Near field communication (NFC) technology, a subset of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), has been around for going on two decades now. Packagers have eyed NFC tags as having the potential to extend their brand and product messaging, since unlike the parent RFID technology, no special reader hardware is required for the system to work. An NFC-enabled device acts as both a reader and a tag.
But price and accessibility were initial obstacles to widespread NFC adoption. Over the years, some variation of Moore’s Law has predictably chipped away at price, though some experts say we’re now on the flattening side of the curve where the price probably won’t drop a whole lot more. Maybe more importantly, iPhone’s 2018 adoption of NFC-reading capabilities as standard to the operating system destroyed the accessibility hurdle. Android phones already were NFC-friendly, so now virtually every American is addicted to an NFC-ready device. This move by Apple was the tipping point where converters began to deem NFC market-ready for labels.
The floodgates haven’t exactly swung open in terms of adoption, but the barriers to entry are much lower for NFC-curious brands. Products like liquor (see this article on a high-end whisky’s NFC journey) and cosmetics, which carry a high price per product relative to their packaging costs, are the target market. The per-unit price of NFC labels can be buried in the steeper cost of the product, without eating away at margin. One expert says that labeling cost should be at or less than 1% of the value of the product for the NFC fit to be a good one. While that might not describe everyone, the market isn’t tiny, either.
First foray into NFC
Société Clinical Skincare is one such cosmetics and personal care NFC pioneer. The company’s creams and serums are designed to help minimize the appearance of aging, hyperpigmentation, rosacea, acne, and sun damage. It also carries specialty lines of therapeutic products designed to be recommended by dermatologists or physicians for assisting in healing skin after certain medical procedures.
The most common conception of a typical NFC label application is of an in-store retail experience—a consumer tapping a phone to a liquor bottle in order to cue a brand story, special offer, or upbeat video, for instance. Simply by having NFC capability, some sophisticated and premium brand cues are conveyed. Still, Société is coming at the technology from a different angle.
“We're a medical-grade skincare line,” says Brian Starrett, Managing Partner at Société. “We are a B2B business, so we're not on retail shelves. We’re selling to dermatologists, plastic surgeons, estheticians, and other people in the professional marketplace who are then using our products in their practices to deliver exceptional results for their patients.”
Société products are used in the treatment rooms, then are sent home with patients to improve the results of the treatments they're getting. The zero moment of truth in purchasing this product comes from the doctor’s recommendation, not from a nifty NFC experience in an aisle (or in this case, waiting room). Instead, the value of NFC capability comes in the ensuing, post-purchase weeks, as the consumer gets the product home and begins using it. In pharmaceutical circles, this might be called adherence, but for brands more widely, it can be called engagement.
“Being B2B, we get to talk to that skincare professional—the esthetician, the dermatologist—the person who’s recommending our product to that end user. But it's ultimately the end user who is going to dictate the success of our products,” Starrett says. “So the number one challenge that we face is really making sure that that end user understands the protocol that they need to adhere to in order to have the best success. And that's where this NFC label has come in. It allows us to interact on a one-to-one basis with an end user in a way that we never have before.”
The NFC-enabled RFID inlay that Société partners selected is indeed one that can be read by tapping a smartphone to the spot indicated on the product's label. These tags are placed behind the label to avoid using valuable branding space.
Société turned to Avery Dennison, the only supplier from which a full construction, including both the RFID inlay and pressure-sensitive label, can be ordered. Société sourced its Avery Dennison NFC label technology through label converter WS Label.
“The NFC tag is added to the label at the labeler,” Starrett says. “From a process standpoint, it should be seamless to go from traditional to NFC label for this application.”
The skincare product carrying the NFC label will be packaged at a co-packing facility in a 50-mL airless plastic container with a pump dispenser and a silver matte cap. The container system is from TricorBraun.
Prepare for content creation
At presstime, Société is rolling out its first beta test of an NFC-enabled label. Instead of adding the feature to an existing SKU, the new capability coincides with the launch of an all-new product line. This was quite intentional.
“It’s a Vitamin D product that has a lot of great benefits for the skin,” Starrett says. “We realized that we're going to be creating all of this new marketing literature out there anyway, why don't we then couple that with this new NFC label that we haven't seen in our marketplace yet?”
This was an important insight—if you’re going to go the NFC route, you need to create the content to feed it. Realizing there was going to be a volume of new content developed for the new product anyhow, Starrett was able to build the NFC content into the new marketing material content creation plan.
“We will have specific NFC content created for this launch,” Starrett says. “Originally it was stuff that we were doing anyway, but now that we've embraced this technology, we're taking it to the next level and making it more robust. Whereas before we might have done a poster with some of the products, benefits, and how-tos, we decided to go the extra mile. Instead of just creating a print piece, we decided to create 30-, 60-, and 90-second videos with one of our educators actually demonstrating the product and how to use it, and talking about the benefits. All of this content is accessible to the consumer just by tapping their phones to the indicated spot on the label.”
For this beta test launch, the suite of content Société has prepared for the NFC tag includes a slide show overviewing product benefits, plus a minute-long video. But a successful launch will mean creating a catalog of content and some parameters as to when to serve it up. While the Société team created the content, the company works with WS Labels to create the architecture on the back end. This dictates which piece of content gets served up after how many taps and after how much time.
“That architecture is basically an if-then statement,” he says. “That architecture is set before the product ever launches.”
More generally, making the jump to NFC is helping—or forcing—Société to take its marketing to a higher level and fully take advantage of the technology that's embedded within the NFC tag. Starrett advises other brand owners looking into this technology to be ready.
What’s more, although the content creation can end there, it doesn’t have to. Brands using NFC labels have the ability to mold messages over time. In the olden days of RFID, the content associated with each tag was fixed—brand owners just created static content, sent it off into the world within the RFID tag, and hoped it did its thing to good effect. But NFC allows for the message to be altered over time or tailored to the end user depending on their use habits.
“These things are so interactive now,” Starrett says. “You can always change what that message is to the end user. It's really cool. And you can also change it based upon the number of times the customer or the end user accesses the technology. You can set it up so that each time a consumer taps their phone to the package, you can change from a short video clip, to a slide show presentation, to instructions for use—whatever you’d like.”
Data generation and potential pitfalls
Data about each consumer interaction with an NFC tag could be collected and stored by a brand owner. As such, messages could potentially be crafted based on each consumer’s behavior. Have they not tapped their phone to the product in a few months, but suddenly they’re back? Maybe a welcome back message is in order. Or, perhaps a past-expiry date warning could be used, if appropriate. From a brand owner’s perspective, data collection based on consumer interaction with the NFC, could be revealing.
For instance, Starrett sees potential for ‘step-up’ products, where there’s an entry-level product, then a more powerful product in the same category. If a consumer is happy enough with a certain entry-level product and continues tapping after a certain amount of time, an NFC message could be triggered to gently suggest the full-strength version. Still, Starrett is careful not to bite off more than he can chew. Also, the healthcare space is more sensitive than most when it comes to personal information.
“If I were in a different marketplace, channel, or trade, I could see how you could use this data in a really powerful way for remarketing, behavior analysis, and some other things,” he says. “We just are not choosing to go that route. It might be something where we would share with the professional partner, but it's not something we're going to act on ourselves.”
Professional partners could potentially use NFC engagement data, both to sharpen their own education practices while patients are still the office and to predict how patients will behave once they go home. But even without the use of NFC engagement data, professional partners like dermatologists and estheticians benefit from proper use reinforcement after patients leave the office, and it’s something none of Société’s competitors can offer. Proper usage education for skincare products is directly related to outcomes, after all, and Société’s professional partners are ultimately judged on patient outcomes.
What does success look like?
“The number one thing that we want to know is whether the end user is actually going to take the time to tap the label. Are people really using the technology?” Starrett asks. “And that's another reason we decided to do it on a new product instead of trying to put it into some of our existing product lines. Only because we don't know yet, we’re starting fresh. We’ll see results on this trial, then try to improve on those results.”
There’s no defined success metric yet, much less a prediction of how many customers will interact with the NFC tag. But the idea is to be able to take that percentage of interactions, whatever the number might be, back to the medical professionals and estheticians and show them that a certain percentage of people engaged. This NFC engagement thus simultaneously serves as brand building for Société and as adherence insurance for the dermatologists looking out for their patients.
“That's something that they're getting from our brand that they're not getting from the other competitors. So we can tell our medical professional customers, ‘You've got engagement by your end user, which is just another reason why Société is helping you get the best results for your patient.’ And it gives us a leg up on our competition,” Starrett says.
“I'd be lying if I said we had it all figured out,” he adds. “But the reality is I think the technology is super cool. And I think there's a way to make it work and really deliver some education to the end user that they may not be getting now. We think we're going to be first to market with this technology in our category. So, for us, it's a way to potentially differentiate ourselves from the competition.”