It’s not easy to articulate a takeaway message from the IDEAlliance INKredible event in a few words—a conference program as diversified as this one was pushes back against brevity. But, speaker Michael Chase of St. Joseph Communications came close when he observed, “Ink is no longer simple droplets on a page. It makes music, lights up the night and can even be a snack. Print in a digital world connects on an emotive level in ways that weren’t possible before.”

INKredible was all about reasserting print’s place in a marketing mix that is becoming increasingly mobile, interactive, and virtual. The unifying theme of the presentations was that print can be all of these things by acting as a portal to the digital world. In combination with other channels, print enables and enhances the digital experience—a point missed by marketers when they forget to include print in their definition of “media.”

The INKredible keynoters offered a full day’s worth of examples that showed how the fusion of print and digital empowers brands, engages audiences, and sells products. As the following recaps indicate, packaging was well represented in INKredible’s salute to print’s place at the table in the omnichannel environment.

Part of Tod Szewczyk’s role at the Leo Burnett agency is to keep clients and friends up to date on emerging technologies that can be used as channels for brand promotion. He told the INKredible audience that although mobile devices have become the primary portals to the “discoverable world” of interactive brand experiences, printed materials—including packaging—can serve the same purpose.

Among his examples was the wrapper surrounding KitKat candy bars, made interactive with the help of Blippar’s augmented reality (AR) technology. Blippar, said Szewczyk, has indexed 500 million images of objects in the real world that can be recognized by mobile devices containing the Blippar AR app. Scanning a Blippar-indexed product image triggers an interactive engagement between the product and the mobile user—in KitKat’s case, a link to additional nutrition facts about the candy.

Near field communication (NFC) technology is another way to bring packaged goods and consumers closer together in brand experiences, Szewczyk said. In one such application, NFC tags in labels on bottles of Johnnie Walker Blue Label whiskey act as sensors that determine product integrity. By touching the label with an NFC-enabled smart phone, the consumer can verify that the spirit inside the bottle is the authentic, super-premium Blue Label brand. The NFC link also reveals whether the bottle’s seal is intact or has been broken.

Electronic and digital technologies can be used to make packaging fun as well as functional, Szewczyk noted. Touching a pressure-sensitive switch embedded in the label on a bottle of Oculto beer turns on LEDs that light up the bottle from within. Pizza Hut’s “playable DJ pizza box” has components that turn the printed cardboard into a DJ turntable when synced via Bluetooth to a smart phone or a computer running DJ software. KFC’s limited-edition “Watt a Box” has a built-in power bank and a USB cord that let customers recharge their devices while they eat.

sgsco Americas is part of an international network of companies that offer creative, marketing, and supply-chain solutions for branded packaging. Mike Grady, associate director of global business development, briefed INKredible on interactive “smart” packaging and related technologies that facilitate consumer engagement.

He said that packages should be counted among the “new media” because of their ability to serve as gateways to virtual content. According to Grady, consumers—particularly Millennials—want as much information as they can get both from the text and graphics they see in on-package “real estate” and from the interactive experiences that packaging combined with non-print technologies can give them.

One way Absolut vodka delivers information and engagement is by fitting bottles with neck tags that can be identified by the visual recognition feature of the Shazam music discovery app. Pointing a Shazam-enabled smart phone at the tag delivers content such as videos that teach how to mix cocktails. In another neck tag experiment, Malibu rum worked with a U.K. supermarket chain to put NFC-activated tags on bottles as gateways to promotional content.

Grady said that one of the smartest things that a smart package can do is to make information about its product more transparent and accessible. A simple approach is the use of QR codes on packages from manufacturers taking part in the SmartLabel project, an initiative aimed at creating direct channels to detailed information about packaged foods and other household products.

A more technically sophisticated solution for sharing information that package real estate doesn’t have room for is Digimarc’s updating of the traditional and ubiquitous 2D product barcode. Calling the technique digital watermarking, Digimarc invisibly incorporates barcode information in graphics across the entire surface of the package instead of confining it to a single space.

This creates containers that not only scan rapidly at checkout but also connect shoppers to interactive content via their smart phones. Grady noted that the Wegman’s supermarket chain is adding Digimarc’s version of the barcode to the packaging for its private-label brands.

Jean-Charles Morisseau is chairman of the Diadeis Group, a provider of design and premedia services for branded products. He spoke to INKredible about the connection—unrecognized by many brands—between packaging prepress and the quality of the online shopping experience.

According to Morisseau, that experience often is frustrating for shoppers because of the inaccurate product information they find at e-commerce sites. He said that web sites can be full of misleading details, unrepresentative images, and other mistakes that either kill sales or cause shoppers to order things that turn out to be not what they wanted or thought they were going to get. The problem intensifies for products advertised on multiple web sites over which manufacturers and brand owners have no control.

The solution, said Morisseau, is “just print”: the text and graphics on the packages in which the products are sent to market. The prepress data that defines packaging print is the gold standard because it has to be accurate—if it weren’t 100% vetted and approved, it wouldn’t have been permitted to appear on the package in the first place.

This is the data set—“your single source of truth”—that should be replicated in every e-commerce location where the product is offered for sale, Morisseau said. In the case of new products, the prepress data is available to use up to 25 weeks prior to launch.  

Diadeis has developed a five-step plan for making data from packaging prepress the basis of content for e-commerce sites. It begins, Morisseau said, with establishing a reliable digital asset management system as a central repository. Next, procedures are put in place to insure that only this data will be used to create e-commerce materials. By following these guidelines, Morisseau said, brand owners can syndicate words and pictures about their products with confidence.

Rob Wallace, founder of the Best of Breed Branding Consortium, emphasized the role of packaging in his presentation on building a bridge back to print from the omnichannel world in which brand marketing now takes place. Packaging design is crucial to the success of branding, he said, because all consumers engage with packages at “the moment of truth”—the encounter with products at retail, where 70% of all purchasing decisions occur. 

The ROI to brand owners from these encounters is impressive. Wallace said that when packaging design is “truly synthesized” with other omnichannel efforts, it pays back $7.21 for every $1 spent on it—significantly higher than the ROI for display media, linear TV (i.e., programming watched when scheduled), mobile channels, digital video, magazines, and cross media.