In today’s digital-first world, how can brands maximise the commercial value of their packaging? It’s all about creating meaningful ways to interact with customers without a physical presence, argues Matt Ward, print and digital division director at Transcend Packaging.

‘Tactical Packaging’ offers businesses - from the FTSE 100 to recent start-ups - newfound opportunities to provide an experience and develop customer relations.

Whether through seasonal or promotional offers, tactical packaging’s value derives from physically being in a consumer’s hand. Noticed QR codes appearing on your favourite products lately? Well, that’s because they are increasingly being used to supplement packaging and drive client engagement.

The value of developing customer relationships remotely is garnering increasing influence in the battle for market share. This is especially prevalent in sectors like healthcare and grocery, where saturated markets and homogenous products compete for the same limited and localised market.  Indeed, global intelligent packaging sales are forecasted to reach $2.5 billion by 2025 with an annual average growth rate of 13.3% from 2020.

At Transcend Packaging, we regularly encourage our clients to view their packaging assets as an easily adaptable platform for creating a competitive advantage. Previously, a brand might have changed its packaging over a range of years or months. Now, this can be accomplished in a matter of days to boost consumer demand. It is no longer a tick box exercise, but a tailored means of businesses deepening the level of engagement with customers. 

For the vast number of start-ups that sprung to life during the COVID pandemic, this is particularly valuable, because these businesses now have access to professionally branded and tactical packaging at an affordable price. This can be achieved in various ways, but one way that has risen to prominence is the use of QR codes, which can add another dimension to tactical packaging by supporting offline and online collaboration. Consumer engagement opportunities, such as those provided by QR codes, are key to developing brand equity.

The shift to increased working from home alongside the rapid and prominent arrival of ‘dark warehouse’ grocery delivery firms, such as Gorillas, has placed increased emphasis on the importance of packaging and brand recognition, offering new competition to home delivery services provided by supermarket chains. Again, this highlights the importance of using packaging to develop and maintain customer relations, as a competitive advantage over other brands.

However, this comes at the same time that businesses seek to meet ESG targets, in part, by minimising packaging waste. Whether that’s reducing the physical size of packaging, sourcing more sustainable materials, or optimising the number of product units that can be transported; change is happening.

The question for brands, especially those subliminally familiar to consumers browsing the aisles of their local supermarket, is: how can you encourage and maintain brand loyalty whilst altering the design spec that made you recognisable?

For most grocery products, there is no physical way to communicate with customers, beyond the product itself, so even the most incremental of changes need to be considered and purposeful.  What tangible benefits will that alteration deliver for you and your customer?

Since COVID, QR codes have become a part of everyday life – from reading menus to paying. 96% of the UK population have scanned a QR code on their mobile device in restaurants or retail stores in the last six months from April 2021.

And it’s not just in the UK where the use of QR codes has prevailed as a result of lockdowns and the pandemic. In the US and ASPAC regions, QR codes have proved incredibly popular as a convenient way to communicate with customers. Global brands such as Coca-Cola now include QR codes on all cans, which takes the consumer to the company website, offering immediate access to product information, other Coca-Cola products, and recent company news.

This presents a real opportunity for brands to take their packaging to the ‘next level’.  By this, we mean using packaging that has the potential to deliver personalised experiences to each consumer.  We’ve seen this to some extent with the rollout of personalised receipts, that come with tailored reward and incentive schemes. But this only scratches the surface of what the future of packaging and digital printing will look like by the end of 2023 - we certainly aren’t talking about some far-off idyllic dream.

Brands should see this as a valuable chance to gather data and improve their understanding of a products’ customer base, which, without a physical presence, can be more challenging for businesses to obtain. 

When it comes to packaging, businesses have a newfound opportunity to tailor and adapt the product rapidly. However, this is only half of the impressive element. What’s equally exciting is that changes can be made in line with consumer sentiment and feedback, or for seasonal events like Christmas, at the fraction of the price that would have been quoted with traditional packaging processes, like litho-printing.

The packaging industry has long utilised a ‘price per thousand’ mentality, where volume and cost are prioritised above all else. For many years, not enough attention was paid to a product’s performance during or at the end of its useful life. Now though, the latest innovations in digital printing mean it is now possible to produce multiple, bespoke packaging designs, in smaller batches and a fraction of the time of litho-printing.

On a digital press, a brand can do a printing run of a thousand cartons with each carton using a different tailored design. Standards are changing, and the technology is now there for brands and creatives to do what was never previously practical. This reaches beyond just design and acts as an important servant to reducing waste.

Digital printing, whilst making MOQs potentially redundant, enables brands to ‘print only what you need’. Gone are the days of storage rooms stocked full to the brim with packaging printed years ago that is no longer useable. This kind of packaging is destined to become waste, which is harmful not only to the planet, but also to businesses’ profitability.

Digital printing is changing the conversation for the packaging industry and its partners, and we expect successful brands will be those who welcome the era of smart packaging. Order only what you need, pay for only what you need and keep waste to an absolute minimum. All whilst building powerful consumer relations, which can be reinforced at any given time throughout the year.