Staying Ahead of the Curve in Changing Times
When brands and consumers expect packaging and labels to do more than their basic functions of communicating information and protecting a product, it raises the stakes for package printers and converters. According to Catherine Haynes, a member of All Printing Resources’ Technical Solutions Group, a flexographic product and service provider, expectations for packaging have never been higher, as the industry strives to turn complex art into vivid, colorful packages — typically on a tight deadline.
“We see in all print segments a growing interest to create these user experiences and personalize the packaging message,” Haynes says. “It’s really increasing both quality and overall visual appeal for whatever kind of packaging or labels they’re trying to create. It has pushed our whole industry to up the ante on not only being able to deliver higher quality and more color, but also [work through] the challenges of doing it faster while trying to remain competitive.”
As package printers and converters continue to seek ways to meet the industry’s evolving challenges, common traits and strategies can be found among those at the forefront. Throughout an entire operation — sales, production and even market research — printers and converters are being challenged to carefully assess their strategies and approaches to business to ensure they thrive in changing times.
Keeping the Pulse
Given the rate at which change is occurring across the board in the package printing industry, it may be tempting to immediately jump into problem solving mode to find ways to adapt. But because each printer or converter has unique technological requirements, customer bases and market segments to serve, the best starting point for strategic improvements can often be found through research.
According to Bill Farquharson, president of Aspire For and a sales trainer with more than 35 years of experience in the graphic arts industry, there are keys to success when selling digital print and packaging. A shift needs to happen, he says. Pre-call research that focuses on the business needs of packaging customers instead of just print needs will help sales people identify specific solutions and give them the words to use in their sales calls. Farquharson recommends salespeople learn as much as possible about their prospects before making an initial call. That way, he says, a salesperson can have solutions at the ready as soon as their prospect picks up.
“There’s more information publicly available now than ever before,” Farquharson says. “We used to go to the library and now you can just pull out your iPhone and you can see who they are and what they’re all about.”
The second research-based key to sales success, Farquharson says, is understanding the best and hottest target markets. He explains that while package printers serve just about every industry, there are some that are more ripe for digital print solutions than others. Understanding the benefits of digital will help packaging sales people find the right customers and weed out those that are not the right fit.
“Some of the best prospects come from your everyday life,” he says. “I call that being sales curious — constantly seeing the opportunities. You’ve got to call the right target markets.”
However, while understanding brand owners and their specific needs is imperative for successful printers and converters, understanding consumers and how they relate to packaging can set a company apart. To keep an eye on the latest in consumer trends, WestRock, one of the largest global packaging manufacturers and suppliers, has conducted and published a series of research studies under the title “Packaging Matters.” Though the specifics of each study change, the Packaging Matters research centers on consumers and their perception, interaction and satisfaction with packaging.
According to Alison Kim, WestRock’s senior director of strategic marketing, staying on top of these consumer trends has been beneficial for the company in helping its brand and retail customers shape the ways in which they think about packaging. As the ways consumers perceive packaging change, Kim explains that conducting this research helps to provide a roadmap for the packaging supply chain to develop packaging that speaks to what consumers value most.
For example, Kim says that one of the first trends that stands out in the 2018 study is that functionality of packaging is continuing to grow in importance. While functional packaging has been a top consumer preference for multiple years, Kim explains that as shopping continues to shift online, functionality has become a way in which brands can develop trust through packaging.
“While aesthetics have a place … the functionality — and the trust that can bring to a product and a brand — are key drivers we continue to see,” Kim says. “I would expect that we continue to see this into the future, especially as ecommerce continues to grow even more.”
In addition to overall business strategy, package printers and converters should maintain a consistent dialogue with their suppliers and industry peers to understand how they can maximize their production process. According to Haynes, package printers all too often sit back and wait for their suppliers to approach them with information about new products or technologies.
Rather than taking a passive approach, Haynes recommends printers and converters take a proactive role in understanding trends in the industry and approach suppliers with questions about how to best utilize their production capabilities to align with these trends. She encourages researching trends and then talking to suppliers.
“You need to have that type of relationship if it’s going to be successful,” Haynes says. “Communication is key. If you’re vague in your goals, then you’re leaving your suppliers with very little to work with. They’re going to throw you some broad based solutions that might work, but may not truly yield you the best results. When you have a really good, close relationship with those suppliers, then they can better hone in on specific things that can more directly target your goals.”
Embracing Technological Developments
While staying on top of the latest brand, consumer and retail trends will help package printers remain successful, keeping up with the latest technology impacting the industry can be both a challenge and a key to staying ahead of the competition.
For example, digital printing, while not necessarily a brand new technology in package printing, is gaining traction across all packaging segments. It has its largest penetration in the label segment and remains an emerging technology in folding cartons, flexible packaging and corrugated. As the technology becomes more commonplace in package printing operations, salespeople will need to understand it and be motivated to educate customers on how to make the most of it.
Farquharson explains that from a sales perspective, one of the first challenges of installing digital printing is enticing salespeople to promote it. While the opportunities the technology can provide for customers are exciting, he says that because digital sales tend to be smaller quantities than conventional print, salespeople are hesitant to push customers toward digital. To them, he says, smaller orders equate to smaller commission dollars. However, by providing extra incentives for selling digital and helping salespeople understand the applications the technology thrives in, Farquharson says this can provide extra motivation for salespeople to promote a new digital press.
“You want to overcompensate the reps to make it worth their while and get their attention,” he says. “You also want to identify the applications and educate the sales reps on exactly what they are, where they are and what they need to do to get them.”
Understanding the story behind the printed piece — how it is used from the moment it arrives to the moment it is shipped — will determine how a possible digital print solution might better serve a customer need, Farquharson says. He explains that if a customer expresses concern over keeping too much packaging inventory and needing to wait until that inventory is depleted to change a design, he or she could be a strong candidate for digital printing. Or, perhaps they have a new product release coming up and can’t agree on packaging layout.
“By asking the right questions, you’ve discovered that digital print would give that person flexibility to say, ‘Let’s test some different designs,’” he says.
While a new press can certainly help package printers access new opportunities, Haynes explains that companies can still make significant production improvements through less costly technological investments. For example, she says that regardless of the technology in use, the most successful converters that All Printing Resources work with are the ones that have grasped the importance of process control.
However, by process control, Haynes explains that she is referring to far more than just managing color on press. She says that the most successful printers and converters are the ones who are going the extra mile in managing their anilox inventory, consistently monitoring their ink systems, and thinking creatively about how to leverage and work with their suppliers to help improve their overall process to deliver higher quality products, faster.
For example, Haynes says making the switch to flat top dots and solid screening solutions can help printers improve densities, while decreasing ink volume, thus increasing press speeds and improving print quality. However, it takes a coordinated effort, working with suppliers to test plate and screening options as well as ink and anilox packages.
“Often it’s little things like these that don’t require a huge capital investment,” she says. “Though it does require time and it does require talking to people and doing some testing. It’s not without effort for sure.”
While creating eye-catching packaging is an essential role for printers and converters, Kim explains that the results of WestRock’s latest “Packaging Matters” study also indicated the importance of brands establishing trust among consumers through their packaging. Helping to create this trust can be an excellent opportunity for converters.
In a prior Packaging Matters study conducted last year, Kim says that WestRock found the issue of trust to be of significant importance to consumers, many of whom indicated their appreciation of packaging that provides indications of tamper evidence.
“Giving consumers visual cues can be done in a variety of different ways with packaging and gives them that confidence, which builds loyalty and trust in the brand,” she says. “In the report, consumers tended to be more loyal if they have that trust. So making sure you get that on the first shot is really important to the consumer and ultimately to the brand.”
Another avenue toward helping brands build trust with consumers is by improving the sustainability of their packaging. While sustainability attributes did not factor as high as functionality and product safety elements among consumers, environmentally-friendly packaging attributes were deemed to be important by a majority of respondents. While sustainability was not the No. 1 overall priority for consumers, John Pensec, WestRock’s director of corporate communications, explains that consumers’ desire for sustainability can vary, depending on the geographical region or demographic they are a part of.
“As there’s a move toward mandating more recyclability of products and more sustainable packaging, that awareness is growing,” Pensec says. “In addition to geographic differences, you can look at generational differences and what is important to different groups. Underlying all of that though, is the need to educate about the packaging, and understanding for a particular brand, who their target customer is and what’s important.”