Wherever specialty products and tightly targeted marketing requirements exist, so do significant opportunities for digitally produced packaging. Digital printing systems typically don’t need the factory environments of conventional production equipment; they can turn out short runs of packages and labels almost anywhere—including the working locales of brand owners and their creative agencies.
Freed from having to source conventionally produced packaging materials in quantities larger than actually needed, small-scale consumer packaged goods (CPG) producers can pursue a business model that makes sense for them: Packaging their wares for distribution on demand in custom-made batches.
“We were locked into 3,000 to 5,000 label minimums from our other printer, so short runs of labels were either much more costly or impossible,” says Jon Katzung, director of operations at Peace Coffee, which expanded its options by investing in its own short-run label printing machine. Now, instead of letting someone else’s production schedules and quantity minimums dictate when new products can be launched, the specialty coffee purveyor can deliver whatever its customers want regardless of order size.
No need to job out
National brands can turn to digital printing for limited runs of the prototypes and samples they rely on to open markets for new products. One provider of creative services that understands these applications well is Kaleidoscope, a branding and packaging design agency with branches in New York City, Chicago and the UK. Kaleidoscope is unusual among creative consultants in having extensive production assets of its own, housed in a 30,000-sq.-ft. innovation center offering digital printing, roll-fed and flatbed inkjet proofing, finishing systems and milling machines for structural work.
A short-run of labels for sales samples of hair-care products tested the capabilities of two of Kaleidoscope’s most sophisticated pieces of equipment: Its HP Indigo WS4600 digital label press; and its new Digicon label finishing system from A B Graphic International. The client was Unilever, which needed 2,000 labels to brand a pair of SKUs for the market launch of its Suave Naturals line.
The first step was the laydown of metallic silver ink on clear, 2-mil PET label stock in the flexo printing unit of the Digicon, a multifunctional converting line that also has lamination, rotary diecutting and slitting stations. Next, the HP Indigo WS4600—a webfed press that prints color labels with what HP says is quality equal to that of gravure—registered seven colors plus a double hit of white ink to the silver using a target mark placed by the Digicon. The labels then went back to the finishing line for lamination and kiss-cutting, followed by manual application onto bottles provided by Unilever.
Kaleidoscope also called upon its in-house printing capabilities to help Skittles, a well established candy brand, launch Skittle Riddles. When Skittles decided to go to market with the new variation aimed at 12- to 17-year olds, the brand asked its agency to produce a short-run of sample packages that sales reps could take to the retail outlets where Skittles Riddles was to be introduced. Skittles Riddles are unusual in that the colors of the candy pieces don’t correspond in the usual way to their flavors—the “riddle” is in the tasting as kids try to identify which fruit flavor they’re enjoying.
The agency, however, had to maintain a strict match between the candy colors and the colors printed on the 14-oz. sample bag, which it produced on flexible film in a run of about 1,200 packages. The expanded gamut of the seven-color HP Indigo WS4600 press provided the chromatic fidelity, while the integrated Digicon line handled the finishing of the bags down to the precision seaming.
“Digital systems are getting better and better for short runs of this kind,” says Bert Hodapp, Kaleidoscope’s COO. He notes that the absence of make-ready—the time-consuming and cost-incurring mechanical setup that precedes conventional printing—speeds job turnaround and saves money.
Technical capabilities count strongly as well. The extended color gamut of the HP Indigo WS4600 lets Kaleidoscope match branded colors without taking chances on the approximation of simple CMYK builds. Operating as a flexo printer, the Digicon supplements the Indigo by providing colors that the digital press isn’t built to handle, such as the metallic silver ink needed for the Suave Naturals project.
“Peace” in a labeled bag
A do-it-yourself (DIY) package printing setup doesn’t have to be elaborate or complicated to use. A case in point is the solution employed by Peace Coffee, a roaster, grinder and distributor of coffees that it sources from fair-trade certified growers. These are mostly small farmers who are assured of getting an equitable market price when they deal with Peace Coffee and other socially aware firms that have pledged to observe fair-trade practices.
Because these varietal batches are tiny compared with the output of national-brand coffee producers, mass-produced packaging and labeling methods are of limited use to Peace Coffee. The company has found a helpful alternative in the LX900 label printer from Primera Technology, a tabletop inkjet device designed for very-short-run applications.
With its LX900, Peace Coffee can tailor package presentation to package contents in ways that would be well-nigh impossible on a conventional scale. “Coffees are a seasonal crop that changes from year to year, so the description of what a coffee tastes like might change dramatically over time,” says Katzung. “We have the flexibility now to change that information on a label so customers can be better informed on what to expect when they brew at home.”
Specialty labels can be created for cafés, coffee bars and other customers that want something more distinctive than a generic-looking package.
“It is very easy to take the artwork files they provide and create high-quality custom labels for their needs,” Katzung says.
Short-run digital printing lets Peace Coffee extend the utility of its labels and enrich the stories they tell. “Some retailers require UPCs on their packaging while others don’t,” Katzung explains. “Now if we want to print a dozen labels with UPCs for one customer we can do that easily, whereas before, this would have to be worked into the design well before it hit the presses.” Adding QR codes to the labels links purchasers to information about the provenance of the coffees and the back stories of their growers.
To create a distinct packaging design for its new Alchemy series of coffees, Peace Coffee applies a clear sticker as the front label and supplements this with a numbered flavor label on white stock that can be updated whenever more releases are added to the line. The ease of changing the accompanying text and source map gives Peace Coffee the flexibility to package and market limited-release coffees as often as it wishes, irrespective of volume.
A digital divide?
Digital production technologies open many new creative possibilities for branded packaging, especially in short runs. Some brand owners are exploring the possibilities. Others continue to fall back on the conventional designs and structures that they are used to obtaining from packaging printers and converters.
The way to build awareness is to “champion the right way to do things for consumers” when pitching technology solutions to your agency’s clients, according to Jim Warner, global managing design director for Kaleidoscope. It’s ultimately the creative firm’s responsibility, he says, to establish a connection in the brand owner’s mind between going digital and delivering extra benefits to end-users. PD
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The End of Black-and-White
Jaclo’s high-end bathroom accessories can be found in bathroom suites of some of the country’s most renowned hotels, including the MGM SkyLofts in Las Vegas, the Essex House and The Plaza in New York City, as well as numerous Best Western properties. Although the company ships approximately 1,000 products a day to decorative plumbing showrooms and plumbing supply houses and wholesalers, it didn’t see package appearance as a pressing concern because products would be removed from boxes and put on display in showrooms.
“We used to package our products in plain white boxes with black-and-white thermal labels, assuming that consumers would never see the package,” says Chris Pike, chief operating officer at Jaclo. “That’s no longer true these days, and we realized we needed to step up our packaging and include an attractive, informative label.”
As home design outlets and decorative showrooms have expanded, it is now more common for consumers to see unopened product boxes on display. Jaclo was also looking to solve a vexing problem that was costing time and money: SKU chaos. With more than 40,000 product SKUs in stock, Jaclo required a huge variety of pre-printed label stock to meet their graphic requirements. This was creating serious challenges with their labeling operations. When orders came in, packaging personnel would need to spend time finding labels for each package. Not only did this require additional inventory space, but finding the right label was causing delays and shipping mistakes.
What Jaclo needed was an on-demand printing solution that would eliminate the label mess and produce a more decorative retail label. Pike set out on a mission: “Our goal was to reduce errors, increase speed reduce inventory and enhance the Jaclo brand.” When the company procured in-house color label printing capabilities, it transformed its labeling operations change from a time-consuming headache to an “on-the-fly process.” Initially, the company used Epson ColorWorks C3400-printed color labels for 25,000 SKUs. Today, the company uses the in-house printed labels for 35,000 SKUs with plans to include more.
“Now, we have colorful graphics and can add important information such as product descriptions and cleaning instructions,” he says. Jalco is also able to customize generic boxes with specific box contents. “We have about 14 different package sizes, but we can adapt each label to accommodate hundreds of different products.”
Jaclo now has 14 Epson C3400 printers that produce color labels on demand as wide as 4.4 in. and at speeds up to 3.7 in. per second. According to Pike, the return on investment was almost immediate.
“We can say that our sales have increased by 15% as a result of the new product packaging, of which the labels are a big part,” Pike estimates. “More customers are stocking Jaclo’s inventory because of the enhanced packaging, and the packages have also been part of point-of-purchase displays in some showrooms.”