Differentiation is the buzz word brand owners use today to describe how the packaging of their products needs to appear in the store aisles. The packaging has to draw the attention of shoppers so that it stands out on the shelf.
To achieve that standout, brand owners are pushing for a variety of new inks and coatings technologies to enhance the decoration on their packaging. Labels are a unique type of flexible packaging that brand owners are especially targeting. Much of the label printing and converting equipment in use today combine multiple printing and decorating processes, such as flexo, gravure, screen, and offset printing as well as foil stamping, embossing, etc., which inherently provide brand owners with a broad range of options in terms of achievable effects that can attract and engage consumers.
Advancements in ink and coating products and technologies that leverage these production capabilities to provide further enhanced effects and performance provide new and improved opportunities for differentiation.
High Growth Label Applications
A couple of specific label application segments, shrink/stretch sleeve labels and in mold labels, have seen dramatic growth over recent years and offer unique branding and consumer experience opportunities.
Both of these applications allow for high-end graphic reproduction that can cover nearly all of the package as compared to printing and decorating approaches previously and most commonly utilized, which were limited in both graphic capabilities and package coverage.
Sleeve labels also allow for unique package design opportunities for brand owners to be able to use various contoured packages that are both attractive and ergonomic for consumer use.
Label-less Look Effects
One of the attractive values of label applications is the ability to create an effect where the label blends into the primary packaging, creating a label-less look effect. This is most often employed in applications where the actual product is desired to be shown through the labeled packaging. However, in order for the graphic portion of the label to stand out, opaque whites are typically applied as the foundation.
Recent advancements in design of opaque white inks across the range of ink technologies (screen, flexo and gravure, UV/EB-cured, water-based, solvent-based) have continued to increase the hiding power as well as brightness of these whites, which further improves the effects of the graphics employed on top of them.
Using Special Effect Inks and Coatings
One technique that flexo printers can utilize to differentiate the product packaging of its customers includes special-effect inks and coatings, which offer a variety of visual special effects, including high-luster metallic, fluorescent, glitter, pearlescent, iridescent, frosted, and gloss.
Historically, the use of metallic coatings on packaging has been limited, and therefore is not commonly seen on the store shelves, but now there are a wide range of coatings that can take on a unique metallic tone. Using bright mirror-like silver and gold coatings and effects, for example, can separate a package from the competition on the shelves.
Use of a cold-foil adhesive is another special-effect coating that can help products pop off the shelf. Designed for flexographic or litho applications, the coating system allows for simpler foil stamping that yields economical replacements for metalized and holographic substrates and can be used on a variety of substrates.
Newer pigmented coatings can yield an effect that changes color depending on the angle of view. This is very enticing to customers since the package seems to morph as they pass by the display. These types of coatings can come in a variety of colors from blue to green or yellow to orange shifting.
Glitter coatings incorporate small holographic bits of glitter to generate other appealing visual effects. Best applied with a roll coater, the effect from this coating is most pronounced over dark colors.
Other coatings offer a unique matte/gloss effect, which creates a pronounced contrast between the glossy UV coating and the smooth matte appearance where the spot overprint varnish is under the coating.
Other coatings can be designed to produce a pearlescent effect when applied over or under an ink or on a substrate. These coatings can mute an image when applied over ink.
Similar to the pearlescent effects coatings are the iridescent coatings, which are rather flat and weakly colored when viewed at one angle, but take on the metallic sheen of another color when the viewing angle is changed. While not the best choice for small detailed work, this effect can be used to simulate metallic effects, depending on the thickness of the coating used.
In addition to grabbing the attention of consumers, some inks can take a package to a whole different level with interaction.
Thermochromic inks, for example, change color with temperature. A beer can could turn blue when cold and remain silver when warm. The colors can match common heat and cold sources, from the fridge, skin or microwave, and can make multiple transitions. Thermochromics can also be used to promote frozen candy bars where a unique graphic appears when the temperature drops below 40 degrees.
Thermochromic applications can be used for hidden messages, interactive games for children on packages and other sweepstakes and promotional gimmicks. In addition, photochromic coatings can cause colors to appear on a package when exposed to UV light or sunlight.
Consumers can also interact with packaging that glows in the dark. A candy bar logo could glow, for example, or a package could use the effect for special promotions or seasonal items.
When a consumer touches a package on a shelf, there is a 70 percent chance it will end up in the shopping cart. By enhancing the package with simple coatings that provide a textured effect, the odds of that package going in the cart only increase.
One of these types of coatings varies the finished dried films from a smooth dull appearance into a reticulated texture effect (such as a wrinkled “alligator” hide).
The use of embossing and debossing to enhance a package is well known, but specific dies must be set up, which adds cost and lead time for a job. The use of a thick, flexo-applied UV coating can duplicate the effect of embossing and provide a low-cost alternative that allows for quicker turnaround. Designed as a high-viscosity coating, these types of coatings give a tactile feel of an embossed product when spot-applied.
Tactile coatings can come in a range of particle sizes for different effects and offer gloss, matte or satin finishes, allowing for very rough to soft and silky feel options. Suitable for flexo applications, these coatings can be surface-printed on paper or film.
Other coatings create a matte surface that has a soft feel. Designed for a wide variety of substrates, these types of coatings have the advantages of not being used on a hard scuff-resistant surface and not producing the “vinyl” feel that other coatings have to offer.
Printing High-Definition Graphics
High-definition graphics are another way to help packaging stand out on store shelves. Conventional digital plates are the standard technology used by most package printers, and while they are a significant advancement from CTF platemaking technology, they still have some limitations.
Conventional digital-produced dots are very pixilated, which creates dot gain, inconsistent results and fluting. Dot gain and dirty print are just the first concern – image quality is another. Typically, conventional digital plate image quality reaches approximately 2,540 ppi.
Those printers that switch to high-definition plate technology can print with an image quality of up to 4,000 ppi, resulting in expanded tonal range, wider color gamut and increased screen lpi to produce sharper, more vibrant images and colors.
Combining HD benefits and quality with flat-top dot plate technology increases capabilities by printing with 30 to 60 percent less impression sensitivity compared to standard digital plates, which allows for longer, cleaner, more consistent runs with fewer stops for press adjustments and plate cleaning.
HD plate technology enables quality to match offset and digital print for label printers, making repurpose of designs easy. In flexible packaging, HD plates give stronger solids for more shelf impact, thanks to expanded tonal range and easier printing.
Utilizing Laser Marking Solutions
The use of variable data in supply chain logistics and retail marketing is commonplace, but the conventional packaging supply chain is not yet optimized for the late-stage application of variable data on the package.
Prevailing solutions for data applications typically involve secondary labels and inkjet coding and marking technology, which complicate and slow down the packaging supply chain. Poor quality or inconsistent inkjet coding can be a cause of costly product returns and fines from retailers.
In a conventional workflow, preprinted substrates are converted into finished packs, so key product information is an intrinsic element of the package design. The addition of promotional information or competitions has significant implications, requiring complex planning and long lead times to introduce promotional packs into the supply chain, while unused or obsolete promotional packaging generates unacceptable material waste.
These challenges can be resolved by printing a patch of a specially developed transparent or tinted coating onto the generic packaging stock at the artwork printing stage. This coating is reactive to a low-power CO2 or fiber laser, producing a black image under a laser, enabling the converter to add high-contrast coding information after filling and closure, without complicating the packaging process and with no risks to the packaged product.
This type of coating can be used for regular product information and barcodes, as well as cross-media devices such as QR codes to enable consumers to access more in-depth product information, or to participate in brand communities and individualized games and competitions.
Brand owners want their labels to stand out on the shelf. To achieve this differentiation, there are many decorative techniques that can be utilized, including special-effect inks and coatings, HD plate technology, 3D printing, laser marking solutions, smart labels, and even a composition that can de-seam a flexible printed sleeve from a PET bottle. Other solutions are available as well, from brand protection solutions to color matching. The options brand owners can take to achieve differentiation are virtually limitless.