Augmented reality and packaging: A passing fad or a limitless digital canvas for tomorrow’s food marketers?

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Augmented reality and food packaging: Where next?

Related tags Packaging

Back in 2011, it looked as if augmented reality (AR) might become as ubiquitous as the barcode on food packaging as marketers sought new ways to entice consumers with more immersive experiences.  

Fast forward six years, and expectations have been tempered somewhat, but as Pokemon Go demonstrated, AR has the potential to be pretty disruptive, if you use it in a smart way, says one leading player.

Zappar​ marketing director Max Dawes was speaking to FoodNavigator-USA after working with snack brand Wise Foods to develop a baseball-themed AR game whereby users can scan a ‘zapcode’ on pack and ‘hit’ balls pitched at them by a virtual pitcher (linked to the brand’s tie up with the New York Mets and the Atlanta Braves).

The food industry is still barely scratching the surface when it comes to unlocking the full potential of AR, ​said Dawes, but the key to success will lie in finding creative ways to integrate it into a broader brand strategy across multiple platforms and locations, rather than slapping another logo on an already crowded food label because you can.

“If you think about it, packaging is this enormous, untapped resource for brands to harness and put interesting content and messaging on.

“So for kids’ brands, games are brilliant, especially episodic ones where you keep coming back. But there’s also the edutainment angle, so you can use AR for brain training, and for a more adult audience you can also bring up provenance information in a more engaging way. Maybe you have a zapcode on a whisky bottle and you do a 360-degree tour of distillery and the barley fields and see the spring water source?”

Using AR to solve real problems

Sephora, for example, is using AR in a compelling way via its virtual artist initiative on the sephora app, which enables makeup fans to virtually try before they buy (the app utilizes users’ smartphone cameras so they can see what different shades of lipstick and eyelash treatments actually look like on their own face).  

Cider brand Bulmers, meanwhile, teamed up with Shazam ​- a mobile app that recognizes music, TV and media around you – to add ‘shazam codes’ (powered by Zappar’s technology) to bottles that, once scanned, launched animations and competitions in Ireland. This was supported by codes on beer mats in the on-trade enabling drinkers to play a game to see how long they can keep a soccer ball in the air as they wait for friends, drinks or food to arrive, said Dawes.

“Most people will stare at their phones whenever they get a free moment, and we’ve seen that people have been playing the game on average 4.3 times per user, which is really encouraging.”

Nestlé, meanwhile, is rolling out cereal boxes in 53 countries that enable used to play an augmented reality game starring the main character from the “Rio”​ animated film, while PEZ has partnered with Zappar to offer consumers AR codes in packets of its refill sweet dispensers to interact with characters using the PEZ Play app.

The main difference between augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) is that while VR involves creating a totally artificial and completely immersive environment, typically requiring a headset, AR uses the existing environment and overlays new information on top of it, and can be accessed via handheld devices such as mobile phones (think Pokemon Go). In the case of food labels, users can download a free app such as Zappar​ and then scan zapcodes on packaging to launch animations, games, competitions or other AR-fueled experiences.

Democratizing AR

During its six years in business, UK-based Zappar has developed AR-fueled experiences with packaging, retail, events, education, drug, property, and architecture companies, but has also developed tools enabling brands, agencies or even schoolchildren to develop their own content using its ZapWorks tool.

“To start with we were holding clients’ hands throughout the process and designing and building all of the AR content for them​,” said Dawes. “But we didn’t want to become a bottle neck. To really scale we needed to empower digital and content creatives at agencies or brands to use our platforms to build their own content and to democratize the technology.”

But is this something you need a degree in computer science to even contemplate? No, said Dawes, who says Zappar is now focusing on projects that take the technology in new directions, while third parties can develop more routine applications: “We’ve got options for all skillsets, from drag and drop options for children, to tools that developer ninjas and creative geniuses can use.” 

What does AR mean for design agencies?

So what does AR mean for design agencies? Will they all have to recruit augmented reality experts to come up with content for clients as part of any new packaging design brief?

Can they train up existing designers, or will we see the birth of new agencies dedicated to AR that work in partnership with more traditional design agencies? Will brands bypass agencies altogether and build their own in-house teams of AR enthusiasts?

It’s too early to say, but big agencies are bringing in more tech-focused staffers to help to “futureproof​” their teams, said Dawes. “There’s also a new breed of agency that is building a business model solely around being specialists in AR. We see 2, 3, 4, 5 person agencies that are dedicated to this.”

To start with, people saw it as a bit of a gimmick

Simon Thorneycroft, founder of brand packaging design agency Perspective​ Branding​ (which worked with Wise Snacks to incorporate the baseball game onto selected pack designs), says he’s watching AR with interest, but says we shouldn’t confuse the medium with the message (technology is just a tool).

“When brands first started using AR, the technology wasn’t really up to par and it kind of fell off the radar as people saw it as a bit of a gimmick. However, the fact that no one can put their phones down for more than 30 seconds now makes me think that it will probably find its way onto more packaging if people can create content that is relevant and engaging and immersive.”

The future of food packaging

That said, a world in which all billboards, packaged goods and other inanimate objects become portals for consumers to access digital content via their smartphones and step away – at least momentarily – from their immediate environment, is not necessarily a world Thorneycroft views with unbridled enthusiasm, he admits.

“One of the things I love about packaging is that it’s one of the few tactile, analog experiences we have left, and part of me thinks, why can’t we just enjoy it for what it is?”

As to how AR content might be created in future if it really takes off on food packaging, he said: “I’m a big believer in expertise, and I think that while bigger agencies will probably want to bolt on AR expertise ​[in-house], others will want to partner with agencies that are dedicated to creating this kind of content.”

zappar wise

Wise Snacks – which has teamed up with the Atlanta Braves​ and the New York Mets​ – invites consumers to download the Zappar app and scan a zapcode on selected food labels (designed by Perspective Branding) to start playing a baseball game on their cellphones.

After a transition animation, users can ‘hit’ balls pitched at them by a virtual pitcher and earn points for each ball hit, with the round ending after they miss three times. Once the game is over, participants can enter their name and score on a leaderboard, says chief marketing officer Jeremy Bjork.


Our parent company​ [Mexican Coke bottler Arca International] did a tennis partnership with the WTA tour in Monterey with Zappar last year, and as we were talking about sports marketing after our tie up with the Mets and the Braves, we were like, could we do a baseball game? To start with, we just wanted to see what was possible, and now we’ve got ideas about how to do activations next year that will be even more engaging, now that we know how it works.

“We’ve learned what it is and now the challenge is to think what it could be. Both from a gamification standpoint and an education standpoint I think there is far more to come from these augmented and virtual reality platforms, whether it’s informing people about GMOs or playing games.” 

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