Digital Printing: Breaking Through to Brands
As printers and converters across the packaging spectrum continue to adopt digital printing, brands from just about every market segment are discovering ways the technology can benefit their businesses.
While some brands are in need of a short-run solution, others are benefiting from digital printing’s speed to market, variable printing capabilities, ability to reduce packaging inventory, and more. And as digital printing’s quality continues to rival offset and flexo, it is becoming harder to tell what is printed digitally and what is printed conventionally.
For example, getting your hands on a bottle of Side Project Brewing’s beer is easier said than done. When this craft brewer, based just outside of St. Louis, debuts a new beer, its brewery and tasting room quickly becomes packed with beer lovers eager to take home one of these rare bottles. Side Project’s fans know the beer inside is a meticulously crafted premium item, but one look at the way this beer is packaged immediately indicates that it is a special product.
Depending on the style of beer, the labels often feature a deep, rich black background on an embossed or gold foiled linen paper substrate. Or, for fruit beers, a bottle is often adorned with a white label with a boldly colored berry. But despite their premium appearance, these labels are not produced on a high-end offset or flexo press. It is more cost-effective to print Side Project’s minimal run sizes digitally — and digital has proven to be up to the challenge.
Digital Printing Meets Brand Demands
When Calvin Osterberg, director of purchasing for Rochester Midland Corp., looked at how the company was storing its packaging in its warehouse, he saw “dollars sitting on the shelf.”
The Rochester, N.Y.-based manufacturer of specialty chemicals had been sourcing its corrugated packaging in bulk, and then labeling boxes as needed with a digital label printer located at its site. The system worked, but Osterberg began to seek out a solution to improve this packaging process while maintaining the bottom line.
“You’ve got 126 different custom labels that have to be inventoried, cycle counted and obsoleted when graphics change,” he says. “You have the people that have to take care of those labels. You have all the purchase orders, the inventory transactions and the accounts receivable activity that goes with that. All the tertiary costs that encompass maintaining that type of a program are incredible when you start to add them up.”
Osterberg explains that he began to look into digital printing as a way to reduce these overhead costs. Though he found that the price of a digitally printed corrugated box is higher than that of a plain brown box that gets labeled, the reduction in inventory and its associated costs essentially brought Rochester Midland to a breakeven point while improving its internal processes.
“The elimination of generic inventory is absolutely one of the benefits we’ve had here — the elimination of the individual labels that we used to have in three different cabinets out on our stock floors,” Osterberg says. “If you’re going totally digital — and we are on that path — if we have 126 different labels that are in inventory and stocked now, that’s going to go away and the requirement for maintaining it is also going to go away.”
At Side Project Brewing, not only are the beer release events the first chance consumers have to buy a bottle, it’s usually the only chance. Because the brewery produces such a limited amount of each beer it creates, they are typically sold as “one-and-done” offerings and are only available at Side Project’s locations. Without a flagship beer that remains on the shelf all year long, conventional printing was never a feasible option for Side Project.
Tim Bottchen, Side Project’s art director and photographer, says that for many of these releases, less than 1,000 bottles are produced, making conventional printing out of the question. Side Project’s labels are printed by Prime Package & Label, and from the beginning, Bottchen says Adam Heissler, a senior account executive at Prime, steered the brewery toward digital.
“I don’t even know if we discussed traditional [printing] because of the small runs of the beers,” Bottchen says. “Some of them, we’re literally talking a couple hundred labels. Adam was saying it’s probably not worth it unless you are going to do a massive run or you are going to have a beer that’s always going to be on your shelf and available in constant rotation.”
Breaking into the Big Brands
Short run lengths and small batch production makes for an obvious fit for digital at companies like Rochester Midland and Side Project Brewing. But for international conglomerates like Colgate-Palmolive, the potential benefits of digital printing differ.
Ray Mass, who retired as Colgate-Palmolive’s printing technology manager in December 2017, explains that the company does not utilize much digital printing, but has discovered a few ways it can be implemented.
Mass says that Colgate-Palmolive’s sales samples and mockups of product packaging are often produced digitally, but then when it comes time to release the product to the market, it transitions to a conventional process. However, he says he foresees the growth of ecommerce, along with customized point of purchase displays in brick and mortar retail locations as possible areas where digital could be a solution.
“We actually have a hand soap that you go online and customize and you can put a picture of whoever you want on a bottle,” Mass says. “You send in a picture and they’ll print it out and put it on a couple bottles of soap and send it out to you. From a personalization standpoint and customization on certain items, that’s probably the opportunities at the present time.”
One of the biggest challenges that Mass says will face converters seeking to provide digital printing to large brands is presenting them with something new that will provide a “wow” factor. Because most of these brands have such longstanding relationships with their current printers and have a concrete packaging program, when offering them a new service, it should be something that provides significant value.
“Look at any kind of innovation you can bring to that company,” Mass says. “Any promotional ideas or other things where you can come in and make a presentation to somebody, whether it be in the marketing department, the design department, or even procurement because procurement sometimes still rules the roost when it comes to who is going to do the printing. You really have to have some out-of-the-box thinking.”
Print Quality that Stands Out
Historically, one of the knocks against digital printing is that it could not compete with conventional technologies on print quality. However, not only has the technology advanced to a competitive level with offset and flexo, it can also provide brands with the ability to add a splash of color where one may have lacked before.
At Rochester Midland, Osterberg explains that the company’s products are often stored in industrial settings, where plain brown boxes are the norm. However, the company had developed two new product lines called SNAP and EZ-Mix, which both provide special applicators that allow the chemical inside a bottle to be dispensed at a specific concentration.
When these products launched, Osterberg says Rochester Midland wanted to find a way to ensure they stood out against other chemical products. The company worked with its digital printing partner to develop packaging samples that showed the complex designs that digital printing can reproduce, along with its ability to produce more basic graphics. That way, Osterberg says, Rochester Midland’s marketing team could gain an understanding of how digital printing can be a fit for the company’s various needs.
“For our EZ-Mix and SNAP product, when they were looking for differentiation, they went top end,” he says. “We’ve got very vibrant colors that jump out at you. If you walk into a warehouse, that product will scream at you when it’s next to the brown box product. We’ve been able to match colors on the corrugated to colors on the label and colors on our brochures. It’s allowed us to color match and create a product family so that when any one of our customers sees this color, they recognize it as a specific product.”
While Osterberg says that Rochester Midland’s customers benefited from this color coding offered by the new distinctive packaging, the morale boost he saw within the company was an unexpected benefit from the transition to digital.
“The graphic designers got excited about the project as it allowed for more of their creative and artistic side to be displayed utilizing a new to them technology to replace the previous plain and ordinary brown boxes,” he says. “There was a buzz in manufacturing when the high graphics and bright colors showed up on the production lines, and the team that picks customer orders can identify the correct products from across the warehouse, increasing their efficiency.”
Utilizing different types of labels and packaging is a necessity at Roseville, Minn.-based Bent Brewstillery. Owner and Founder Bartley Blume was originally a craft brewer, but sought a way to stand out from the influx of beer producing competition. So, he decided to research the spirit distilling process and honed his craft to the point where he could add whiskeys, gins, rums and liqueurs to his repertoire, thus becoming a “brewstillery.”
As a small business with a varied product selection, Bent Brewstillery utilizes labels for its beer and spirit bottles, and shrink sleeves for its canned beer. With a combination of year-round offerings and limited production releases, Blume explains it makes sense for the Brewstillery to utilize flexo and digital printing. Digital, Blume says, has lived up to his expectations.
“The resolution is great and works really well for those applications and those times where it’s not going to be a year-round beer and we’re not expecting to make a whole lot of them,” Blume says. “A limited run or a small run is more economical to do with digital printing.”
All About Education and Communication
Blume explains that as a craft brewer and distiller, his expertise is not in printing. He says that educating brands on the benefits and drawbacks of both digital and conventional printing from the start can help get everyone on the same page and help the brand owner decide which process best fits his or her needs.
“What’s more important to one manufacturer isn’t necessarily going to be the same thing that’s important to the next manufacturer,” he says. “Lay out those things in a logical fashion so that it’s easily understood so they can make the right decision going forward if they want to experiment with digital or stick with flexo.”
At a major brand like Colgate-Palmolive, Mass recommends that a printer or converter have a concrete digital strategy in place before attempting to open up a dialogue with that brand about digital. He explains that just having a digital press or two is not enough capacity to realistically produce digital packaging for such a large corporation.
“They may have a couple [digital] presses here and there, but I don’t think they have the capacity to provide digital on a regular basis for a lot of our products, so that is probably the biggest issue right now,” Mass says. “A lot of the printers that we deal with may have a press in one plant and another press in another plant, but they don’t typically have a huge digital strategy of providing a large volume of products to someone like Colgate.”
For Side Project Brewing, Bottchen says he has an advantage in that his background is in graphic design for print. As the designer of all of the brewery’s labels, he explains that he knows well in advance exactly how to construct the prepress file to be optimized for digital printing. Additionally, he says he can serve as a liaison between the company’s label printer and its owners.
He recommends that when pitching digital printing to a smaller brand, bringing that brand’s designer into the conversation can benefit a printer. Sparking excitement in a graphically-minded individual to the point where they want to make the digital leap can be a great way to bridge the communication gap.
“A lot of times, the owner is thinking about the bottom line or timelines and designers always want to go big, make it look beautiful and get all of the little details,” Bottchen says. “A lot of times, a designer will become the cheerleader for that printer if they’re getting their final product to look great on shelf or in consumers’ hands.”