Shrinking Labels Expanding Surfaces

The discovery of new real estate

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Real estate these days, as is evident from the din and blare of its advertising, is in great demand for a variety of reasons. Every piece of land or built-up surface that can be acquired is being “developed” and put to good use. In the same way, product brand-owners, in their attempts to own more and more of their potential customers’ mind-share, seek out and cover the maximum possible outdoor advertising real estate. This ownership manifests itself as brightly painted hoardings and wall paintings popping out of the landscape (sometimes amidst green farmlands) to scream their brand message constantly for the customers’ brief attention.
Now, to follow suit, even “packaging real estate” or the printable surfaces possible on a modern day package, are being discovered and put to good use, to communicate the marketing messages of the brands.

The fierce frenzy with which brand-owners seek to reach out and attract more and more customers to their products from the shop shelves places great demands on the role of the packaging. Owning a piece of the mind-share of a customer, for their product, is painstakingly achieved by targeted advertising followed up by attractive packaging at the point of sale which will communicate the winning features of the product in just a glance. This is the reason that there is a growing demand for more and more printable surfaces on packaging.

While printed packaging itself, or the various shapes and surfaces it comes in, is not new, the innovative ways in which design, print technology, materials and processes are being brought together to achieve customer delight are nothing less than brilliant. It is well acknowledged by now that a creative choice of materials and interesting surface design significantly influence the success of a product launch. As observed in a recent marketing communication about the Ciba range of Special Effects Pigments:

”Surface designs provide an opportunity to create a personality, new experiences and scenarios around the brand. It can inject some drama and flair into everyday life, open a door to the past, or create an illusion that gradually changes into something else. Surfaces are also about messages – of contrasts, discovery, interaction and unexpected turns that have an impact on all the senses.

A surface is by definition an exterior, the face that an object or being presents to the world. There can unfortunately be negative connotations – surfaces are connected with shallowness and the notion that beauty is skin-deep – but it would be a mistake to dismiss them as trivial. Imagine having to navigate through a world without surfaces as first point of reference. A surface is a projection screen for emotions and the state of things in general.”
Many product manufacturers are constantly faced with the challenge of successfully integrating structural surfaces and graphic branding. It is often asked, “Do we start with graphic branding and then create a structure around it, or do we create a structure and then start the graphics exploration afterwards?” This question is commonly asked at the beginning of the creative process.

In reality, the best answer has been found to be “neither.” Successful packages are a seamless combination of structural form and function with graphic branding working along with it to support a common message to the consumer. This very endeavour, to achieve a seamless combination of structural form and function with graphic branding poses the greatest technical challenge and promises the most exciting rewards.

“With so many new products competing for a spot in the consumer’s shopping cart”, reads a recent packaging Blog, “marketers are turning to innovative container shapes and high impact graphics to make the sale. As I walked up and down the aisles of Wal-Mart, I saw a noticeable difference because of these brightly printed plastic shrink sleeves that wrapped bottles, boxes and containers in a full 360 degrees of marketing real estate. The product packaging on many long-familiar products was different. I even noticed some shelves with old and new product side-by-side where they had just switched to this new type of packaging. Could this obvious shift in product packaging be a graphic design or product packaging trend? Hooray for the product packaging designers! Now a literal billboard of design can cover the entire bottle or box, rather than just a skinny label that wraps around it or a sticker on the front and the back. And it seems like the color palette is limitless as well.”

Shrink-sleeve labels – a hot trend!
Shrink sleeves or shrink-wrap labels, are undeniably the hottest among today’s trends. They are single layer films printed on a flexo or rotogravure press, although gravure is the dominant process. Once printed, the labels are unrolled, slit into strips, and formed into a tube with a secured seam, then re-rolled for application machinery. The application line consists of an apparatus to separate the labels, slip each individual label over the entire package, and then send it to a heating unit that shrinks the film onto the bottle or can.

Shrink films in use today are polyvinyl chloride (PVC), copolyester films (PETG and PET), BOPP and oriented polystyrene (OPS). While PVC is the lowest cost and currently dominant, it is potentially harmful to the consumer and the environment in the recycling process. For this reason, PETG and PET are showing the greatest market growth. These substrates have the highest shrink—but the highest cost as well. Nonetheless, PETG can be visualised as a replacement to PVC in the short run. On the other hand, OPS which has a 30 percent yield advantage and also separates during recycling, may eventually turn out to be the ideal replacement to PETG.

Among the reasons for the eager acceptance of shrink-sleeves by brand owners in almost every product category are:

Companies are looking for shelf presence by creating complex packaging container shapes which are made possible today by computer aided design and tooling. Such packages are not suitable for conventional labeling and often do not fit into silk-screening or pad printing equipment.

Growing regulation on packaging compliances and Statutory Declarations have made it necessary to print vast amounts of text on the packaging, which requires more packaging surface real estate, and is secure, and is completely product resistant.

Labels are low cost dependables
However, shrink-sleeve labels are still not a panacea for everyone. Many marketers can’t overlook the negatives—true or perceived—about shrink labels: they cheapen the overall appearance, don’t adhere well on some materials and lack the tactile qualities of silk-screening or self-adhesive labeling.

So why do so many marketers choose labels? From hair gel bottles to body wash jars to lipstick tubes, a wide variety of containers can accept labels. There are ornate, color-soaked panels that cover every square inch of the packaging. They contrast with simplistic duotone labels that deliver a subtler message. Need to show off what’s in the bottle? More types of clear labels are available now than ever before. Flexibility, at a time when just-to-market and inventory reduction are critical to any operation, seems to be one advantage attracting many product manufacturers.

Decorating pack surfaces with labels makes more sense than ever when it comes to inventory control and reducing financial risk. In addition, the versatility offered by some label printing lines, which offer upto 8 color printing, foil-stamping, die-cutting and even serial numbering at the back, in one process, is too irresistible. Designing with modern label substrates and process technology indeed offers products an opportunity to achieve a much sought after “unique” look.

“Labels give more bang for the buck without question,” says one senior Packaging Development manager of a well-known cosmetic product company. He points out that one trend helping to drive label use is shorter runs and more SKUs. With shelf space harder to come by these days, marketers hope that a wider product range will allow more presence on the shelves. To keep inventory costs in check, manufacturers are shortening their runs or using labels. Because some labels cost just paise each to produce, marketers can keep an abundant supply on hand. By using a different label on the same bottle, they minimise inventory and react to market demands more quickly. Screen-printed containers, on the other hand, lock in the number of containers for all the items in the line, he adds.
Pressure sensitive labels are being used for structural branding as well. It is called “the no label look.”  A clear pressure sensitive label shows off the package. In addition, flexographic advancements have given labels some of the qualities that were once only possible with screen printing. Achieving a tactile feel wasn’t easy until flexography adopted ultraviolet curing technology, which boasts a heavier ink film to achieve a feel similar to screened products. This offers a unique opportunity to achieve lower costs and the ability to inline emboss and foil stamp. UV flexo technology also offers finer print resolution than silk screening. Some label printing equipment also offers the opportunity to achieve a six-color process print, which delivers upto 85 percent of the Pantone Matching System colors and thus eliminates the need to run special “spot” colors.

“In the end,” as observed by an experienced marketer,” while there may be less brand recognition or loyalty today, if the label looks great, the consumer will buy the product.”

The Digital opportunity
While traditional presses can give label manufacturers the look they want, digital printers offer the quantity they want. Designed for small runs, presses that are standalone units have caught the attention of boutique shops, private label marketers and regional product manufacturers. Requiring no prepress setup and offering variable data output, digital presses are right for anyone who needs very limited quantities of labels quickly.

Other press companies such as Mark Andy and Chromas Technologies have equipment that works in conjunction with flexo presses for greater flexibility. These products offer the look of conventional print with the ability to customise each label using digital print units.
For product marketers, greater adoption of digital presses may mean greater competition for short-run jobs. Customised artwork layouts can be achieved directly on press, compared with proofs. In many cases, digital printing could significantly help shorten label production times. That would help product marketers, who face shorter development times these days.

Rushing products to market is just one of the demands on finished goods producers. Another is fitting all the ingredient information on a limited amount of space. Even as designers try to minimise a label’s appearance, some regulations are calling for more information. This leaves little room for information such as promotional material. Balancing this tightrope is no cakewalk, but there are novel solutions available

Raising the process bar
Along with better colour controls, printing equipment has raised the bar. Finer aniloxes, tighter registration controls and enhanced platemaking mean sharper overall graphics. They are important advancements because product marketers want to differentiate themselves from the crowd and expect label manufacturers to provide eye-popping results. With every incremental boost, flexography is able to give them more of what they want.

Better substrates are just one reason for better-looking labels. Ask any converter and he’s sure to point out a bevy of printing advancements, especially in flexography. Printers today regularly achieve results rarely seen a few years ago. And they do so more consistently, thanks to new prepress, printer and finishing technology.

All these process advancements combined have brought things up. The advancements are driven by marketers’ desire for sharper label graphics. Each market  seems to be pushing for more colour to attract the consumer and finding more and more surfaces on which to print them.

Deepak Manchanda is a Consultant in Packaging Design & Technology with over 30 years experience in the packaging industry, from the Central Design Services of Metal Box, to Packaging Development in Ranbaxy, Dabur and Oriflame India. Currently, he is with Autumn Design Consultants. He offers packaging design solutions to a wide range of clients in varied industry sectors.

Labelling is the best option for container decoration
Labels offer tremendous upgradation in aesthetics when it comes to decorating rigid containers. Normally, there are severe constraints to print reproduction quality when directly printing on pre-made rigid containers like glass jars, moulded plastic containers or composite cans. Only metal cans can be decorated using high quality graphics. The advantage of using a label is that the printing is done on a flat substrate and there is no limitation to print quality because the best printing processes can be employed. The best results are obtained by using 8 to 10 colour rotogravure printing or by offset lithography and these match or exceed the quality obtained from any other packaging systems. In fact, when one uses shrink labels that are reverse printed on transparent substrates, the appearance is even further enhanced not to mention the additional benefit that the print is totally protected from scuffing or damage.

Because of this and because moulded plastic containers with labels offer the best looking, the most versatile and the most cost-effective of all rigid packaging options, it is small wonder that shrink labels is one of the fastest growing packaging segments at rates of around 20 per cent per annum. Shrink labels also make it possible to decorate even the most complex container shapes without compromising on print quality or print coverage. Filmic labels also offer the “no-label” look that is so highly desired for transparent containers.