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The Fourth Dimension: Challenges and Opportunities for Food Packaging Design

Packaging design can be thought of in dimensions.

Grocery store milk isle.

If the first dimension is the existence of packaging to contain the product, the second dimension consists of the graphics printed onto packaging components. The third dimension consists of the structural design of the package itself: its shape, size, and general configuration. But what is the “fourth dimension” you increasingly see in press and industry publications about packaging design?

The fourth dimension is the digital dimension. It is how brands apply digital technologies to package design to enhance the consumer experience and collect valuable data for the brand. The potential for this technology is nearly limitless.

What Does “Smart Packaging” Mean?

Similarly to how the internet of things (IoT) connects ordinary products (toasters, thermostats, light switches, etc.) to the web for purposes of machine learning and personalized use, “smart packaging” connects product packaging with both the producer and the consumer, with the goal of adding value to both. It is typically accomplished through technologies like RFID sensors, QR codes, and NFC technology.

Not only can brands use this fourth dimension of packaging design to streamline distribution and monitor product quality, but they can also use it to connect with consumers in meaningful ways, strengthening customer loyalty and availing themselves of highly valuable consumer data. 

Consumers are largely on board with it too. A YouGov consumer survey found that 43% of consumers surveyed said they would exchange personal data with companies to save money through personalized promotions. Thirty-nine percent said they would do so for the opportunity to resolve consumer issues more quickly. 

Ways to Connect with Consumers in Real Time

One way fourth-dimension product packaging design can connect with consumers is through product authentication. Some products are frequently counterfeited, and smart packaging could allow consumers to use their smartphone to verify the provenance of a product.

Woman looking at a coffee package.

Smart packaging could also be used to allow consumers to automatically reorder products when their stock runs low. And because smart packaging allows brands to add or remove content in real time, they could use it to provide instant offers to help slow-moving stock sell faster. All the customer would need to do is scan the label to be presented with coupons or other offers. 

Making Sustainability Easier to Achieve

Adding a dimension of intelligence to recyclable packaging boosts sustainability and reduces unnecessary waste. Retailers rely on excellent stock management to avoid over-ordering and the general waste that can result, and smart packaging can help by tracking inventory turns and helping retailers order more accurately, hence reducing waste.

Sustainability at the consumer end can also be promoted through fourth-dimension technologies. One 2016 survey found that more than 60% of UK households weren’t sure which recycling bin to put at least one item in, and this leads to throwing away recyclable packaging. Smart packaging, however, could allow a consumer to simply pass their smartphone over the package and instantly access location-specific information about recyclability. French retailer Carrefour created a mobile app for this purpose. It allows Carrefour shoppers to scan products and immediately access information on how to properly recycle the packaging.

The possibilities for fourth dimension packaging design don’t end here. The options are nearly limitless as IoT and sensor technologies advance. As smart packaging becomes more integral to brands, it is expected to raise the bar for packaging expectations across product categories. Brands that understand smart packaging and potential use cases early on are the ones best positioned to benefit from it. PKG Brand Design is always on the forefront of new CPG branding and packaging initiatives; please subscribe to our blog for the latest package design industry news!

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