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Sustainable Packaging: Is AR The Solution We Have Been Looking For?

by George Bennett on 09/18/2020 | 5 Minute Read

Augmented reality is, at best, an immersive piece of instant gratification, a “wow moment,” or a hugely popular interactive game. At worst, a gimmick. For years this has been the back-and-forth verdict on the technology that superimposes a virtual layer over a user’s physical experience. 

But in 2020, AR has started to come of age. We are at a point where technological development and people’s behavior have aligned in such a way that AR’s use—and usefulness—is undeniable, and brand owners must recognize these immersive technologies as an integral part of their strategy. 

The combination of reality and the virtual (as opposed to the entirely virtual immersion of virtual reality) makes AR particularly well suited to enhance the product and brand experience. When used to its full effect, it can offer the creative answer to some critical strategic principles, particularly when it comes to sustainability.

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A Compelling Solution

In packaging, the pressure to design more sustainable solutions is constant. Brands must face the challenge of reducing waste, removing layers of packaging, and encouraging shoppers to recycle and reuse, all while maintaining a meaningful brand story and experience. 

That's why a well-designed AR experience can help people engage with the brand and its sustainable credentials. A recent project from Chiquita encouraged buyers to scan a code in the brand’s iconic blue sticker that transported them into an immersive video featuring a banana plantation. It allowed users to follow the journey of the product, highlighting the brand’s provenance and efforts in sustainability, such as improving efficiency and yield to reduce environmental impact, as well as the brand’s low carbon supply chain and operations. 

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Yorkshire Tea, meanwhile, used AR to inform its customers about its ambitious campaign to plant one million trees across the UK and Kenya. It allowed families to scan full-page press ads to immerse themselves in the forests and access interactive challenges and facts.

AR can also be used to encourage people to recycle. Without the need for additional labels, it can make the process clearer or reward users who dispose of a pack correctly. The Asda Have you Herd app, for example, allowed shoppers to access AR content that explained how to recycle a milk bottle properly. The experience included in-app rewards for scanning bottle bar codes and fun facts linked to the number of bottles scanned. 

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The ability to continuously change or update AR content undoubtedly adds to its sustainability credentials. In the future, instead of re-designing the whole pack, why not support a new campaign through the AR experience around it? Free of the constraints of space and print parameters, the possibilities are endless.

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Technological Tipping Point 

Thanks to some key developments in technology and consumer perception, such creative applications can now be executed to the quality and functionality that users and brands need. The emergence of WebAR, which refers to augmented reality experiences that get accessed through a web browser rather than an app, has made AR much more user-friendly and has considerably driven adoption. 

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Of an estimated 3.5 billion smartphones globally, 2.9 billion are WebAR-enabled, so it now allows users to instantly access AR content with the click of a URL, a scan of a QR code, or by simply browsing a website. All social media platforms now feature AR content, and the advent of 5G means a huge leap in capabilities. Theoretically, 5G can be 100 times faster than 4G, supporting much better interactive experiences and streaming of high-quality 3D visuals on the go. 

These past few months of lockdown and social distancing have also played their part in accelerating the familiarity of digital technologies—from remote work set-ups to the use of QR codes in contact tracing. It has accelerated a new reality in which the physical and virtual are by necessity more intertwined.  

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Raising Ambitions – Taking the User Beyond the 2D

However, this boost in digital familiarity goes hand-in-hand with raised user expectations for high-quality content. AR, at its best, can meet and exceed these expectations through multi-layered features that truly engage customers. According to Mindshare UK, AR elicits three times more brain activity and holds 1.9 times the visual attention in users when compared to video, and can boast four times longer dwell times (ADVRTAS). Such statistics make a convincing case for AR, and brand owners should see it as part of a wider drive towards delivering 3D content and making the most of its immersive possibilities.  

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For example, Herbal Essences last year invited customers to activate an AR experience that transported them into an interactive beachscape. It highlighted the brand’s use of recycled plastic in its limited-edition bottles and encouraged awareness of recycling in its customers.

Adidas, meanwhile, harnessed AR to shine a spotlight on the global challenge of plastic waste. Via its AR app, customers could dive into a massive, plastic-filled ocean, complete with a giant blue whale, and help clear the floating rubbish. While activated in-store, and not via packaging, it was a good illustration of the technology’s immersive capabilities. And both campaigns exemplify fantastic moments of delight and interaction via AR that also convey a more nuanced narrative.

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In a future of sustainable packaging, where layers of the pack get stripped down to a minimum, where material limitations might call for more simplistic print design, and where the production of exclusive editions or customization is deemed too wasteful, digitally connected packs give brands the ability to stand out. They can convey the complex narrative that packaging might not accommodate, drive engagement both pre- and post-purchase, and build customer loyalty. 

The brands that explore AR’s potential now to create something truly engaging, with content that adds value to the experience, will undoubtedly be best placed to take advantage of this technology’s exciting potential as it increasingly becomes the norm.