There are 5.11 billion unique mobile users in the world today, according to DataReportal’s ‘Digital 2019: Global Digital Overview’ report. Smartphone users are gradually becoming familiarised with augmented reality, a readily available technology on the devices that we all carry as extensions of ourselves every day.

Conceivably you have encountered key mainstream AR examples, such as filters on social media or the Pokémon Go craze, or perhaps you’re past novice level and have been anticipating the launch of Wizards Unite? 

What does this have to do with the packaging industry though? And can packaging leverage the power of this technology? Libby White explores the possibilities with Zappar, an innovative company focused on creating AR experiences, to discover a comprehensive picture of the technology’s potential. 

In layman’s terms

Augmented reality (AR) is a technology that enables us to add a digital layer onto the world around us. It connects the physical world of things with the digital world of devices. 

The sort of AR experiences we can unlock with our smartphones can vary widely – from bringing print to life with animated content, unlocking branded face filters for sharing on social media or interactive and instructional product experiences. 

Passive to active  

From his vantage point Martin Stahel, sales director, shares that the most notable development over the last few years has been how the packaging industry has begun to unlock real value with AR: “I’ve certainly seen an increase in popularity through the sheer number of AR experiences. But, I’m more impressed with the way brands are extracting commercial payback from their investment, and that’s driven by evolving their approach and thinking more strategically about how they can leverage AR beyond one-off activations and as an always-on connected platform.”

There’s a growing acknowledgement that AR can make existing packaging work much, much harder. “AR is essentially transforming packaging from a passive object into an arena for new possibilities and storytelling - whether that’s a visualisation of an end product to assist sales, an opportunity to start a conversation with a brand’s audience or a mechanism for rewarding customer loyalty with bespoke content,” demonstrates Martin Stahel. “And what’s more, this content exists on a digital channel that’s solely owned and curated by the brand itself - so there’s a direct incentive to grow and build relevant, engaging and personalised digital content to keep users within that environment.”

The changing attitudes of brands to AR, the increase of purposeful products in people's lives and the commercial opportunities it presents are key.

Technological advancements As AR toolkits, smartphone technology and mobile data speeds have evolved, AR experiences are becoming far more complex and involved than ever before. 

“I’d expect to see even more brands take advantage of world tracking - which means users will be able to directly place 3D content into the world around them, including ‘portals’ which users can physically walk through and explore new worlds,” Martin Stahel comments. 

“As Gallo Wines showed with its trailblazing campaign, this is a really rich way for brands to essentially ‘teleport’ their audience into a new environment, with huge potential for exploring brand heritage and forging far more meaningful connections with their audience. Particularly with millennial and ‘Gen Z’ consumers, sustainability and ethical sourcing is a key part of the purchase decision process - so I’d expect to see more packaging brands using AR to empower their audiences to ‘meet’ the producers behind their products, to see how their goods are assembled and constructed.”

A collaboration between Zappar and Evrythng, an Internet of Things smart product platform, highlights how AR can be used in tandem with other intelligent technology to gain data insights such as product usage and dwell time. 

Martin Stahel explains, “Evrythng’s technology gives physical products a digital identity that’s stored in the cloud, enabling brands to track a product’s lifecycle. What connected packaging brings to the table is that customers scanning AR content provide insights into when and how they interact with products post-purchase, which feeds new and valuable data into that digital identity. If connected packaging is enabling customers to view recipes or nutritional information, what are they looking at and for how long? These insights can in-turn inform future customer messaging with connected packaging as the delivery method - such as triggering a reorder notification directly to a user’s smartphone to inspire future purchases in a logical, unobtrusive way.”

Another way AR can complement intelligent technology that’s particularly relevant to the packaging industry is the prevention of product fraud as a consumer-led anti-counterfeit measure. Zappar has begun working with digital security and fraud prevention experts DSS to explore these possibilities further. Martin Stahel exemplifies, “Connected packaging can provide a valuable layer of additional security and enhance brand trust by attaching a unique code to product packaging which, when scanned in a proprietary branded app, can confirm a product’s authenticity and safety whilst at the same time displaying more relevant information to the end user.”

Removing the perceived ‘pain point’ of an app download is another area of technological innovation within this domain. Zappar has recently added WebAR to its portfolio, which enables users to access AR content via their phone’s web browser.  

Martin Stahel points out that as new technology it lacks some of the performance and flexibility you’d get with in-app content, but it’s only going to improve and evolve. “This means that all brands now have total distribution of content across mobile devices which is a significant development. They no longer need to pay a third party app to deliver content (so no media fee) and can control their own first-party data and have a direct dialogue with users on an ongoing basis.” 

Case study 

Mini-activities with collectible or high score components have certainly been a big step forward- featured in Zappar’s work with 7-Eleven; as have the increased use of animated 3D models and alpha video for more immersive and engaging content, such as its projects with Shackleton Whisky and Glenlivet. Zappar has also shifted from being able to simply link out to social media channels to having integrated share functions - so users can scan packaging, access branded face filters and share them instantly and organically - with the scope for brands to reward them for doing so.

Shackleton Whisky - Copy (3).jpg

Shackleton whisky

Omnichannel Marketing Brands are beginning to acknowledge that AR can support and enhance a broader omnichannel marketing strategy according to Martin Stahel, which in turn unlocks more possibilities for leveraging AR in strategic ways that go way beyond novelty. “For us, AR can and should be seen as the ‘glue’ that both binds and enhances every part of the marketing funnel, with contributions to be made from initial awareness to consideration to adding value pre and post-purchase.”

On the surface, integrated social sharing is perhaps the most straightforward way AR can compliment existing marketing campaigns. For example, Zappar’s work with Fanta leveraged an existing influencer relationship with custom face filters with integrated share functions –an example of increasing customer engagement and brand visibility that’s specific to AR which supports a wider omnichannel strategy.

Case study

AR has the potential to enhance customer loyalty and reward their audience in fun and unexpected ways to drive sales. Zappar’s work with PEZ is emblematic of a brand taking a strategic approach to digital innovation with AR at its heart. PEZ, looking to increase sales of its refill packs, applied a unique ‘candy code’ to its refill packs which could be scanned directly from the PEZ Play App. This unlocked custom mini-games for its audience to play, but also collectible PEZ characters for use in the photo feature. This added a collectible element to the refill packs that replicated the appeal of PEZ’s dispensers in a digital format - encouraging repeat purchases and rewarding its audience with bespoke content through AR.

PEZ Rovio.jpg


Brand’s blind spot  

A key strength of connected packaging is that messages can be targeted to the user at any point in time - whether that’s in-store to encourage purchase via product visualisation to cross-promoting ancillary products or demonstrating the value of a food or drink product through video recipes, ‘How To’ guides, unboxing videos and recommendations. 

In that sense, packaging can become a brand’s storefront, enabling conversations with an audience long after purchase. This has been a blind spot for brands from a measurement perspective for a long time. With AR, brands can have a direct conversation with their end users and tailor their messages accordingly to make them more relevant. This can also be adapted over time dependent on the context of the interaction and where the product is in its lifecycle. Importantly this can also be leveraged to talk about sustainability, product provenance and recycling: increasingly consumers want to know more about the products their purchasing and making sure that they are held accountable for their actions and their impact on the environment and society at large. AR can help tell these stories through spatial computing in engaging and instructional ways.


Martin Stahel, sales director

We pose the burning question- is AR a gimmick or game changer?

Martin Stahel:

You won’t be surprised to hear that I think AR has revolutionary potential for the packaging industry. But it’s all about companies like ours who are involved in the sector to share those success stories and help brands unlock genuine value with the technology - to nurture it and help it grow. Pull-out quote: Gimmickry is the realm of using technology for technology’s sake. Like any other business, you need a commercial objective to aim at and an assessment of whether AR is the right choice to meet it.Moving beyond that is all about focusing on the creation of valued experiences and actively solving brand problems.

One thing we’re regularly saying to the brands we work with is that AR is not simply a box to be ticked or about a one-off campaign activation; most consumers do not tend to be excited by AR in and of itself - they want compelling content regardless of the medium, so together we need to make connected packaging experiences contextually relevant, genuinely useful and compelling.But we have to acknowledge that creating a long term always-on connected packaging strategy is a marathon and not a sprint.

We’ve been talking to and working with some of the biggest brands in the sector for a number of years now. It requires multiple-stakeholders across the organisation to execute property and needs a high-level internal champion to drive the process. There are certainly quick wins and test-and-learn strategies to deploy to start the process. But it is essential that the right systems and processes are put in place in order to lay the right foundations from the start and ultimately deliver the best ROI for the business.

With the examples we have mentioned earlier, we’re actively demonstrating that AR has eminently practical use cases that actively solve problems for the brands we work with as an everyday utility and additional information source for their users.

Combining strategic best practice with commercial success is only going to make the connected packaging offering more compelling for brands and I think that will inspire something akin to a revolution in the packaging industry - at least, in the sense of re-shaping perceptions of packaging where brands no longer see a passive object, but a gateway to an always-on digital content and delivery channel that they can own to drive better consumer understanding, usage habits and business decisions. Ultimately we see a future where every single product and piece of packaging is connected.

We believe it will be an expectation of users that they can access more relevant information, offers, promotions and payment options related to the product though scanning it via their mobile device. Connect packaging will soon be part of the usual media planning and content development cycle as an always-on owned media channel.

The brand owners who are already taking advantage of this technology have a natural head start over their competitors.It’s certainly a hugely exciting time to be in the packaging space and we’re excited to see it continue to evolve.