Printed packaging is a crucial part of the battle to retain customers. John Fortune investigates how it continues to enhance front-line sales and marketing.
Packaging is now as much about marketing as delivering a product. Maximising differentiation and distinction requires imaginative, innovative and well-executed designs, and consistently reproduced, instantly recognisable images are vital in conveying notions of authenticity. Brand-owners must also now be able to respond to customer feedback quickly and cost-effectively via updated printed messaging.
Special decorative effects and added functions provide a finishing touch that extends beyond the point of purchase to enhance a consumer’s relationship with a product throughout its lifetime. The appropriate means by which to accomplish this are readily available to print service providers, and are constantly being updated and extended.
First impressions matter. Products are ultimately judged in terms of fitness for purpose, consistent reliability and value for money, but prior to that, initial inroads into a market may be made by a particular spot colour, a distinctive font, or artful application of a metallic ink.
“Thanks to impressive print packaging, brands can seduce customers at the point of purchase,” says Marcel Knobil, founder of branding excellence arbiter Superbrands. “We would end up with less ‘brand’ and more ‘bland’, were it not for the attention that the packaging attracts.”
Trends are being driven by longer supermarket opening hours and continually enhanced print technology, as well as the imperative to protect brands and increase recognition. Not merely surviving, but becoming the preferred choice, under such testing conditions is one half of the challenge for a brand-owner: the other is to spend as little as possible achieving this.
With the high probability of colour variations between different substrates and print processes – and indeed, from one printer to another: not only in different locations, but even when they are running presses made by the same manufacturer – maintaining consistency can be a complex undertaking.
The best strategy is to ensure that every contributory link in a supply chain for a printed pack is able to interact via an open-entry, web-based platform.
Ice and easy
Iceland’s own-label packaging manager, Ian Schofield, started looking after the freezer-food store’s in-house portfolio in 1992, before digital had taken root. He left that role to work at Sun Branding before setting up what is now one of the UK’s largest flexo printers, only to return to Iceland two decades later.
“While I was first made aware of digital during my time in the pre-press sector with Sun, it was when I rejoined Iceland as a buyer that I started to look out for the advantages given more closely,” he says.
“Originally, we used digital for our own-label sausages (produced on four different lines), and were able to launch in a week, so time to market was our immediate challenge. To all intents and purposes, the final product looked no different from flexo, and Iceland was able to point out that it was already on the shelves digitally without anyone noticing the change.
“The challenge, however, always has been in the finishing department: the cutting, gluing and all those other things that still have to be done conventionally, offline. From the outset, labels represented a far more straightforward proposition, which is why it was the sector that the digital press manufacturers first targeted.”
In terms of gains and benefits, lower inventory levels and customisation are fundamental. “With print runs coming down, and because we never print the same job twice, you don’t want to hold too much stock,” confirms Schofield. “If you can print what you need, for, say only the next week, you can make it much more personal, current or topical.”
He goes on to stress that it’s more than a financial consideration: “There’s no cost saving. In fact, compared like-for-like with conventional, it’s usually more expensive.
“Until now, there hasn’t been that much difference in cost between conventional and a digital press, but with more new systems coming on to the market, the capital investment required is starting to reduce as the competition between manufacturers intensifies.”
Approximately 5% of flexibles and labelling in own-label (mostly for the frozen and chilled sector) is printed digitally, with the balance being between flexo and litho.
As Schofield explains, “You’ve got to bear in mind that we are big runners; volumes greater than 100,000 would be difficult to justify as digital, but it becomes increasingly viable as we go more into niche products.
As equipment becomes cheaper, the amount of work going digital will expand. I have no doubt that the entire retail sector will have a high percentage of digital in the future. In terms of our own offering, I can see that 5% becoming more like 50% in five years’ time.”
Schofield advises brand-owners to consider digital carefully:“You would be foolish to ignore it. Yes, it’s just another way of printing, but it’s one that brings with it some key advantages. Digital has changed everything in any number of other industries, and it’ll be just the same in packaging.
“Of course, everyone’s looking at which is the most commercial way in which to get the job printed, but bit by bit it’ll automatically go digital because all those attributes that it uniquely offers will be required without saying. There used to be all this ‘black art’ about colour management, but that mystique is going really quickly; it’s being deskilled. We can now send something straight to press virtually from scratch.”
It’s not just retailers that are realising the benefits of digital. Cost-efficient shorter run-lengths, lower inventory levels and the ability to differentiate products through customisation on shelves has spawned myriad marketing campaigns, including those by Heineken, Mondelez, Nestlé, Coca-Cola and Ferrero. “To take our brand off the packaging and replace it with something other than the Coca Cola script wasn’t easy to do within a structure like ours, where we operate according to very tight brand guidelines to protecting it,” says a Coca-Cola packaging spokesperson. “The digital print capability enabled it to happen, but the marketing campaign is the really smart thing.”
“While the adoption of digital is an accelerating trend, despite the buzz being created, it’s still under-selling its potential,” opines Doug Hutt, Abbott’s global packaging innovation and engineering director. “The top ten brand owners in the world are generating over a quarter of a trillion dollars in sales. If just 10% of these were digitised, with the balance going to analogue, that is still a very large potential revenue that converters haven’t yet grasped. FMCG companies should be more proactive in going out and talking to the packaging industry, which, in turn, should be addressing those issues.”
Customisation is not the only route to catching the consumer’s eye. Short-run, cost-effective special effects such as high-gloss, glitter, metallic (without recourse to hot-foil stamping) and even Braille are also within the remit of next-generation digital post-press technology. Analogue cold-foiling – notably as an alternative to laminated/metalided substrates for labels and cartons – is also proving effective.
Meanwhile, at the higher end of the scale, the arresting, 3D effect achieved with Fresnel lens technology has been a hit for global gin brand Bombay Sapphire on duty-free cartons. “It’s obviously more expensive than a normal foil by about a third, but you do get significantly greater impact,” says Dominic Burke, Webb deVlam’s UK managing director.
“If you want something that is undeniably eye-catching and alluring, then that’s what it takes.”
The new frontier
Quite a number of applications on the market use mobile technology. For example, on-pack augmented reality (AR) applications pioneered by Blippar enable users to look at an object through the cameras on their smartphones to activate an instantaneous digital search and access information from the web. In a recent campaign for Perrier, meanwhile, consumers were encouraged to shake their phones as if they were making cocktail in order to reveal a recipe.
Rather than put an icon on a pack to enable interaction, UK-based prepress specialist Reproflex3’s PackLinc scanning technology embeds hidden codes within the ink, enabling consumers to treat packs as portals.
Most recently applied on a limited-edition run of packs of Pom-Bear children’s snacks, the system received a Starpack gold award from the European Flexographic Industry Association (EFIA). The latter’s director, Debbie Waldron-Hoines, says: “Brand-owners need a deeper understanding of the processes so that they can help make considered decisions on what is best suited to their product. Flexo and digital can work wonderfully together.”
Product security – and therefore brand integrity – is another obvious area of opportunity for smart technology. A fully printed near-field communication (NFC) sensor tag developed by Thin Film Electronics for Diageo’s Johnnie Walker whisky doubles as a security and anti-counterfeiting device, as well as interacting with smartphones to dispense product advice and information.
As a lot of the labelling and pre-printed information currently required to be displayed on packs is phased out, the potential for branding real estate is immense. Brands currently get perhaps 40% of a pack’s surface upon which to advertise. However, if one small interactive barcode could fulfil every regulatory and legal requirement, it would leave 90% of the print surface free for marketing purposes.
“Whether it be products that communicate with your tablet, or temperature or time-sensitive thermochromic inks that indicate when your lager is perfectly chilled or provide the reassurance that prepackaged meat is safe to eat, the facility for interactivity ticks all the right boxes for forward-looking brand owners,” says Eef de Ferrante, managing director of the Active and Intelligent Packaging Industry Association (AIPIA).
“Brand-owners need to meet the challenges faced by counterfeiting, product security in the supply chain, consumer engagement and big data management,” he continues. “Brand protection and better marketing of their products are major starting points towards averting potential reputational damage and simply saving money.”
Eye-catching and innovative printed packaging is a shrewd investment when building loyal and enduring custom. While consumers can now access an unprecedented amount of information to help guide their product preferences, packaging offers brands a unique opportunity to control how they communicate with prospective customers at the point of purchase.