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Two ways of holding things are being reinvented into key components of emerging marketing channels.

Goodbye, wallets and product boxes. Hello, digital wallets and smart packaging.

In recent discussions with two chief technology officers (CTOs) pioneering these avenues, it’s clear these technologies are reaching the point where marketers and advertisers will  have to include them alongside such common channels as email, digital ads, viral campaigns, and TV.

Marketers already know about digital wallets like Apple’s Passbook — now called Wallet — and Google Wallet, with its new cousin Android Pay.

John Haro, CTO of mobile marketer Vibes, pointed out to me recently that beyond facilitating digital payments, these wallets provide crucial marketing opportunities. His company, for instance, has conducted over 2000 mobile wallet campaigns, and develops approaches like “wallet strategies.”

Digital wallets are the end point of the user flow for discount coupons, loyalty cards, and boarding passes. This makes them an essential component for coupons sent through emails, many of which are now read on mobile devices. Saving the coupon to the digital wallet for later use is easier than, say, printing it out or saving it elsewhere.

But email is not the only starting point. Coupons and other marketing offers can follow the path of a Twitter link to wallet, text message link to wallet, mobile web page to wallet, or app to wallet. Notice the one consistent component of those paths.

Of course, a coupon lives among others in the wallet, so at the very least marketers need to keep in mind the competitive company they keep. Simplicity of offers and of coupon or loyalty card designs may result in better redemption rates.

The real-world equivalent

Coupons and loyalty cards can be sparked to life in certain contexts, like triggering a notification to the user when a specific geo-location is reached. This trigger doesn’t have to be as general as the latitude/longitude of a store location, however. If beacons are present in a store, notifications can be as specific as the video game aisle where you’re standing.

Plus, Google Now and similar personal agents know more about you than most of your friends, adding additional possibilities for contextual triggers.

Marketers have access to elaborate data-driven systems for tracking you around the Web and in apps, hoping to direct the right appeal to you at the right time in your virtual journey.

Digital wallets are becoming the real-world equivalent, except in this case, you’ve already accepted the idea of the discount or loyalty benefit, and you may well redeem it when you hit the right place, time, or conditions in the real world.

This means that the growth of digital wallets is now taking place on parallel, but potentially divergent, paths.

Digital wallets are the vibrant end point of the coupon and loyalty card channel, plus they are participants in digital payments via near field communication (NFC).

But just as importantly, it appears they can flourish as the former even if the latter never takes hold. Haro, among others, thinks paying with a tap of your smartphone to a retailer’s terminal will eventually replace paying with credit cards, especially given that the new readers for EMV chip-based credit cards, which every store will have, also read NFC.

I’m skeptical, since paying with plastic credit cards is not onerous enough for me to want to switch, nor can digital wallets promise to make my life much simpler or better, the way switches to other new paradigms have.

The emerging box channel

But it may not matter. Whether or not digital payment takes hold, digital wallets have a career as the key component of a real-world targeting channel. The redemption rate for wallet-stored coupons, Haro pointed out, can be twice that of the same offer in an email.

“You can enable every channel [so that] the road always ends in the wallet,” he said. Perhaps at some point we’ll see customized wallets, branded wallets, or wallets that do more than just serve as a kind of folder to hold coupons and loyalty cards.

For Kodak, the box holding your cereal is also emerging as a marketing channel.

Like me, you may have lost sight of Kodak once the king of photography and film filed for bankruptcy in 2012 and then sold off some of its patents. It emerged from bankruptcy two years ago. According to CTO Terry Taber, the downsized company is now focused on imaging solutions for business, including printable electronics through its Flexcel NX line of products.

In smart printing, sensors, processors, and even displays can be printed into packaging that wraps around food, electronics, and other products.

Taber envisions the post-RFID stage of packaged products a few years down the road, when they will automatically integrate themselves into a home’s electronic system the moment they enter your door. That means smart packaged milk that instantly registers on your cloud-based house inventory of food, and can update a shopping list on your phone when the carton is emptied.

Flat, cheap imaging displays could also become common on packaging, making them yet another to-do item for marketers’ messaging campaigns.

But, Taber agreed, marketers may need to assert a previously unknown level of restraint so that we’re not bombarded with media pitches from every cereal box as we walk down that aisle.

Leather wallets and cardboard packaging have previously enjoyed lives simply as holders. Now, the digital versions of each are growing into avenues of marketing communication that have the unique property of being with you almost everywhere you go.

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