Steve Osborne: What the app taught the cereal box | Video

Steve Osborne of design agency Osborne Pike considers the impact – and opportunities – for packaging in the smartphone revolution.

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As the world goes digital at a dizzying pace, the ways in which we interact with information and commercial messages is changing equally rapidly. Mobile, search and touch-screen technologies, social media and the good old-fashioned internet are transforming our relationships with brands, or at least the way we create and maintain those relationships.

Brands have always been beacons of added value, but our expectations as consumers have moved on – from superior products, through emotional benefits, to the search for a meaningful user experience (UX) through an enhanced user interface (UI).

With so much available technology there is the risk of bolting on too many fancy gimmicks and blurring or trivialising the brand message. Keeping it simple and to the point, and ensuring that consumer needs clearly drive the tools and technology, will deliver the best results.

Packaging understood this back in the days when it was container, protector and source of information all wrapped into one. In fact packaging could be described as the original UI and UX for brands.

Packaging designers are therefore well placed to understand how apps, augmented reality, QR codes, geo-navigation and whatever new technology comes along next week, can improve user experience.

This is an era when consumers value access over assets, when reaching the destination is more important than owning a car, watching the movie preferable to owning the DVD. Consumers now expect brands not just to help them make a statement, but also to provide a portal to a rich experience.

Packaging has always been there to set up the promise of a great product experience (linked to the brand), but digital technologies now allow the experience to be richer and deeper. When Lego used fledgling augmented reality technology to allow consumers a 360º view of the finished model, it was heightening the sense of anticipation, compared to the usual flat graphic image. As a bonus, the technology transferred qualities such as ‘advanced’ and ‘smart’ to the Lego brand.

The opportunities afforded by the rapid advancement of these technologies appear limitless, and are not restricted to extra product information. Consumers can now access unique branded experiences as well, simply by pointing their smartphone at the packaging. As the phone is uniquely linked to the individual using it, data from online social profiles can be used to craft special offers and information customised to individual preferences, and even their current location. A wide range of so-termed SoLoMo (Social Local Mobile) applications already exist, and the potential for linking to packaging and brands is clear.

The potential for personalisation at this level gives packaging designers the freedom to communicate points of difference without cluttering the pack with messages aimed at multiple audiences. Recent forays into personalisation and then hyper-personalisation are transcending and focusing more on messages tailored to the individual.

German company Qkies embraced this concept by giving the QR code the edible treatment. Consumers literally bake a QR code printed on edible paper into the cookies. The recipient of the cookies scans the QR code with their phone to receive a personalised message.

Heinz Tomato Ketchup used augmented reality on-pack to inspire Ketchup lovers to use and experiment with their product in innovative ways, and in doing so perhaps engage a little deeper with their consumers.

Augmented reality provides a valuable and contextualised extra dimension that brings packaging more overtly into the brand communication arena. A good example is Lucozade’s recent special edition bottle designs created by well-known recording artists, which enable unique content when triggered with a smartphone.

Improving the user experience is also about creating discoverability, as Starbucks did when they created Cup Magic last Christmas. Customers were encouraged to scan their cups with their smartphone to bring short animations to life and share these with their friends on Facebook.

The connection between a brand’s packaging and its (digital) marketing is growing daily, adding enormously to the power of packaging as the ultimate marketing asset. But what if we turn the tables around? What can the glamorous app learn from the humble (undigitalised) cereal pack? ….. We will be looking at that next time….

Steve Osborne is partner at the branding and design agency Osborne Pike