A grand message for beer: Heineken's print technology trends

15 December 2017

Mark van Iterson is the global design director of Heineken, a company renowned for its packaging innovation, whose handiwork can be seen on the shop shelves, pubs, bars and restaurants in 192 countries. He shares his thoughts on the print process and explains the three key trends in print technology for the beer market.

Beverage Packaging Innovation: How important is print in the packaging mix for you?   

Mark van Iterson: Print is critical to our brands, because it is the vehicle that carries the message and our values to the consumer. It is what allows us to make our products stand out on the shelves and to build our iconic brands.

As the world’s first international beer brand, Heineken was one of the first to recognise that it had to think beyond just the functionality of the product; in our case, the actual beer. We don’t just sell beer; we sell enjoyment and an experience, and it is this that we are building around a product that, in essence, never changes.

We make the product lively, engaging, interesting and ultimately worth more. Without the print, consumers would not be able to identify, recognise and find our products on the shelves.

If I delve deeper into the brand and what we are looking to convey through print, it is the personality of the brand. We are innovative, progressive and open. ‘Open your world’ is our tag line, and that really reflects the DNA and history of the company, the message that we want to give to our target group and also the mindset of our target group. That openness translates to our design and print. The see-through effect, the transparency and the contemporary look relate to this and this is a core icon in building the brand.

The craft beer movement opened up a huge variety in label designs in materials and storytelling. I think it provides one of the interesting, broadest showcases of what difference a print or a label can make.

What are the factors affecting the type of print you use?

Often the main factor is the supply chain, be it the pack type, technology, speed and cost that determines the freedom that you have to choose the print you like best. The technologies are all quite standardised, and the supply chain in a brewery is also influenced by how much money you make on a relatively low-margin product. The low price of beer means that you often have very limited room to play.

On the other hand, we always want to express our grand message, and along with the progressiveness and openness I have mentioned, we also like to express the quality. So in that process we always aim for the highest quality and that translates into printing. We state on the label our passion for quality; that is obviously for the beer, but it also translates for quality in all of the detail. Because only then is it credible to the consumer that we care and that we have an eye for quality. Either consciously or subconsciously, it all sends messages about the quality of your beer, the image of your brand and everything around it. I am a firm believer that the detail, design and quality is about getting the specifics right. We spend a lot of time focusing on the main strategy, the big idea, the creative concept and everything else. But in the end, the printing colour, the registration, the material and the texture has to be right.

What have been the major evolutions in print during your time with Heineken?

In my 13 years with Heineken, the biggest evolution has been digital printing. The quality of digital printing, the speed of it, the flexibility that it delivers in terms of personalisation and diversification − I think that is the main thing that has changed.

Next to that, I would identify the increasing ability that digital printing gives us to print on translucent materials, and directly onto bottles. This is still in an early phase but it is happening. It is important because it creates flexibility, speed and possibilities for personalisation or differentiation, compared with the fixed set-ups that we used to use in printing.

We can now go right down to the level where people can design their own Heineken labels for a birthday party, or we can even make extremely small badges for specific events.

What are the three main print-related trends in the beer market?

I would say one is directly linked to the technology that allows personalisation. You see it in other categories, but definitely also in beer. We did a lot of work on the cities campaign, printing specific labels for cities across the world. We can now go right down to the level where people can design their own Heineken labels for a birthday party, or we can even make extremely small badges for specific events. Printing on demand and personalisation is an important trend.

The second trend links back to the whole development of craft beers, and that is diversity. Not just in terms of look and feel, but also diversity in terms of print and label material. The craft beer movement opened up a huge variety in label designs in materials and storytelling. I think it provides one of the interesting, broadest showcases of what difference a print or a label can make.

The third trend I call ‘extra functional features’. This is where print literally gives us an extra dimension. This could be tactile inks, textures, coatings, or reflective inks. It may even be glow-in-the-dark or UV-reflective inks. Anything where the ink does something more than just show off colour. For instance, we use UV-reflective inks on an aluminium bottle for clubs and high-image premium outlets. You can do really funky stuff with that.

So, what does the future hold for print?

I will identify two main topics. One is smart inks; they basically enable you to print an interactive screen on a pack, a bit like an ebook reader or even a TV screen. It’s still in the experimental phase, but the technology is developing fast. This will open up a truly new territory for communication, interaction, consumer engagement, brand building and more.

The second one is built on what I said earlier, in line with digital printing flexibility. I think the scale may still be small, relatively expensive or just a bit too slow for our requirements, and I am sure there are also the possibilities will increase and the cost will go down. When it does, it will enable us to print directly onto bottles or even print labels on our lines in the brewery, instead of having it preprinted. That flexibility will open up many new opportunities, especially for a brand like Heineken that sells in 192 countries.

Welcome to beer island

Print technology has enabled the Island Records’ craft beer range, brewed by Two Tribes, to realise a vision of bringing together two long-standing companions, beer and music, through the smartphone app Shazam. Shazam allows users to identify a song on the radio, TV or even on the jukebox in a bar.

By 2015, Shazam had recognised the opportunities for producing a watermark on offline material. Its answer was ‘visual shazam’, a watermark that could be placed on marketing or other literature to link listeners directly to a website, to Shazam, to the Apple iTunes store or wherever the consumer wanted to listen to a song. The watermark helped accelerate Shazam’s global popularity and, by 2017, the app had been downloaded more than a billion times.

As early as 2014, Glenn Cooper, strategic marketing director at Island Records, had identified the potential that Shazam could offer his craft beer brand and was working with Two Tribes brewer Justin Deighton to make it happen. “We had two motives: one was to create a great beer, and the other was to introduce craft beer lovers to the amazing Island Records catalogue and new artists,” Cooper says. “We needed to make sure that the beer connected directly to our music.” He approached Shazam and explained that he was launching a craft beer range and had created three bespoke Spotify playlists designed for different moods. Consumers could Shazam the beer can with their mobile phones and link directly to the playlists.

“We went to them and said, ‘We love your visual shazam technology, but have you ever put it on a can before?’ They said not yet and it might be a bit of a test, but we will work out a way of getting the watermark onto a cylindrical can.” The initial effort was relatively crude. “Initially, we printed it in a digital print format and put the label on a blank can,” Cooper says. “This was early days and we were short-run manufacturing the beer so it was practical.” The next step was to print the visual shazam watermark onto the actual can, which proved to be a challenging and complicated exercise. “The process is ‘dry-offset’ printing, involving the use of eight colours and ‘computer to plate’ technology for the plate manufacture,” explains Deighton.

The industry soon took notice. The brand won the Best Innovation Award at the Beer Marketing Awards in 2016, before scooping the prestigious Best_Can or Alubottle Award at the Drinktec World Beverage Innovation Awards in 2017.

The next batch of Island Records Session IPA and Jamaica Porter cans will feature a new Shazam code rather than the watermark. Cooper and Deighton say everything is going well. “It has brought a lot of attention and we have now just launched the first ‘Shazamable’ beer mat,” Cooper says. “The brand is growing in draught as well, and we wanted to make sure that we did not miss the draught drinkers out of the equation.”

The famed record label has created three Spotify playlists that reflect different moods.
Heineken bottles depicting images of the famous Hermitage Museum in Amsterdam.
Heineken’s limited edition Cool Can packaging design reacts to cold temperatures.
Beer fans can access Island Records’ catalogue using Shazam.
Heineken’s new lightweight bottle.

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