Blippar developed an AR application for Maybelline, allowing consumers to try on nail polish by scanning magazine ads.

First mover or fast follower? In the package design industry, choosing between these two options is often a terrifying task for even the most seasoned marketers and packaging managers. At any given time there are numerous trends in various stages of their life cycles that marketers and packaging managers must sort through. Some become mainstays; others fizzle out after brief cameos. In the coming months, our agency will examine a number of these trends — some of which will be in full swing, while others will be emerging soon. In each case, we will provide guidance as to whether you should move first, follow fast or simply wait and watch. The first such trend we’ll examine is also one of the most innovative new technologies in recent memory: augmented reality. 


In its most basic form, augmented reality (AR) is a technology that allows a person to view a physical object on the screen of a mobile device while overlaying digital information on the screen in real time (videos, promotions, games, etc.). Put differently, AR turns your smartphone into a viewing pane that opens up an interactive world around a physical object. Many types of physical objects can trigger AR experiences, and marketers have begun creating AR experiences with such items as magazine ads, movie posters and, of course, product packaging.


From our perspective there are three main challenges with this technology in its current form that may prevent its widespread adoption: (1) cumbersome user experience, (2) fragmented ownership of AR platforms, and (3) lack of value-added content.   

1. Cumbersome user experience

To activate an AR experience, a person must first download an AR application onto his or her mobile device. The application must be opened; the mobile device must be aimed at the physical object, and only then does the digital information begin to unfold interactively on the screen. Unlike other emerging technologies that are preloaded into most mobile devices, the added step of downloading a third-party application may limit the market for this technology in the short term. Notably, this is a problem that has plagued a number of new technologies, with the most prominent being quick response codes (QR codes). While QR codes are widely used on packaging and generally recognized by consumers, they have shown mixed results when it comes to consumer adoption. Studies show that most consumers have been exposed to QR codes, but less than one in five have ever activated one. Clearly, there are many reasons for this relatively poor adoption. However, it’s important to note that none of the major smartphone platforms have QR code scanners preloaded, and in fact, there are many QR code scanners on the market. In order to scan a QR code, a consumer must choose among one of many QR code scanners, download that scanner, open the scanner, and only then can he or she actually scan the QR code. This cumbersome process has plagued the QR code experience, and it poses the same problems for the AR experience as well. 

2. Fragmented ownership of AR platforms

There are currently dozens of AR applications on the market, and each of these unlock AR experiences for different brands. A consumer might be enticed to download an AR application for branded product X, but that application may not unlock another AR experience for branded product Y. As such, this fragmentation of the market and lack of one dominant AR platform are somewhat confusing and add a level of complexity to the consumer experience. As part of our research for this article, we spoke with Lisa Hu, VP of Business Development for Blippar, a U.K. startup that recently launched one of the most prominent AR platforms on the market. Like many of its competitors, “Blippar hopes to become a household name and have its AR application become the industry standard through rich, value-added content,” according to Hu. While that may be the case one day, right now there are many AR platforms and many AR applications, and that fragmentation further complicates this technology for consumers. With all that said, there is one potential development that may force a consolidation in this industry, and perhaps revolutionize the AR world altogether: Google Glass, a wearable computer with an optical head-mounted display. The current price point is $1,500, and it is only available to a limited group of developers, but there is speculation that it will be widely released as early as the end of this year with a price as low as $299. Needless to say, if and when this technology is widely adopted, the world of AR will be changed forever (and in ways that are impossible to predict), and the fragmentation of the market may be a thing of the past.  

3. Lack of value-added content

As a general matter, when savvy marketers experiment with cutting-edge technologies, an interesting phenomenon occurs. Marketers seem to become enamored with the idea of introducing the technology and consumed with the integration process, while the content and consumer experience is often an afterthought. AR is undoubtedly a mind-blowing technology that is straight out of an episode of “The Jetsons,” but consumers will grow tired of the experience if they are not engaged with targeted and value-added content. Simply put, the content should drive the implementation of the technology — not the other way around. This being said, the phenomenon is already rearing its ugly head in the early adoption of AR technology by first-moving marketers. Examples of uninspired AR content include promotional videos (particularly if they are separately available online) and animated 3D product renderings (particularly if there are no interactive features). Even though these examples work well to demonstrate the technology, they are not targeted or compelling when standing alone.


As noted above, value-added content is an absolute must if your team is considering an investment in an AR experience for your brand. One strategy for creating compelling content is to identify a consumer problem or need (specific to your brand, of course) that can be addressed with AR technology. While not specific to the package design context, some examples of quality AR content come from the marketers at two of the most prominent brands in the world: IKEA and L’Oréal.  

One problem historically faced by IKEA’s marketers has been product returns resulting from ill-fitting furniture. To address that problem, IKEA turned to AR. IKEA developed an AR application that generates color- and size-accurate pieces of virtual furniture to be placed around the house. The application superimposes digital models of IKEA’s furniture over real-time images of your home’s interior. A consumer can look at his or her room through a mobile device and see whether a piece of furniture fits. Is it the right size? The right color? The goal is to help the consumer properly match a piece of furniture for his or her home, and at the same time reduce the number of purchases returned due to mistakes in estimating room sizes and layouts.

Similarly, L’Oréal’s Maybelline brand identified another customer pain point and approached it with an AR application. How can a customer know what a shade of nail polish will look like when it’s applied to her nails? To address that problem, Maybelline created an AR application that was triggered by a series of full-page magazine ads. First, the consumer was required to download an AR application developed by Blippar. After opening the application, the consumer would then aim the mobile device at the magazine ad to activate the AR functionality. After recognizing the image, the screen showed a spinning circle of all of Maybelline’s new nail colors. The consumer could try on one or more nail colors by taking a picture of her hand, lining up her fingers with an outline on the screen, and scaling the virtual nails to get the right fit. Moreover, like many of its competitors, Blippar provided detailed analytics relating to the usage of the application, sharing via social media and even geotargeting data. Among other things, the marketers “were able to identify the most popular colors and break down time spent across each color,” says Hu. 


Though still in its infancy, AR is a transcendent technology that has the potential to revolutionize the consumer experience. At a minimun, you should be monitoring the development of this technology, familiarizing yourself with the key industry players and tracking its use in the marketplace. While a discussion about Google Glass is beyond the scope of this article, you should be paying particularly close attention to its progress, as it has the potential to completely revolutionize the AR landscape (and much sooner than you might expect). At this stage, it may be worthwhile to dip your toes in the water with short-run or seasonal packaging to become acquainted with the integration process and the many benefits that it can introduce (unique consumer insights, social media buzz and other earned media, among others). Alternatively, if you are able to incorporate AR into your packaging with truly value-added content, it may well be time to jump in head first. As of this writing, the best examples of this technology come in contexts unrelated to package design (see the IKEA and L’Oréal examples above). At some point, however, a truly remarkable AR experience will arrive in the packaging context, and when it does, it will be built around value-added content. If you can identify that type of content and you can commit to the integration process, it might be time to jump in.