Color Consistency is Key
When a brand’s product line requires a multitude of packaging, achieving color consistency across the board can be a daunting task. Consumers look to packaging for cues about the quality of a product, so when there are discrepancies in brand colors on labels, flexible packaging, folding cartons and overwraps, it may lead to a negative perception.
Some brands rely on one converter to produce several of its varying packages, while others spread the work among multiple firms. Regardless of the scenario, precise and clear communication is required, and Ted Biggs, VP of manufacturing at AWT Labels and Packaging, explains that it is best to work with L*a*b color values — the mathematical perception of colors.
“Let’s say you were trying to hit a 485 red across an SBS, a semi-gloss, a white BOPP and a clear film,” he says. “In order to be able to achieve the same look, you’re going to have different ink formulations based on the material that the inks are being applied to.”
AWT Labels and Packaging creates custom L*a*b color values based on its customer’s needs and develops a tolerance based on the brand’s color acceptance, which helps to determine the color that will be used across all packaging, says Ink Technology Specialist Tchyneng Yang. Shawn Oetjen, a flexographic printing trainer at Flexographic Tech, a training center affiliated with AWT, adds that not every converter is using the same inks and suppliers, which makes the numerical aspect of color matching key.
“We may not be using the same suppliers, but at the end of the day, we have to achieve the same color,” Oetjen says. “By utilizing L*a*b values, we can do that. It’s really important to communicate lighting and spectrophotometer settings, things like D-50 or a 2-degree observer, even the backing of a measurement process.”
The Key to ‘Instant Recognition’
Mark Heimerl, VP of sales and marketing at NCL Graphic Specialties, says that brands invest time and effort into the instant recognition associated with a certain color or logo and points to one brand in particular that relies heavily on that recognition.
“Think of Coca-Cola red,” he says. “That red is formulated for every single substrate they print on, from the aluminum of their cans to the coated corrugated. Any packaging that Coca-Cola does, it is the same red. It’s part of their identity when they design a package.”
Oetjen explains that establishing and communicating L*a*b color values throughout the supply chain can also provide a failsafe when color discrepancies arise. Even when working with PMS colors, he says the same color may not be identical in two different PMS books.
“One of the most important things is determining a clear standard that you are trying to achieve,” Oetjen says. “If you simply say [you’re using] a PMS 185 red, a lot of people don’t realize that you have two different PMS books and the 185 red might not look the same, so we need to establish those L*a*b values.”
Biggs suggests having one point person at the brand who will communicate with all of the converters regarding color reading and implementation of the color’s numerical values.
Sometimes though, it’s not feasible to have one point person to work with. Heimerl explains that the three product lines NCL produces — cut and stack labels, flexible packaging and promotional products — are almost always sourced by various individuals at the brand. The labels, he says, may be ordered from the packaging buyer, flexible packaging by procurement and the promotional products, such as coupons to go with the packaging, will be purchased by the marketing team. This is where communication of brand standards are crucial, he says, citing color quality, logo designation and placement and FDA regulations as just a few of the concerns that need to be established across all forms of packaging in a product line.
Matching Across Different Processes
When multiple converters produce packages for a single product line, it helps to have a physical representation to match, so Yang explains that AWT works directly with the brand to provide that standard.
“We work on the label side first,” he says. “The brand will use that to show other converters what they need to achieve.”
If AWT is brought in later in the process, Biggs explains that the company will take a physical example from one of the other converters involved in that product line and match their product to what was previously produced.
“One of the more challenging things for us is matching a digitally printed product on our flexo machines because of the different ink systems, dot gains and inherent imperfect registration,” he says.
For example, a brand might need to add a label or coupon to an existing folding carton. In that situation, Heimerl says NCL works directly with the other converter.
“Sometimes we will have a brand that needs a coupon, a label or some sort of on-pack,” he says. “So we will coordinate with that package printer, because they probably printed it litho, flexo or gravure and we’re producing offset or on our flexo, but with a different substrate, so our color standards are going to be different.”
Color matching can be challenging when using different printing processes on multiple substrates. Kevin Hayes, executive VP of sales and marketing of Neenah, Wis.-based converter Outlook Group, explains that both paper and film substrates accept ink differently, depending on weight, surface tension, and opacity.
“We are G7 certified across the business for this reason,” he says. “It serves as a tool to maintain color consistency throughout our print shop.”
Outlook Group differentiates itself by producing labels, flexible packaging and folding cartons in a single facility, along with providing contract packaging services. Hayes says that grouping more steps of the packaging process under one roof can drastically reduce color matching issues that might arise from multiple converters printing different pieces of a product line.
“To support, we’re seeing more brands utilizing the same software as printers, so we can collaborate back and forth on structural designs, proofing, color management, copy editing and more,” he says.
Along with open and transparent communication, Biggs explains it’s essential that converters understand what is most important to the brand.
“It’s important to know what the critical components of the artwork are,” Biggs says. “Sometimes there are difficult backgrounds, but the brand is more concerned about the logo areas or a four-color process image on there. We try to understand what they’re looking for up front and tailor the process to match.”
Even with the utmost preparation, things can sometimes still go wrong, resulting in delays and challenges.
“We were transitioning business over that was being done by a different printer across dozens of SKUs,” Biggs says. “The other printer had over-impressed their plates and were not printing ‘by the numbers’ — therefore were not hitting FIRST [Flexographic Image Reproduction Specifications and Tolerances] densities, so it was extremely difficult to reproduce the four-color process images that they had produced. We have our presses finger printed and set up to match FIRST densities.”
Overall, Hayes feels it’s imperative to have the right blend of design expertise and prepress comprehension to ensure color consistency across product lines.
“We have a strong internal team, and partner with many prepress houses that serve our clients,” he says. “Together, we are able to satisfy the demands of today’s largest and up-and-coming brands.”
But there are other challenges on the horizon between converters and brands.
“One of the biggest concerns for major or private label brands is SKU proliferation from further customization required by existing and emerging retail formats,” he says. “As retailers strive to set themselves apart from the rest, each retailer may want their own custom-packaged version of your product. Ecommerce further complicates the color matching process as well, since all devices render colors differently online.”