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Common Ground: What Big and Small Brands Need from Packaging Print

  • November 07, 2019
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When Colombian Natalia Welch went to launch her UK-based food start-up, Pura Panela, in 2015, she faced a problem: it wasn’t just her brand that was unknown in the UK, but the product itself. Back home in Colombia, panela was ubiquitous. You could buy it straight from farms in plain plastic bags. But in the UK it meant nothing. Worse: panela is Latin America’s natural and healthy sugar cane-based alternative, and sugar is a category with a distinctly unsavory reputation among UK consumers. So how could Natalia get this unknown product the attention it needed on crowded shelves, and tell shoppers it was different?

One word: packaging. “I had two seconds to make an impression and to get someone to pick it off the shelf,” says Natalia. “The packaging became everything for me. It was how to introduce this product, how to tell them it was a natural alternative to the horrible sugar they know. And how to make it fun to talk about Colombia.”

Small brand, big impact
That may seem a lot to ask of a 454 gram bag. But packaging is no longer there just to contain and protect the valuable stuff inside. According to Smithers Pira, packaging is on its way to being a $1 trillion industry, and a big part of this vast value lies in the punch it can deliver for brands – of all sizes. In recent years, as brands change how they talk to consumers, those who may have considered the creative side of packaging almost as an afterthought are treating packaging as a serious investment. It’s now a core brand channel and part of the brand development process.

Why? For challenger brands often lacking serious budget for advertising, packaging can be a key communications channel, a direct route to new customers in an increasingly visually literate world, where vibrant colors and images and quick powerful messages are the order of the day.

Done right, packaging tells people what a brand is and what it stands for, not just for consumers, but customers, partners and suppliers in the trade too. “Our bag now is colorful,” says Natalia of the packet she developed. “It shouts that the product is exotic, that it's from Colombia and it's not boring.”

“Advances in printing technology mean photorealistic imagery with high contrast and fine fades are driving products off the shelf and into shoppers’ baskets.”

But it’s not just about colors. Images are crucial too, and advances in printing technology mean photorealistic imagery with high contrast and fine fades are driving products off the shelf and into shoppers’ baskets. Dr. John Anderson, Director of Advanced Print Applications at Miraclon, points out that pet food is a great example of the direct correlation between packaging and product message. “Pet food is at the leading edge for packaging graphics and resolution, where the purchasing habits of doting pet owners are driven by the images on the pack – for example, they really want to see the animals’ fur looking healthy on the packaging,” he says. “If it doesn’t look good, they won’t buy.” 

Dr. John explains that the secret to attracting the eye lies in image contrast. Over the past five years, innovations in how the ink transfer from plate to substrate can be optimized and, equally importantly, controlled, has enabled flexo printers to realize a significant step up in the all-important image contrast, while at the same time printing incredibly thin, smooth layers of ink that increase the efficiency of the print production process. “We’re now seeing brands starting to realize they can do high-fidelity reproduction and resolution of images they didn't think possible,” he says. “We’re even starting to see a trend where this is achievable at lower line screens. Rather than forever chasing higher and higher line screens they can stay at 133 versus 150 or 175, produce really great looking artwork with high detail fades and give their printers a lot more production latitude. It’s a win win.”

Ashley Cuff is co-founder of Canadian cold-pressed juice brand Cedar Juice, which launched in 2014. Her challenge: how to get people to pay $6 a pop for an unknown drink. The secret lay in packaging and print that felt aspirational. “When Starbucks first launched, people used to be proud to carry around its cups,” she says. “It’s that feeling that it says something about you. We wanted the juice to shine on the shelf, with a premium, contemporary feel. You’re not going to spend $6 on a juice if it looks cheap. You’re buying the Bottega handbag of single-serve beverages. We were really trying to pop.”

“We’re now seeing brands starting to realize they can do high-fidelity reproduction and resolution of images they didn’t think possible.”

Cedar opted for seven color printing. This, combined with bold but spare typography, amplified the natural vibrancy of the juice. Dr. John understands the benefit of choosing a seven-color process for brands, but encourages brand owners to think about what’s right for their product. “Flexo can often deliver seven-color printing at a dramatically lower cost than offset or gravure four-color on short print runs, with quicker turnarounds – which can be ideal for start-ups,” Dr. John continues. “However, as brands’ versions increase, with product variety, or their run lengths decrease, with limited editions or diversification, there are definite benefits to 4-color. Of course, flexo can do that too. And as the flexo process continues to evolve, and achievable color gamuts widen, the arguments for a simpler 4-color approach get somewhat stronger. In some spaces the challenge of matching digital print is driving brands back toward the 4-color process.
I’m often asked whether brands should care which print process is used to produce their packaging? Ultimately, they shouldn’t have to worry about color or reproduction quality – it should be achievable independent of print-process,” Dr. John says. “The question for brand owners discussing flexo with their print providers isn’t can it print the job in 4 or 7 colors, or whether it’ll meet color expectations. Those things are baseline requirements with flexo now. The question is – given its versatility and cost-effectiveness - what more can it do for me?”


Everyone’s a start-up
It’s not just small brands thinking smart when it comes to how to maximize the impact of their packaging print. Big brands too are looking for every advantage they can find to connect with consumers, explains Ken McGuire, global research fellow at Procter & Gamble, judge at this year’s Global Flexo Innovation Awards and named inventor on more than 50 US packaging patents. It’s Ken’s job to develop packaging breakthroughs that could work for any of P&G’s brands, from diapers to cleansers. This is because global brands face tough competition too, and any new lines will be going against rivals with a pre-existing loyal customer base of their own. You always have to cut through. “Every time we introduce something new we have the same challenge [as smaller brands],” says Ken. “We have to disrupt that ‘on automatic’ behavior people have when they shop. From the very beginning of the product design, the packaging has to do a great job of communicating what it is about that brand that’s special.”

But there’s another challenge at brands like P&G. When your brands take in a vast range of products and packaging types all the various iterations of the brand must be consistent. William Roberts is Managing Director of Roberts Mart & Co, a flexible packaging manufacturer based in Leeds, UK and joint Flexo Awards winner. His clients include many FMCG blue-chips, from Haribo & Highland Spring to Tate & Lyle. He says consistency, across ranges and from design to design, is one the biggest things his customers demand.

“From the initial print run, many of our customers now measure every repeat order to that first run” he says. “We've got one customer in the snack market who has 30 to 40 packaging types in its range. When they’re sat alongside each other they all have to be identical.” William mentions having ‘a lot of fun’ doing this for Galaxy chocolate designs, where different products in the range were printed on different materials and using both gravure and flexo, making it a particularly hard to match the colors. The trick was in finding the best fit for all the materials and substrates to achieve consistency. The solution: care. “We measure every color off every reel,” says William, “and have the highest tolerances on all our presses.”

Standing for something
Impact on shelf, consistency between products. There might be overlapping motivations driving brands at different ends of the size spectrum, but there’s one issue that’s looming large and hitting brands no matter what size. Which means its hitting printers too. In its recent ‘No Ordinary Disruption’ report, which looked ahead to the packaging landscape of 2030, McKinsey identified several trends that will ‘change the game’ in the industry in the next five to ten years. One of the big ones? The pressure to be sustainable. “We just had the top 35 technologists in all our packaging R&D together this week for three days,” says Ken from P&G, who describes his role as developing packaging products that will “change the landscape”. “Every single one has some sustainability project on their portfolio. It’s certainly a huge opportunity for us. And if we don't do it well, it could be a big problem.”

It’s easy to see why sustainability presents a packaging challenge, which in turn plays out in print. When the world’s eyes are focused on waste and the impact of disposable materials on the natural world, the extraneous use of packaging is an emotive issue. The pressure is on brands to approach packaging sensitively and with considerations. But that’s not always easy. “Sustainability is the hot topic at the moment” says William, “and making the correct choice of structural design is very important. Pretty much every customer has come to us with an idea of what they want to achieve, or is looking to us for suggestions – whether that’s a recycled film, or something compostable and biodegradable. We have lots of alternatives to offer. But there's generally a cost implication. And people are trying to get exactly what they want for the same price they were previously paying.”

“We just had the top 35 technologists in all our packaging R&D together for three days. Every single one has some sustainability project on their portfolio. It’s certainly a huge opportunity for us. And if we don't do it well, it could be a big problem.”

Small brands may lack the big budgets or dedicated R&D departments of the P&Gs of this world, but they are perhaps best-placed to turn the sustainability challenge into opportunity. Founders often operate with conviction, and start-ups are small and nimble enough to experiment and pivot towards the latest breakthroughs. For them, truly sustainable packaging becomes an even stronger communications channel, a chance to show – in an instant – that your brand stands for more than simply shifting product.

Reality bites
That’s exactly what Natalia did with Pura Panela. For her brand, she decided plastic-free packaging was the right call – in terms of what it said about her product and purpose. In Colombia she found a company making biodegradable bags from the outside of the sugar cane, with a corn lining. This would convey a perfect holistic message about the credentials of her product. A fellow London-based brand, Two Birds Cereals, shared a similar journey. They also wanted to “do the right thing” and found a eucalyptus-based packaging that was 100% compostable as well as recyclable. Then, of course, comes the reality. For Natalia, her first print run was dark, the colors lacking shine, as if the material was absorbing the ink too much. The second was inconsistent, with oranges appearing too red. “Due to the unique substrate we went backwards and forwards to get the colors where they have to be. I’ve printed 30,000 bags, and they’re not very consistent: I have sometimes pulled one out and the colors are completely different. It’s a work in progress.”

The founders of Two Birds, meanwhile, got a quick lesson in the harsh reality of dealing with retailers. “The cost went up from about 20p a pouch to 80p,” says co-founder Tricia Traynor. “That’s massive. And as a small company, the retailers weren’t going to help us with that. ‘If you want to switch to compostable packaging, great,’ they’d say. ‘We love that. But you'll have to pay for it.’ We took a hit on our margins.”

Situations like these illustrate the harsh reality of considering sustainable solutions and lay down the requirements for technology solutions that can respond to the cost pressures and the technical hurdles with unconventional materials. Today’s leading edge flexo should be well positioned to respond.  Versatility, lower costs and an ability to print on an ever expanding range of substrates are valuable. But what the flexo community also has to offer when it comes to brands looking to realize their sustainability ambitions is an appetite for innovation. “The best flexo printers are eager to collaborate, experiment and break new ground to help brands realize their ambition,” Dr. John continues. “Sustainable materials are a challenge – but they’re also a huge opportunity for pre-press specialists and printers to show what flexo is capable of – with color, consistency and material.” Reproflex3 is a perfect case in point. Joint winners with William Roberts, the UK-based global flexographic solutions agency, puts innovation for brands, or as they call it headroom’, front and center. “I strongly believe that the UK market is one of the most innovative in the world, with a thirst for knowledge and a drive for innovation you don’t find everywhere,” says company founder, Andrew Hewitson. “We’re constantly turning over stones, looking for new opportunities that we can go to customers with.”

As McKinsey suggests, the changing face of retail means brands globally will have to continue to innovate if they want to keep pace with trends. For now, however, brands like Two Birds are taking it one step at a time. “Yes, our customers are looking to move away from plastic. But it’s about us doing the right thing too,” concludes Tricia. “The whole look, feel and tone, the product and the ingredients we use – and the packaging – has to have synergy with that message. There’s a lot to it.” Sounds like that rings true for every brand, whether big or small.

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