Getting Closer

NFC is turning tees and polos into virtual marketing devices.

Imagine a very near future in which a credit card transaction takes mere seconds from beginning to end. All account data is stored in your device of choice, and by simply bringing it close to a specified data pad, the purchase is complete in moments, without the need for rifling through a disorganized wallet or pulling out a card and risking losing it.

How about a ring that can communicate with cell phones, transfer information and even unlock doors.

Or picture a company with a tradeshow or festival booth which allows attendees to buy its merchandise instantly with an interactive banner. Images of available items are printed on the banner, and a data tag next to each communicates with electronic devices to complete the transaction and shipment process.

In fact, the technology is already here. Near Field Communication (NFC) is a form of short-range data transmission based on radio-frequency identification (RFID) that allows compatible devices to interact. An NFC-enabled cell phone, for example, can interact with a specific tag, which may be embedded in another device or a number of items and materials, including cards, stickers, wood, plastics and more.

“The tags look like microchips,” says Tom Rector, CEO & founder of Rector Communications (asi/305623), whose Simply Touch division is devoted to developing NFC technology in promotional products, and has already turned those interactive banners into reality.

“When the device comes close to the NFC tag, you’re taken directly to a website, or it takes action on your phone, such as turning an alarm off or performing a transaction. You can download and launch apps, geo locate, make calls and communicate with other NFC devices that contain tags. It’s a much faster process than scanning QR codes.”

First developed as a way to conduct financial transactions without contact (such as swiping a credit cards or handing one to a clerk), NFC is now coming to the promotional space, particularly in wearables, as a way to make brand impressions more interactive. “It’s a great marketing and advertising tool,” says Adam Walterscheid, president & CEO and head of business development at T-Shirt Tycoon (asi/87000). “It’s secure and can be updated in real time.”

T-Shirt Tycoon, in conjunction with client TSMGI, recently deployed NFC technology in T-shirts for the 2013 Wisconsin State Fair, whose event planners wanted a way to drive traffic to the official FairWear gift shop. The shirts included NFC tags embedded in the fair logo on the front, and attendees who bought them used staff-supplied Google Nexus Tablets to communicate with the tag. One Grand Prize winner received a Nexus Tablet, others received a package of famous State Fair Cream Puffs, and the remaining tees thanked them for participating and directed them to the gift shop. ”It’s all about having control and giving people something that can help you measure analytics, like attendance numbers,” says Walterscheid.

As NFC develops, it’s becoming a way to interact with a brand, beyond impressions garnered from a static embellishment. “It adds an additional dimension to the traditional logoed garment,” says Rector. “Using your device, you can watch a commercial, obtain directions, contact customer service and more. One day it’s a video and the next day the same tag gives you a coupon. We can integrate the live score of a game into a jersey, with replays. You can even network using tagged lanyards at a tradeshow. At the end of the day, you have everyone’s contact information in your hand, along with all of their connections.”

A few of Rector Communications’ most noteworthy campaigns incorporating NFC include concert tees with free music downloads and subsequent navigation to the group’s fan club page; a little league team’s uniform with a tag in the sleeve containing the season’s game schedule; and shirts promoting an unfinished collegiate apartment complex that gave prospective tenants a virtual tour. “We find polos are a good choice for NFC,” says Walterscheid. “They absorb the technology price point better than a T-shirt. A polo in a uniform program can have NFC embedded in it, eliminating the need for swiping an identification card.”

Although it’s been in the works for several years now and has been a feature in the latest generation of smart phones, NFC is still a largely unknown technology among the wider public. One reason is a learning curve similar to that of QR codes. Over time, target audiences learned that those cryptic black and white marks could be scanned for additional information. Now, the public will have to learn where NFC tags are located and how to take advantage of the experience. “Education is a big hurdle,” says Rector, “but once people see NFC in action, their minds race to possibilities.”

Rector also cites the somewhat complex customization process of NFC tags compared to QR codes, making it challenging for highly personalized applications and small budgets. While QR code customization is readily available on a number of websites, NFC tags must be physically coded with data. “QR codes are also instantly useable,” says Rector. “An NFC tag is a different. You’ll soon be able to go online and customize a tag, but it still has to be mailed to you. And there is a cost to produce it, because there’s some labor involved.”

Another reality slowing NFC’s entry into the larger market is Apple’s near monopoly on the electronic device sector in the U.S., says Rector, and its decision not to include it in any models as of yet. Now, Apple has unveiled a mobile payment platform that utilizes NFC, called Apple Pay and also added it in the just-released iPhone 6. “By mid-2015, most people will have NFC compatibility,” Rector says.

Despite these obstacles, the buzz surrounding NFC has intensified in recent years, and Rector and Walterscheid say more clients are coming to them expressing interest in it. But it’s not an instant solution. “Clients can’t start with NFC,” explains Walterscheid, adding that it can’t be used like QR codes as a broader solution with a one-time result. “[NFC is] a slow, methodical and experience-conscious approach,” he says. “If NFC is done correctly, it will drive its own demand. If it’s done incorrectly, without control and a specific problem to solve, it will die on the vine. We’re looking for preferred partners, and we follow the law of the few to prove the concept.”

Rector is optimistic that there will soon be a larger acceptance and understanding of NFC in the promotional market, though the primary facilitator for it remains to be seen. “Consumers will find out more about it and figure out how they can use it,” he says. “There will be a catalyst, such as a compatible iPhone, or a celebrity endorsement. But soon, someone will find that it meets a need with a huge impact.”