the rise of apps (1 million and counting) enables countless new experiences to be delivered by a single, portable, personal machine.

With ever-growing computing power and ingenuity of app design, it’s little wonder that consumers are in love with their smart devices. They are increasingly deserting the desktop to search, connect, play and buy on them, and as a result the word on every marketer’s lips is ‘m-commerce’.

As the Internet comes into their stores, retailers are going through the single biggest shift in consumer behavior in our time, according to Michelle Crames, vice president of social commerce solutions at Revionics. “Power is shifting to the consumer in the form of a smartphone device they will have on their person at all times, ready to check the infinite selection and comparatively cheap pricing of the internet.”

While the (digital) textbooks are being re-written to deal with the massive impact on brand communication, our focus is on a specific new media channel – packaging.

I predict that packaging will be affected in two almost opposite ways and this mirrors what is happening in retailing. The first will be replacement – of the physical object with a digital avatar – ‘added to basket’ from numerous digital interfaces, including but not restricted to the Smartphone. But in this article I will focus on the second development – enhancement of experience.

Packaging is rarely thought of as a form of ‘media’, and that is the source of its power. Once famously dubbed ‘the silent salesman’, packaging persuades in a completely different way to other media, for the simple reason that it contains the product. Rather than sending out overt selling messages, packaging communication has to be ‘decoded’ by the consumer, using its form, materials, colors, symbols (foremost amongst which is branding) and other graphics to create a rich and compelling story in the consumer’s mind.

Once famously dubbed ‘the silent salesman’, packaging persuades in a completely different way to other media, for the simple reason that it contains the product.

Actually it’s more than just a story: the proximity to the product is what allows packaging to perform its almost magical trick of ‘sensation transference’, in which the properties of the pack, such as elegance, style, slimness, power and so on, directly affect how we experience the product inside.

Now packaging is one of several brand expressions that is being invaded, trivialized or improved, depending on your point of view, by Augmented Reality. This emerging technology is predicted to become the next mass medium, and it works by superimposing digital content on top of real world objects. Any object can now be browsed and recognized by your smart device’s cameras, with the extra digital content then linked to its real-world ‘trigger’, to create novel and engaging experiences.

Not all of these experiences are relevant for packaging. Whilst augmented reality advertising nearly always includes a ‘buy now’ mechanism, with packaging you’ve probably already bought (but that doesn’t mean you couldn’t ‘buy more’ or ‘buy another flavor’).

At the moment most packaging-based Augmented Reality offers a small number of ‘mini-experiences’ that includes games, competitions and promotions, but in the near future this will expand to encompass most of packaging’s to-do list.

AR could play a role in making many of these easier, or more engaging: contain, transport, dispense, protect, quantify, display and describe the product; get attention, personify the brand, identify the consumer need, educate users about the contents, or cross-sell the range.

A neat example that shifts brand perception has been used recently by McDonald’s in Australia, to highlight its local and responsible sourcing policy. Note how a packaging-based experience lends the information extra credibility – the brand is (literally) standing by its product.

As consumers become more accustomed to the fact that everything has the potential to reveal more information, what better stage than packaging for a brand to engage with its consumers? And of course as a digital medium, AR also has the enormous benefit of creating its own data set, which can be tracked, analysed and acted upon in real-time by an emerging new breed of marketing technologists.

The Silent Salesman has started talking, and there’s no going back into the box…

By Steve Osborne

About the author

Steve Osborne is the founder and MD of Osborne Pike, a branding and packaging design agency that specialises in telling brand stories through packaging and other user interfaces. In his mission to help clients build ‘brands you can believe in’, he explores how new technologies can unlock the codes that are already built into packaging. He is also a self-confessed packaging geek who spends a lot of time in supermarkets around the world, looking for great designs which, in his view, ‘pull you in with the sheer power of their storytelling’. His reports of those that do, and those that don’t, can be found in his regular blog ‘Shelf Life’. His insights on Augmented Reality in packaging were the topic for his talk  in November 2012 at Packaging Innovations, Amsterdam can be viewed here.