CPG Design Trends

Connected Packaging and the Future of Brand Storytelling

Melissa Simmerman
Director, Strategy

June 5, 2024

Before the pandemic, marketers would often ask us: do people really use QR codes? It made sense when QR codes were relatively new and untested, and scanning something with your phone’s camera was still kind of awkward. Even now that 95% of restaurant menus are QR codes, this is still a fair question. But for different reasons.

Now, the question isn’t if people use QR codes. It’s whether or not the marketing behind them is worth the engagement.

The Rise of Connected Packaging in Food & Beverage

It’s true that QR codes have all but replaced menus in many places. (BUT printed menus are making a comeback, with highly branded, Pinterest-worthy designs. Print will never die; we said what we said.) And QR codes are not new on to-go packaging, especially for kids’ meals. But you’ve probably begun to see them in places you didn’t notice before: in hotel elevators and on printed materials in your room, on museum plaques, on in-restaurant signage, at ballparks and stadiums. They really are everywhere, so much so that it’s wise to be cautious which ones you scan; fraud is real.

The use of QR codes isn’t declining, especially now that marketers are much savvier about integrating them with physical experiences in compelling ways. In 2023, over 94 million U.S. smartphone users scanned a QR code, a figure that’s only projected to increase.

How to do QR Content the Right Way

In many cases, it still makes sense to use QR codes for functional purposes, like providing access to menus, nutrition/allergen facts, short-term promotions, or real-time guest surveys. Consumers don’t have a problem using them in these ways, provided the interaction only takes a few minutes or less.

But if you’re really hoping for marketing impact, QR codes cannot be an afterthought that send consumers to a boring old webpage they could’ve found on their own—if they even wanted to. Like we said above, the best QR codes augment physical experiences, taking users to truly creative, thoughtful campaign content. Bonus points if it’s secret, localized, personal, and/or only accessible through the code.

We won’t say it’s easy to connect all the dots—it never is—but in the examples below, brands have found a way to promote their products while telling unique stories, with connected packaging as a campaign centerpiece.

WcDonald’s: Fresh Manga with a Side of Savory Chili Sauce

We’re a little obsessed with the WcDonald’s campaign, introduced by McDonald’s in its Canadian locations this past February. If you’re not familiar, WcDonald’s is a fictional restaurant popular in manga animation, and when McDonald’s was ready to launch its new savory chili dipping sauce, it embraced WcDonald’s and its manga “Crew,” enlisting a famous artist and animators to help. The resulting campaign featured original packaging artwork and a 4-episode manga series accessible via QR code on meal packaging (the weekly cadence of episode drops encouraged fans to come back to McDonald’s frequently for access). The product itself—the chili sauce—may very well be delicious, but to us, it was a perfect excuse to bring two seemingly disparate worlds together in service of fans.

Because that’s our #1 rule if you’re going to explore connected packaging: remember the humans. If connected packaging doesn’t improve or celebrate their experience in some way, it’s pointless.

Mille Lite: The “Ale Wives” Edition

America’s biggest domestic beer brands may be named after men, but in July 2022, Miller Lite reminded us that there is no American beer without women (they had to, as only 3% of beer drinkers surveyed knew that women were the first to bring beer to these shores). Through cans that featured Mary Lisle, the first American woman to own and operate a brewery, they not only helped educate drinkers on the real history of beer but also supported the Pink Boots Society in its efforts to include more women in brewing. With beautifully rendered illustrations and of course, a QR code, the collectible cans told an important story about recognition and inclusion in time for the Fourth of July.

Rule #2: Even when your QR code is serving a functional purpose (such as sending consumers to a sweepstakes entry), it has the best chance of creating engagement when it’s part of a larger campaign built on storytelling.

In Conclusion, Use a QR Code on Your Packaging IF…

You have a worthwhile experience to back it up. That’s it. That’s the post.

Ok, not quite. At the risk of sharing a *slightly controversial opinion, of course campaign metrics matter, and a QR code obviously allows you to track them. We know you simply cannot justify your investment without proving its ultimate benefit to the bottom line. BUT SOMETIMES the creativity alone is worth it.

Let’s say McDonald’s savory chili sauce was just “meh” in terms of pushing sales of chicken nuggets. The Acky Bright artwork, along with the embrace of a very special group of guests, will likely pay off other dividends down the road, paving the way for even more interesting collaborations for the brand. So yes, ideally your campaign will translate to sales and more creative credibility. But the former without the latter is temporary. Creativity, even absent sales, makes an indelible impression on hearts and minds.

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