The Drinktec exhibition is taking place across all of this week in Munich. To coincide with the event, just-drinks' management briefing this month takes a look at the drinks packaging category. Part one considers what trends can be picked out.

Drinks packaging design has always been about communicating with consumers – whether it is attempting to broadcast a brand image or to deliver information. With new technologies aiding communication in many ways, interaction is a key theme with international beverage packaging designers today. Producers are increasingly using packaging not only to protect the quality of their products, but also to distinguish their brands from competitors by interacting with consumers through such tools as smartphone technology and colour-changing dyes. They are also looking to easy-to-use features to create particular drinking experiences with target consumers.

Critically, beverage packaging is offering a way for manufacturers to interact with consumers digitally. "Our consumers are increasingly online, and we are focusing on utilising digital platforms and social media as part of our strategy to share our brand experiences," said Miguel Daves, a spokesperson for Anheuser-Busch InBev. For instance his company's 'Track Your Bud' application in the US allows consumers to scan a bottle’s QR code with a smartphone and identify in which brewery a drink was made and who was the relevant brewmaster. Similarly, Nestlé Waters uses QR codes to deliver more information, such as tips on healthy hydration, on limited bottle space.

Beverage producers are also increasingly turning to packaging effects such as temperature-activated, colour-changing dyes that can indicate, for example, if a beverage is cold enough to drink. Thermochromic - or temperature-activated - ink was recently used by US brand HiBall energy drinks on its cans (it portrays bubbles that change from white to blue at around 7.2C), Tuaca Liqueur (for a limited edition bottle of the vanilla citrus drink) featuring a lion design that changes from silver to blue at 8C, and A-B InBev’s Busch Light beer (a design of a thermometer changes from white to blue on bottles and cans at around 8C to 9C).

The technology in all of the above packaging was supplied by Colorado-based Chromatic Technologies Inc (CTI), a company that also offers photochromic ink to manufacturers that instantly changes colour in sunlight and could be used to make beverages look appealing in an outdoor setting. "It could potentially show up in the drinks industry," says Pat Edson, the company's chief marketing officer.

One of CTI's latest innovations is a hybrid of these two inks: When the beverage warms, it will change into one colour and when it reaches sunlight, it changes into another. "We think it's going to be huge potential and a huge consumer advantage for someone in beverages," says Edson.

Meanwhile, global can maker Rexam, headquartered in London, launched thermochromic printed can ends and a photochromic ink earlier this year. According to a company communiqué, the use of these inks is "tapping into a trend that focuses on interactivity between the consumer, the drinking occasion and the brand."

The importance of quality of graphics on beverage packaging is growing among brands, according to Neill Mitchell, VP of marketing and strategic development for US-based Crown Holdings beverage packaging in North America. "We have also been seeing an increased focus on graphics to individualise products and reach a specific, targeted audience," he says. Eye-catching designs can help consumers identify with a brand, Mitchell believes, especially if they relate to the brand's image; for example, consumers often choose locally-made or branded products over national or generic versions.

"The innovation that allows the package to have more than just information, but some kind of attractive feature that allows people to interact with (the product) ... those are things that I could see trending to the future," says Susan Duncan, professor in food science and technology at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech).

Such innovations in communication are all about focusing on users, and this concern is fuelling innovations that use packaging to promote convenience to consumers, says Clair Hicks, professor of food science at the University of Kentucky: "That's one trend we're going to see continue."

Convenience, such as the ability to drink straight from the package and reseal, is important as consumers increasingly buy beverages for on-the-go, says Libby Costin, global portfolio marketing director of Switzerland-based packaging giant Tetra Pak. The ease of using the package is especially important as populations in various markets age, especially in the developed world. For example, Tetra Pak's HeliCap 27 is a screw cap whose height and ridged design "offers ease of use for elderly consumers and those who have difficulty gripping," says Costin.

A-B InBev has explored similar innovation in the past few years. "We estimate that approximately 7% of our volume growth in 2012 was attributable to innovation and renovation initiatives," says Daves. For a company this large, this matters: in the same year, the company reported US$39.8bn in total sales.

One innovative product that the company launched last year was the Brahma Copaço can in Brazil (through its Brazilian subsidiary AmBev), where the entire top of the can is removable, turning the can into a cup. Then, in May, it introduced a Budweiser bowtie-shaped aluminium can that is ergonomically designed to make it easier to hold. These products are "making it easy and effortless to enjoy our products," says Daves.

Meanwhile, with consumers also increasingly interested in environmental concerns, the need to make packaging more sustainable continues to be a key driver of innovation within beverage companies.

Brands such as Germany-based Ocóo's Beauty Nectar and Belgium-based Mixed Ape Drinks have used Rexam's 100% recyclable, lightweight, shatterproof aluminium bottle with a resealable twist cap. In addition to its touted environmental benefits, the bottle, which won the gold award at the Sayers Publishing Group's (SPG) Cans of the Year awards in 2011, can also be covered in colourful designs, according to a Rexam note. Last year, Rexam launched a 'FUSION Contour' bottle, which has the same sustainability feature as its predecessor but is hour-glass shaped.

Of course, sustainability also helps the bottom line. A-B InBev's latest lightweight bottles for its Beck’s brand in the UK weigh 11% less than the original, says Daves. The company predicts it will save about 2,500 tonnes of glass and almost 2,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions from production this year because of this redesign, introduced last December.

Meanwhile, Stella Artois' lightweight bottles in the UK now weigh 7% less, cutting the company’s carbon dioxide emissions by 7% - an important consideration in the EU where carbon permits have to be bought through the European Emissions Trading System (ETS). But, it makes good business sense elsewhere too. In Brazil last year, the company introduced 50m bottles made of 100% recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET) for its soft drink Guaraná Antarctica. The bottles require 70% less energy and 70% less carbon emissions to manufacture than with the previous design.

For part two of this briefing, click here.