Rarely a day goes by when the Econsultancy editorial team doesn’t receive an email or 10 updating us on an ‘innovative’ development from one brand or another. 

Usually I only glance over emails like this. But on a recent Friday afternoon I got one related to booze, and suddenly the sender had my attention. 

The message wasn’t so much about the booze itself as the bottle containing it. Specifically it was about a new type of bottle Remy Martin is launching later this year.

The bottle uses near field communication (NFC) technology, enabling drinkers to tap the lid with an NFC-enabled device and get instant access to personalised content

NFC smart bottle technology

Sounds clever. But it is really necessary? I thought I’d take a look at NFC technology on packaging to see what potential future uses it could have for marketers, and whether this idea is just another QR code waiting to happen. 

What is NFC technology?

Essentially it’s a way to transfer data between devices wirelessly without the need for an internet connection. 

Unlike Bluetooth, you don’t have to manually pair two NFC devices. In layman’s terms that means you can scan something instantly without having to faff about. 

How has it already been used in packaging?

I mentioned the Remy Martin example above. Here’s how it works: the lid contains an NFC chip, and when you open the bottle the chip is activated. 

By tapping the lid with an NFC device like an iPhone 6 the user can then find out information such as whether the bottle is genuine. The chip can also tell you when the bottle was opened so you can see if it has been resealed. 

NFC smart bottle technology
NFC smart bottle technology

This all sounds very fun and gimmicky, but hardly reflective of the ‘constant quest for innovation’ Remy Martin claims to be on. 

But the real opportunity, it claims, comes from ‘targeted and relevant communication’ to its customers because the chip remains active once the bottle is opened. 

Remy Martin describes those communications as ‘a wealth of rewards and prizes,’ which sounds more bribe-like than actually useful or relevant. 

Johnny Walker

Remy Martin isn’t the first spirits-maker to release a bottle like this. Earlier this year, whisky brand Johnny Walker unveiled its own ‘smart bottle’. 

Again, the focus seems to be on customers checking whether the bottle is genuine or not. Given that black-market booze costs the UK economy £1.2bn annually (and that’s just spirits), it’s easy to see why these brands are investing in the technology. 

Johnny Walker, like Remy Martin, claims it wants to enhance its relationship with consumers and strengthen customer loyalty through ‘a new user experience.’

According to Davor Sujita, the CEO of the company that created the bottles, “the manufacturer can engage in a conversation with a consumer that is more meaningful.”

Again, though: why is it more meaningful? Am I missing something here? I understand it makes things easier for the consumer, but could the same personalised experience not be achieved by using a manually entered unique code?

Harvey Nichols

Not quite the same as the smart bottles mentioned above because it’s more of an in-store thing, but Harvey Nichols enabled customers to use tablets to interact with products via NFC tags on shelves. 

Upon scanning the tags the customers could see content related to those products such as Pinterest pages with pictures of people wearing the items of clothing. 

NFC tags on shelves

This isn’t necessarily an example of NFC technology in packaging, but I do think it highlights one potential opportunity: showing people genuinely useful, real time information when they scan a product such as blog posts or social media content.

Doing this gives marketers another way to push their content to a very targeted audience, direct from the product itself. 

‘On the go’ products

As I mentioned above, the ease with which people can scan an NFC chip to get instant information on their phone is probably the biggest plus point. It means people can access that information quickly while on the move. 

I can see this working more from a customer service point of view. If somebody is unhappy with a product, for example, they could scan the packaging and get instant access to contact details for the right department, saving them time and hassle. 

The internet of things

We’re all aware of the internet of things now, with products becoming increasingly connected with one another. 

So where does NFC technology in packaging fit into all of this?

When people try and explain what the internet of things is they usually refer to boiling the kettle via your television or some other easily relatable activity. 

But for marketers it could mean enabling consumers to talk directly with brands via their products. When somebody scans an NFC chip on a piece of packaging that could send real-time information directly back to the manufacturer.

This kind of information could be extremely valuable to brands, as it would enable them to see what is happening to their products once they’ve left the shelves. 

Will it catch on?

The question I can’t seem to answer despite having spent the day researching the subject is: what’s the point?

The marketing fluff always seems to be along the same lines: ‘consumers want a richer experience’, ‘they want a deeper connection with brands’, ‘their needs are evolving’. 

But is this really for the consumer, or is it just another platform through which brands can peddle promotional material?

If it’s the latter then I doubt consumers will take it up with much enthusiasm.

If, on the other hand, brands can find a way to go beyond the novelty value, I’m sure there are plenty of possibilities for future use. 

I’m not 100% convinced yet, but I’ll happily take any comments from people who are.