There are several themes driving changes in food packaging, with the pace of change accelerating now that the pandemic is largely behind us. These themes include labeling technology, sustainability, food safety, engagement, and design. Let’s take them one at a time.
The promise of technology advances for food packaging has held promise. Today many of those promises are becoming reality due to volume related cost reductions as well as the ubiquity of mobile devices.
First, let’s look at labeling technology and what is now possible.
For many Brands, the use of QR codes on package labels creates a range of benefits. The increasingly broad use of SmartLabel® (101,307 products for 1,016 Brands) delivers detailed product, company, allergens, nutritional, and sustainability information by scanning the SmartLabel code on each product package. Launched in 2015, the technology has been adopted by Brands in food and beverage, pet care, personal care, dietary supplements, household, and OTC products. Look for this logo on your favorite Brands:
Most mobile devices can now scan any QR code, and the use cases have expanded as a result. Manufacturers can set up their QR codes to launch product or company information, videos about the production process or sustainability initiatives, or even the latest promotional campaigns. And with the ability to dynamically change the landing destination after scanning the QR code, Brands can update the content or marketing campaign as needed without the need to reprint the packaging.
Second, sustainability and eco-friendly packaging are opportunities that also are becoming more broadly available. With rapidly growing demand for packaging materials that are sustainable, costs have dropped to the point where adopting such eco-friendly materials represents a more reasonable price premium. In keeping with the trend to shrink package sizes to use less material (resulting in less going into the recycling or trash systems), Brands can create a “PDF”—like product manual or instructions that is revealed by clicking on a specially programmed QR code. So, less paper labeling, which results in lower packaging costs and less landfill.
Third, food safety continues to be a major concern for consumers, retailers, and manufacturers. No one wants the trauma and trust damaging headlines from an incident. Tracking product shipments is now possible with the use of NFC (near-field communication) tags. Issues like delays in the supply chain can be readily identified so that product freshness is not compromised once the product gets to store shelves. Some NFC tags are heat sensitive, so that spoilage risks from being shipped or stored in too warm containers or warehouses can be mitigated or avoided. Some NFC tags can be programmed to change color when exposed to heat or after the freshness expiration date. Perhaps the biggest future benefit of NFC tags is traceability so that if an outbreak occurs, it is possible to identify the manufacturing codes, isolate where the affected product went, and then remove it from store shelves. Sounds promising! Today the costs of the tags still need to come down for broad use by manufacturers.
Now on to the fourth use case, engagement. Here NFC tags are being used, mostly by premium beverage brands, to launch an app, or video content, or image library, website, landing page, or even a game—all to elevate the customer experience and reinforce the premium positioning. Savvy Brand managers, particularly in the spirits category, are pushing the envelope for engagement marketing—even testing loyalty programs or other incentives to the most valuable customers boosting share of wallet. While not an issue for food brands, NFC tags can also be used for authentication to mitigate the risk of counterfeit products. Think of designer goods, high end watches or jewelry.
Another way to boost engagement is to enable customer feedback by scanning a QR code on the package that would launch an interactive ratings microsite. Having the option to post those comments and product reviews onto the Brand home page would encourage advocates and help newer users to gain some insights from enthusiasts.
The last trend is that of design itself. And, as you would expect, these trends often depend on the product category in terms of relevance. So here goes.
Some pundits suggest that simplicity or a minimalist design approach can be refreshing. Let the product truly be the hero and take the spotlight. Maybe even go with a transparent window if shelf life or light exposure is not an issue. We do agree clutter is bad, and design extravagance with big bold colors is to be used sparingly. Of note, fewer inks or layers of film or foil can be a cost reduction opportunity as well. This design decision is likely one that would benefit from some consumer feedback—particularly for well established Brands.
A corollary trend is going retro, or even vintage for some nostalgia. Clearly not for many product categories but if you have a simple idea presented in an honest manner, it might fit with a strategy to be distinctive.
Now with digital print capabilities, you may be able to personalize your product, or at least the tag. Especially for gift giving, seasonal, or higher end products, what used to be impossible may be worth considering. Using a customer’s name is pretty special, particularly if you can isolate it to special orders placed via a dedicated website.
Staying abreast of industry shifts and the latest developments is part of what we do. You do not have to rely on the biggest (and typically more expensive) marketing and design agencies. We are your business partners all along the journey.
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