The new face of packaging

Packaging’s basic functions are protection, utilization, and communication.

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The first two are the subject of much research and engineering effort to provide customers with safe and easily utilized products. The last category—communication—is exploding with possibilities and change, not only for information-handling in the manufacturing and distribution chain, but also for customer involvement using real-time links to social media and web content.

Now, links to extended data systems, often based on 2-D QR codes or even on image-recognition software, give customers access to extensive “live” information about products through phone-accessible web pages, online ordering sites, and consumer-generated media.

Information now incorporated into packaging may include individual package identifiers, authentication codes for commonly counterfeited pharmaceuticals, and content look-up systems (such as to determine where products are processed. Package information also enables customers to use their phones in-store to find information about the product, check competing prices and locations, access reviews of the product, and place orders.

Because of this new link between packaged goods and online information, customers’ experience and interaction with packaging are undergoing radical and unprecedented change. Brian Haven of Forrester Research has described a radical shift from the traditional marketing funnel that used to be used to bring customers from awareness to brand loyalty. Emerging now is a more complex system that includes an entire peer group of customers giving continuous, real-time analysis of the product. While this means a product can be a worldwide hit overnight, it also means that product faults and consumer dissatisfaction are globally disseminated in an instant.

Where does this leave packaging? Packaging is no longer the “live” salesperson that it has been. It is now the link to a global network of customer involvement and e-commerce. This has enormous implications. With some manufacturers incorporating individual identifier codes on their products, recalls might happen almost instantly, as could feedback that might improve product quality in real time. Customer data taken at the point of sale coupled with individual identifiers of products can now take on a “granular” aspect. This can allow more closely-targeted marketing and economic analysis as well as the determination of specific product attributes that are preferred in specific markets.

Since packaging is becoming an adjunct to in-store consumer social media interactions, the nature of many consumer retail operations will be altered forever as well. It may be possible to increase a store’s SKU count while reducing inventory by having “order-only” items in stores for the long-tail market. The traditional store with shelves stacked full of identical packaged goods may be on the brink of unprecedented and disruptive change as packaging becomes part of the new social media.

Scott A. Morris is the director of the packaging program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and can be reached at

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