What Packaging Will Soon Know
5/1/2023 New Paths Design Article

What Packaging Will Soon Know

The "GS1 Digital Link" is to replace or supplement both EAN and QR codes as a new standard for labeling products. Packaging manufacturers are promoting the flexibility and wealth of information provided by the format. The first applications exist, including for recyclers, and regular operation is planned for 2028.

The GS1 Digital Link Standard connects the GS1 Idente - such as a GTIN - with the web. With this new standard, different information about a physical unit can be flexibly made available via a single link. The GS1 Digital Link Standard connects the GS1 Idente - such as a GTIN - with the web. With this new standard, different information about a physical unit can be flexibly made available via a single link.

The bar code is losing its significance. At least that's what one of the inventors, the standardization service provider GS1, which is supported by various trade associations, says: "2D code as the new standard instead of bar code," it advertised the new "GS1 Digital Link" standard in February 2022. It looks like a QR code - and is one, but according to the GS1 standard.

The idea is that anyone can read different information from one and the same "Digital Link. Claudia Rivinius, Marketing Director of packaging manufacturer STI Group, cited 15 real-world use cases during a webcast in March 2023. Among them:

  • Information for customers (links to ingredients, allergens, recipes),
  • Marketing opportunities (links to feedback pages, loyalty points), 
  • After-sales services (links to registrations, warranties, care requirements), 
  • Advice for distributors (links to product training, technical data, availability), 
  • Information on safety (anti-theft protection, sales locks for expired or recalled batches)
  • Information about the packaging itself (recyclability, components). 
    And, of course, the cash register learns the price.

Automatic voice recognition

The code is printed in exactly the same way as previous EAN barcodes, nothing has to be embossed or glued on, and the "Digital Link" doesn't take up any more space - which means packaging manufacturers like STI Group can already use the code. Claudia Rivinius therefore promotes the advantages: Depending on the browser language in the reading smartphone, information can be played out in appropriate languages, content can be adapted to day and time, retailers receive information about customers and their buying behavior. And if the code (invisible to the human eye) is integrated into the packaging itself, machine eyes can also recognize fragments of the material and ship them to the right recycling channel.

Start slowly

It is not necessary to use all 15 application possibilities right away, emphasizes Ilka Machemer, Senior Manager ID & DC at GS1 Germany: The start is possible with one or a few use cases, and later more can be added successively. As an example, she mentions a large fashion retailer that is initially using the code exclusively for customer loyalty ("consumer engagement"). In addition to consumer engagement, a soft drink bottler also provides information on the reuse and sorting of returnable glass bottles, and a fashion manufacturer uses the code to digitize production facilities. The original function of the barcode - to provide the price digitally - is only planned for later.

There are service providers for the technical provision of the information, for example Goods Tag from Berlin.It offers a "smart products cloud platform" that "transforms physical products and packaging into unique digital communication channels," according to its marketing self-description. 

And why all this? Because customers want it that way: "For a long time, customers were primarily interested in price when buying consumer goods," writes GS1 Germany. In the meantime, the need for information has broadened. "To meet this [...], companies today often apply additional data carriers, such as QR codes, to product packaging. Both for the consumer and at the checkout, this can lead to confusion." That's why a new standard is designed to clearly signal to all interested parties where the information hare is headed.

So in the future, product packaging will carry something like a virtual information cloud via the "GS1 Digital Link." Or, as Dominique Elsen of Goods Tag puts it, "Soon you'll be surprised when you hold your smartphone up to a product and nothing happens." Ideally, this will then also apply to packaging manufacturers and recyclers.