The world is becoming increasingly virtual, and mainstreaming technologies, the trajectory of retail, and a culture of change will radically impact the future of product packaging. Packaging as media will take on a new role in a radicalized retail context where space, shopping experience, and currency are dramatically evolved from today’s paradigm.
We need to think of packaging not merely as a functional distribution tool, but as media—with all the engagement and disruptive potential of other dynamic brand touchpoints. Already, GPS-enabled devices allow retailers to locate shoppers in their vicinity and offer rewards, digital extras, and product samples in real time—a technology that is only in its infancy.
Technology in Action
In geo-positioning scenarios, as customers search, suddenly every relevant merchant in the vicinity is competing for their business—offering loyalty perks, co-branded offers, initial trial incentives and even suggesting the types of products that “people like you” have enjoyed.
Near field communication (NFC) is already embedded in most new mobile devices, and allows proximity-related radio communication between two devices. It holds the potential to turn mobile devices into virtual payment hubs, allowing contactless transactions, secure data exchanges, and all kinds of new, effortless tagging.
The brand Strongbow Cider recently unveiled a radio frequency identification (RFID) concept called StartCap: a creative concept with a chip embedded in the bottle cap that interacts with sensors within its environment simply by opening the product. Popping the cap triggers any number of proximity-oriented experiences from dimming the lights to cueing music. These technologies unlock a host of potential implications for packaging as a dynamic media, creating new brand experiences and possibly revolutionizing customer experience.
The future of packaging will be influenced by the fact that real-time consumer feedback will be everywhere. Technology will continue to make the shopping experience, like everything else, increasingly social. The idea of brands connecting to consumers is eroding—replaced by the notion that brands help consumers connect to each other. Brands are increasingly presenting themselves as open platforms for consumers to connect and express themselves. Retailers like ST( )RY create platforms for connecting within various brand experiences. For example, over the past few months, ST( )RY has staged such themes as love, New York, and design as temporary pop-up retail concepts, overhauling the traditional retail-shopping experience.
Futurists envision an effortless dialogue loop that most of us will opt into. As we choose a product from a store shelf, we’ll be able to rate or rank our networks of trust while standing in the aisle. Dr. Bob Johansen, a fellow at the Institute for the Future and author of Leaders Make the Future asserts that we are living in a VUCA world. In futurist jargon, that means we are living in an environment of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. It’s a time of shifting paradigms, bending standard narratives, altering courses, and changing games.
The Changed Game of Retail
The rumblings of a quiet revolution in retail have been building for over a decade. As e-commerce was coming into its own—more easily engaged on handheld devices and emerging from its youth as a mature, vital platform that was nimble and experimental—customer-centric—brick-and-mortar businesses were getting big, scalable, and replicable. The sum of this change, the cultural inflection point, was about to deliver the world of retail a very rude awakening. One more bubble was about to pop.
Nearly three years after the retail collapse of 2010, one thing is certain: traditional retail is forever changed. With more vetting tools at-hand, people are taking a more savvy approach to shopping. Mobile devices allow any consumer to simultaneously shop the web for competitive pricing and reviews while looking at a product on a store’s shelf.
Packaging must address the fact that the shopping dynamic has shifted and evolved to meet the demands of consumers who want more information, exclusivity, customization, and engagement in their shopping experiences. As media, packaging holds the potential to evolve into the preferred gateway to content, instead of being relegated behind advertising and other portals. Retail must evolve, from the style and tone of service to the nature of transactions and the many touchpoints along the way. At a time when everything is available 24/7, the next generation of retail must leverage service as concierge-style ambassadorship, in-store environments as immersive experiences, and packaging as media. The task at hand is to make the shopping experience truly special.
Pack to the Future
Category-leading brands are building content-rich lifestyle experiences. In the very near future, this will place new demands on packaging as part of the two-way conversation of brand engagement. Merging virtual and physical realities will unlock the potential for hyper-sensory expressions of brand. Already visible in some packaging concepts, printable electronics will reduce costs as compared to traditional components, making them viable and widely available. As stretchable and even edible electronics become mainstream, a Pandora’s box of plausible user experiences presents itself. For example, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have created a stretchable rubber battery that could manifest itself one day as a more affordable pressure- and temperature-sensitive packaging.
Health-feedback sensors, such as the Proteus Digital Health Feedback System are revolutionizing the industry as well. The Proteus System is an ingestible sensor, made of food-based ingredients, that communicates with your mobile device for real-time physiological monitoring. Simply popping one of these before your stroll down the grocery aisle could influence purchase-making decisions.
Beyond niche or prestige brands, megabrands have already deployed teams to explore the propositions and possibilities of paper-thin electronics for packaging. The potential of packaging as media has captured the interest of many of the largest consumer packaged goods companies in the world, including Hallmark, Nestlé, and Procter & Gamble. Dr. Kenneth McGuire, principal scientist at Procter & Gamble, announced his company’s first foray into printed electronics in 2011 with a concept utilizing printed electroluminescent lighting. Albeit still in its infancy, the vast future of this media holds unlimited potential.
Imagine a world where the bottles, boxes, and blister packs that line retail shelves transform before your very eyes; where customized messages that appeal to your unique habits and preferences appear on packaging. Packages are liquid, displaying dynamic content and beautiful media as you stroll down the aisle. Or maybe you slide on a pair of tech-enabled shopper lenses, which black out brands that don’t fit your budget preferences or uphold your values. A much quieter shopping experience emerges as the decision-making process is pared. Real-time curating unfolds as certain brands simply evaporate from view—like commercials from your DVR. While these may seem like far-out futurist scenarios, the technology is already here, and it's becoming more flexible, capable, and affordable.
The Uncertain Future of Packaging
Looming anxieties over our inevitable confrontation with resource scarcity suggest a future with less packaging—emphasizing the role of packaging as media. Global brands are aggressively minimizing the amount of material used, improving their bottom lines and minimizing environmental impact. Designers are currently exploring melt-away wrappers, products with print that washes off, and packaging with embedded, live organisms that consume the package after use. These innovations leverage material technology and new, creative distribution models—resulting in highly efficient, minimal designs. In the not-so-distant future, these innovations may radicalize retail distribution models, using maker-bots and 3D and 4D printing to vertically integrate on-site manufacturing and vending.
Many futurists considering the evolving role of packaging believe it’s important to envision a scenario in which new retail technologies instigate a sequence of events where transactions may not even take place in a physical environment. As the entire retail floor becomes a transaction space, this will shake things up for traditional retailers, especially grocers, that rely on corralling customers from the entrance to the register. We may soon realize the future described in Kevin Kelly’s classic New Rules for the New Economy: Shifting from retail places to transaction spaces. Mobile technologies such as NFC make the nature of transaction more ubiquitous, transient, and personal, so that any space can be a retail transaction space—be it a sidewalk, a subway or a park.
In January, the city of Santa Monica announced it was considering a ban on the exercise classes that have taken over city parks as mobile credit processing has allowed trainers and other organizations to easily assume the public space for commercial purposes.
Tesco, the world’s third-largest retailer, launched virtual supermarkets in South Korean subway platforms in 2011. Time-starved South Koreans, the world’s second-hardest-working population, benefit from the convenience of shopping via QR codes during transit, and groceries are delivered the same day.
The physical nature of retail of the future could evolve to be more like dynamic billboards or interactive gaming than anything that occupies actual square footage. Look at the success of pop-up retail, food trucks, and next-gen vending. Retail is manifesting in non-traditional ways that are more transitory, impermanent, and smaller in footprint. Soon, we may simply browse “webfront” stores or swipe our way through racks and shelves in augmented reality. Does packaging have a role in a more virtual and on-demand future?
Taking full advantage of the unrealized potential of these technologies will require us to treat packaging as media with a completely different focus. Today, the way packaging is created and tested is highly focused on “shoppability,” but the role of “shelf” is eroding as consumers engage in “showrooming” and other tire-kicking behaviors. It’s a shift toward ongoing brand dialogue and continual moments of truth. Ultimately, the cheese has moved, and packaging must evolve with the whole of retail. The challenge before us is one of relevance to a bold, new culture of change.
Image of bubble wrap courtesy Shutterstock