Smart labels – taking consumer-brand relationship to the next level

Avery Dennison’s new DirectLink technology incorporates NFC to send messages directly from the label to the consumers’ smartphone

Labels, one of the most essential markets for industrial printing, keeps on innovating and therefore maintaining the interest of brand owners and the consumers. Traditionally in the past, labels conveyed straight forward product information or a marketing message. With the emergence of smart labels incomparably more can be revealed, communicated, fed back, and, finally, sold.

By Peter Buttiens



What makes a label “smart”

What is it exactly that makes a label “smart”? Throughout the last few years we have seen the successful application of RFID integration and recently, increasingly, NFC (near field communication). The initial concept of providing a link to product price or simple description is currently being extended by combining a NFC-ready substrate with a smartphone app which will offer a whole spectrum of digital engagement opportunities like videos, ratings, reviews, loyalty programs and gamification.

Data collecting tools

Simultaneously, on the other side, the consumers open up a world of data for the brands which will collect, analyse and use the data in even more personalised campaigns. This includes information about demographics, location, history of likes or social shares. The data can be collected on individual products and across entire product lines or in synergy with related accessories, enabling the consumer to make optimal purchasing decisions.

Where to find them

Where would we see these smart labels? Premium items which require certain amount of reflection before the buying decision is made, are an easy target. The market for exclusive wines, spirits and also increasingly beers and coffees leaves the door wide open for assisting the customer in finding the right product (gift) for the right occasion. Brand marketing can also appeal to children. Smart labels on chocolate spreads, peanut butters, yoghurts or breakfast cereals are perfect carriers for stories, games and play & learn ideas which raise the top-of-mind awareness among the youngest recipients.

Intelligent label embedded in the inside layer of the lidding film, by Insignia Technologies. Once the package is opened the label begins timing, corresponding with a colour change


Brand protection and anti-counterfeiting

In addition to information exchange and marketing purposes, near field communication (NFC) can also be applied for brand anti-counterfeiting or brand protection. This year, Xerox unveiled labels for counterfeit detection, developed with ThinFilm’s proprietary printed memory, the only printed, rewritable memory commercially available so far. A unique, encrypted code is added to the memory and can only be read by authorised personnel using a reader which interfaces with a secure smartphone application. Such a combination of printed memory with an encrypted printed code creates one of the most secure ­anti-counterfeit solutions on the market.

Printed sensors for any package

Consumers can also use smart labels to validate the authenticity of a product. In general, labels containing printed sensors can be attached to any package, even one that will bend and will be exposed to various climate or transportation conditions. With sensors printed on smart labels, producers can check temperature to prevent spoilage and monitor freshness, and this for a fraction of the cost of silicone sensors. The degree of freshness is identified through indications, such as a change in colour or texture, and detection of temperature fluctuations, microorganisms or moisture. By attaching sensors to a variety of packaging which previously had no way of being tracked in real time, we are contributing to the reduction of food waste. Smart labels with RFID sensors enable proper distribution of food in supply chain management. In the past, logistics companies may have applied an RFID tag to a shipping crate with small, perishable products like medicine, yoghurt or meat. With smart labels, tracking can be performed at the individual item level by attaching the label on every single product. This allows companies to get more precise insights other than just from the shipping container level. New opportunities in the market have just opened – what needs to follow are uniform standards for the form and other label parameters.

A growth area for integrating printing

Healthcare will be another growth area for integrated print solutions, and diagnostic kits are only one application. Smart labels can track the usage and disposal of pharmaceuticals, and help control inventory. Attached to clothing, they are able to check body temperature, dampness of bandages or adult diapers – a technology support in assisted living scenarios. Even the future of textile labels could be up for the next innovation stage with systems that recognise the matching washing programme, temperature or their history counted in washing cycles. Additional information collected in this way will deliver an indication on service life and will help to avoid mixing pieces of clothing during washing.

Printing, screen and inkjet, is already at home in bio-medical applications. More and more over-the-counter medical test kits are enabled with the cheaper print production and marketed for quick self-diagnostics. Sensors that are printed directly on stretchable textile, control devices and rehabilitation equipment not only facilitates disease treatment but can also provide additional and precise data to e.g. insurance companies. Healthcare as an industry is eager to embrace new possibilities which was reflected in several speeches during ESMA’s latest AFIP (Advanced Functional & Industrial Printing) conference. The variety of printed diagnostic tools in development includes testing for diabetes or even cancer.

At the AFIP conference, Quad Industries showed their example of a temperature logging label which helps to monitor blood bags in transport and ensures that they don’t overheat. The entire “smart” label is produced in-house with a printed battery, circuit and antenna combined with a microchip. A hybrid of screen and digital printing resulted in low cost, disposable electronics. A similarly successful business case was presented by the Dutch Holst Centre which assisted several pharmaceutical companies in introducing smart blisters – pill packaging that stores information when a capsule is broken and the medicine is taken. All these new printed devices connect the world of printing with the drive of big data collection.

A lucrative market

To conclude, it is worth pointing out the lucrativeness of the smart label business. Following the estimates of “Printed Electronics Today”, this market segment will grow from its current modest adoption phase to USD 15 billion by 2020. Considering the blood glucose test strip market is already worth USD 5 billion a year, it is safe to assume that interactive labels and tags will become the first point of entry for electronic, smart packaging or for smart consumption at large.

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