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Connected Packaging: Are We Venturing Way Beyond Orwell’s 1984?

Connected packaging is nothing new. For decades manufacturers have packaged their various products with identifier markings on each container label to interact with scanners and readers. Bar codes have had a significant impact on manufacturing and distribution processes, generating handling efficiencies and product tracking from creation to the sale to the end user. Bar coding has resulted in a significant cost savings, eliminating manual pricing and checking of each item throughout the selling cycle. Manual inventory surveys are virtually eliminated as purchase and sales information is tracked by computers. QR codes, visual identifiers that can be scanned by mobile devices to generate product information that cannot be fitted on each label, have given consumers unlimited insight into product features at the point of purchase.

The concept of connected packaging is experiencing renewed interest as online technology has been refined and improved. Marketers are beginning to realize that intelligent packaging can be a brand-owned media channel allowing them to interact personally with consumers.  Codes activated through mobile devices and scanners can not only help speed up checkout but can detect potential food spoilage, track product location and delivery, and authenticate a product’s identity.

New radio-frequency identification (RFD) sensors can now be attached to product packaging and can communicate content information over longer distances. These smart sensors can determine the quantity of product remaining in the container, its freshness and even how the product is being used by the consumer. Augmented reality (AR) is an additional layer of content superimposed over a container’s image that is scanned by consumers’ smartphone cameras and allows for additional information to be experienced at the moment and in the environment that the smart device is being used.

A recent prediction by Gartner, a 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. The seller-owned media network will greatly enhance a brand’s ability to control marketing spend, realize greater efficiency in marketing campaigns, unify ecommerce efforts and improve one-on-one consumer personalized messages.

However, some brands are advancing cautiously, attempting to determine how shoppers will likely embrace the advances in technology that increasingly impose on personal privacy. Imagine getting a text message or email from a sensor inside a box of pasta as you walk by your pantry: “Given your rate of usage, its time to add me to your shopping list.” It is even possible for the participating consumer to permit the system to reorder the product and have it delivered without additional interaction with the inventory process. Scary stuff!

Large segments of consumer markets may find such advances too intrusive. “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.”

With the nearly universal acceptance of a vast array of smart, internet connected devices, it is possible that consumers, given the right motivation, will embrace the expanded capabilities of connected packaging. By the way, did you know that bottle of mustard on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator is out of date?

Oh my! We have ventured way beyond Orwell’s 1984.