Michael Duffy: The Next Evolution In Intelligent Packfronts and Design

Michael Duffy is Global Creative Director and Board Director at Equator. An Equator US co-founder, Michael drives the business from both studio and boardroom to deliver operational efficiency and creativity for clients. Splitting his time between Equator’s global studio locations, Michael develops collaborative practices across our network of studios, leveraging our under-one-roof model while harnessing global experience and insight to create outstanding value and cross-platform standout for America’s national and private brands.


The evolution of smart packaging has only just begun, and the next great innovations are closer than we think.

With pressing need for supply chain efficiency and in line with the global acceleration in digitalization of the last two years, legions of innovators have set their sights on creating the next iteration of smart packaging.

If you’ve ever had the feeling that consumers take product packaging for granted, the good news is that the rising prominence of digitalizing packaging is raising the overall profile of packaging’s essential functions; specifically, how it contributes to:

  • safe transport of consumables and prolonged longevity;
  • efficient tracking of products end-to-end – from “farm-to-fork” or from factory to the kitchen table; and
  • gaining and keeping the attention of new and repeat customers.

We could compare this with the phenomenon of empty shelves and product shortages caused by supply chain quandaries, which led to increased public awareness of the mechanics of just-in-time supply chains and the virtues of onshoring.

From this point on, we can expect smart packaging to become ever more woven into the fabric of the product development journey, from concepts and creation right down to its delivery on-shelf, generating greater awareness among end consumers as to how digitalization can enable their interaction with products and the businesses that supply them.

Smart packaging has become an umbrella term for a multitude of digital advancements. Unpacking it, as per Deloitte, we have four distinct types:

• Active. Focuses on functionality such as thermochromic, temperature, moisture or bacteria control, for improved shelf life and product integrity during storage.

• Intelligent. Allows communication via indicators/sensors inside or outside the packaging which ascertain product conditions and provide information as to status/location.

• Design-led. Improving the function and form of a product, this type of packaging design supports product value perception and enhances the user’s experience.

• Connected. Pack fronts integrating tech, including tags, QR codes or sensors, which collect third-party data and provide opportunities for consumers to interact with brands.

Although this is a broad church, collectively, the potential of smart packaging as it continues to evolve is staggering, extending far beyond giving packaging a larger foothold in the modern marketing mix. Ultimately, it will impact every consumer touchpoint and facilitate significantly improved supply chain efficiency. And today, some of the latest innovations in smart packaging are providing a glimpse of what may come further down the road.

More Sustainable

Packaging’s pathway into the future must satisfy two core objectives: providing a solution to food waste (for the benefit of the world’s growing population of 8 billion and counting) and delivering an antidote to environmentally damaging plastics. New active packaging – packaging that detects when foods are going bad and is programmed to react – may hold the keys to both challenges.

Take, for example, a recently developed scalable smart packaging solution from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and colleagues at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, which uses biodegradable corn protein, starch, and other naturally derived biopolymers and nature-inspired antimicrobials. In addition to keeping plastic pollution out of the environment, this packaging senses harmful bacteria and spoilage microorganisms inside the container and is programmed to release miniscule amounts of the antimicrobials, thereby enhancing food safety and shelf life.

Innovators are even looking at ways to improve the cardboard box, a packaging staple for more than 150 years. Smart packaging self-“healing” cardboard boxes is the vision of DS Smith, who’ve released a futuristic blueprint for a next-gen cardboard box with a built-in webbed nervous system, which they predict could become a reality by 2072 (yep, that’s 50 years down the road). Although anyone Gen X or older might not be around to see this come to fruition, the trajectory of innovation in this sector shows that a material shift towards packaging with enhanced environmental benefits is certainly on the cards.

More Personalized

With real-time information and communication enhancing customer experience and engagement, and consumer journeys growing ever more automated, connected and customized, packaging helps to deliver a more personalised experience. Brands are leveraging wide-ranging digital tech such as smart labels, QR codes, RFID tags, NFC chips and augmented reality to disrupt traditional notions of what packaging is and does, while digital advancements allow printers to deliver rapid short-run and individualised projects to make packaging itself more personalised.

One notable recent trial was OTACA Tequila’s use of near-field communication (NFC) enabled technology, which has allowed the brand to provide every customer with background data on each specific bottle purchased. Thanks to NFC tags, consumers have access to authentication and transparency information which, integrated with blockchain technology, seamlessly evidences the validity of the tequila’s origin, maps its journey and provides a digital touchpoint with full product provenance.

Similarly, last year, Coca Cola added NaviLens QR codes to its Christmas multipacks. When scanned, they give partially sighted shoppers access to important packaging information via the NaviLens app; information they would otherwise struggle to read. The codes can be detected at wide angles, when unfocused, and from up to four metres away. This is smart packaging at its best, paving the way for greater accessibility and levelling the playing field for consumers with different needs.

More Noticeable

To help them gain a competitive edge, brands will have more options to integrate advanced biometric data collection to help them pinpoint just how consumer attention is captured and how purchases are inspired.

Biometrics can illuminate just how well a pack front grabs attention, including how often and how long it is looked at within a given retail environment. The next step in focus groups, biometric research, will increasingly make use of ‘smart’ glasses, capable of tracking eye movements. When worn by participants, they feed actionable insights back to researchers about the split-second decisions participants make as they browse shelves. This provides rich data that helps to shape the eventual design that goes out to supermarket shelves!

As increasing amounts of biometric data become available to packaging designers and brand strategists, we have the potential to increase our effectiveness from the earliest stages of creation. And, given the range of smart packaging solutions now in development, the future certainly looks bright.