Over the past five years, increased retail competition and the online shopping experience have conditioned consumers to expect and even demand a staggering degree of choice, selection and variety in their purchasing options. From shampoos for every texture, length, shade and color of hair to snacks foods in every conceivable flavor, to laundry detergents for every style of clothing and washer, consumers now seek narrower and narrower value propositions from even the most commonplace household items. 
As a result, brick and mortar retail outlets are bursting at the seams as brands struggle to accommodate consumers’ heightened demand for specificity in the products they purchase. Today, the average traditional neighborhood supermarket carries as many as 60,000 different SKUs – each fighting to draw attention to the shrinking shelf space it occupies. 
But with consumers, more connected and more informed than ever before, brands must fight not only to be noticed, but also to remain relevant, topical and current. British multinational retailer Marks and Spencer offers more than 70 different SKUs of their beauty care products alone – featuring different scents, textures, price points and sizes for different consumer targets and demographics. L’Oreal changes the sleeve and appearance of entire product lines every three months to feature tie-ins with recent, successful Disney films. Both companies use HP Indigo Digital Presses to produce wide varieties and frequently changing packaging.
This kind of proactive and creative approach to labeling is made possible thanks to the incredible innovations in digital printing from that have occurred over the past several years. But the results that digital printing can deliver for brands don’t happen in a vacuum. They are the product of careful labeling strategies that incorporate digital at all stages of the process.
To best recognize and realize the advances in digital printing for labels and packaging, brands must take a holistic view of the entire process that executes a product labeling strategy. Certainly the end result of any product labeling strategy must always be shelf appeal and greater sales. 
While it is a common understanding that a product’s label must command attention on crowded shelves, the fact that print quality must remain consistent across regions, shipments and outlets often gets overlooked. The time and money invested in the design and layout of packaging can be instantly undermined without consistency in the quality of print execution. The relevance, engagement and consumer interaction that creates the moment of truth for a purchase is a careful balance between concept and execution. All too often, brands treat the actual printing as an afterthought. 
Another essential factor in an effective labeling strategy is commonly considered an unfortunate, though unavoidable, source of inefficiencies: the supply chain. For many brands, extraordinary degrees of waste – and in many countries, the hefty fines that accompany that waste – have become disconcertingly commonplace. 
To avoid this waste, and to take advantage of considerable savings across the entire process, many brands today are moving towards digital printing to enable just-in-time production. Just-in-time production allows inventory to be managed with much greater efficiency. Printing is based on actual production batches, with printers able to deliver labels within 24 to 48 hours of receiving the order. While in the past, five days of lead time was considered the shortest possible turnaround, today it is not unusual to see orders fulfilled in less than a day. 
While it may appear on the surface that the costs per copy in just-in-time production planning are slightly higher, when brands factor in the savings yielded by smaller orders, less waste and greater supply chain efficiencies, they often discover tremendous savings. Companies are able to sidestep the many hidden costs associated with conventional printing, avoiding prepress, plate and press set up costs, not to mention costs from obsolete and damaged inventory, revisions and redesigns. 
Digital printing also makes risky, long-term supply projection and inventory forecasting unnecessary. Brands no longer have to estimate how many units must be shipped to different countries, all with labels in different languages, months in advance. Instead, they only have to know how much product they must ship in the next week, and deliver the same order to their filler and their label converter. This allows for brands to be much more flexible and nimble with inventory, and labels are always relevant and accurate. 
Companies that embrace the possibilities of digital printing for packaging soon find themselves running leaner and more efficiently, better able to take advantage of such time-sensitive opportunities as holidays, events and personalization with their labels. More than ever before, it is this ability to seize opportunities and execute strategic insights that inspires consumer attention and connection. It is also what makes digital printing such a powerful tool for brands seeking to compete in crowded retail environments. 
Brands that strategically and creatively harness the power of advanced printing technology will find their products standing out with greater presentation and relevance on the shelves, while they also enjoy considerable savings in the production and distribution process that delivers their products to the shelves. 
About the Author
Yael Barak is segment manager, labels, strategic marketing at HP’s Indigo Division. Email her at yael.barak@hp.com