AR/VR Tech in Packaging: Here to stay or gone tomorrow?

Ever get the feeling that you’re living in the future? Smart accessories can wake you up at the optimal time in your sleep cycle. Cars can drive themselves. And packaging can communicate with you, sharing more information about the product inside than what you can read on the label.

The use of augmented and virtual reality is becoming more commonplace in packaging design, but is the trend here to stay?

We’ve seen it before: The Next Great Thing turns into failure as consumers neglect to embrace it (QR codes, anyone?). But done right, new technologies can enhance the consumer experience. So will consumers come to love or hate AR/VR tech?

Laura Zielinski, the editor-in-chief of BrandPackaging magazine, believes it’s all in the hands of brands: “The more seamlessly brands incorporate the technology, the more customers will be apt to use it and not see it as a gimmick,” she says. “Both brands and consumers will benefit when a company moves away from clunky or off-brand applications of AR/VR tech to ones that add to the customer experience.”

For example, AR/VR tech can help a brand tap into consumers’ desire for customization. “We’ve all gotten used to having things our way: From NIKEiD shoes to Starbucks coffee, much in our daily lives has been tailored to suit our specific tastes,” says Zielinski. “Consumers are only going to demand more experiences that can be personalized for them. By using AR/VR technology, brands can show customers how their products fit their desires or can be customized for them before they buy.”

Other applications include sharing extended nutritional or other product information, brand loyalty programs, contests, games, or raising awareness for CSR programs, as Anheuser-Busch did for its Folds of Honor Foundation through its “Blipp the Bowtie” project (see below).

However, it will take more than great campaigns and implementation to get consumers to embrace the technology in any meaningful way. “As amazing as campaigns such as Blipp the Bowtie were, the challenges facing implementation have slowed my enthusiasm for the technology as a mainstay marketing tool,” says Linda Casey, editor-in-chief of Package Design magazine. “Yes, augmented reality doesn’t require designers and marketers to devote precious panel space for display — unlike QR codes — but they still require consumers to download and use dedicated apps to activate the AR technology.”

And this is where many innovations fail like Google Glass has: If the consumer finds it awkward or cumbersome, or it doesn’t fit into their already-established lifestyle patterns, they’re unlikely to try it, or stick around once they do.

“While the industry was eager and ready to adopt AR [in 2012/2013], technological progress is a social process that requires the continued and sustained enthusiasm of adopters,” says Casey. “Otherwise, the app will quickly be relegated to a back page on the shopper’s mobile to be quickly forgotten about. Before AR can be truly leveraged as a marketing tool, the user’s code-reading experience must become faster and more convenient.”

So what will it take for AR/VR tech to ride the wave of fad into a well-established marketing tool?

“I believe brands that are able to find meaningful ways to use the technology will succeed,” says Zielinski. “Those that find ways to make it an uninterrupted part of everyday life will strengthen bonds with consumers; those that can’t do this will see their attempts ignored.”

Casey believes it will also require parallel innovations in smartphones and apps since the biggest challenge is on the technology adoption side. “AR for packaging’s potential is amazing, and technology quickly evolves,” she says. “If AR software companies and mobile user interface companies, such as Apple, Google, and Microsoft, can simplify, speed, and unify the user interface, the potential is nearly limitless. … Until the mobile phone industry implements standardized interfaces for accessing the technology, augmented technology will continue to be a glimpse into the future versus a powerful reality.”

Two brands that got it right

Linda Casey shares two of her favorite campaigns using AR technology:


“One of my favorite campaigns is the ‘Blipp the Bowtie’ project by Anheuser-Busch,” says Casey. “The brewer used augmented reality and the Budweiser bowtie logo on its packaging to raise awareness of the Folds of Honor Foundation, and let Bud fans help direct how Anheuser-Busch would direct more than a million donated dollars in the U.S. It also implemented video to further engage brand fans by giving them a chance to virtually meet some of the men and women who have benefitted from the Folds of Honor program.”

Pizza Hut

“I really liked how Pizza Hut used the technology to announce the return of its Cheesy Bits pizza,” says Casey. “The brand had partnered with Viacom to time the product relaunch and AR introduction with the opening of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles films in 2014. The brands used augmented reality to deliver digital videos, hidden menus, and custom pizza boxes, and they supported the effort with a complete multimedia advertising campaign. The target market seemed right for this effort; in general, children become fluent in a technology quickly and the entertainment offering seemed compelling enough for the end user to want to take the time to learn how to use the software.”

What are other great examples of AR/VR executions in packaging?