Long live print

7 May 2020

Even in our digital age, print remains hugely important to the packaging sector – it’s the first aspect of a product a consumer sees. Annie Scanlan, membership and information officer at Integraf, discusses with Abi Millar the latest trends impacting the market in 2020, what packagers are looking for in terms of print technologies, and what the future holds.

Print is not dead – at least, not when it comes to the packaging industry. Even as we move into an increasingly digital world, the vast majority of packaging for consumers is still printed. According to the Intergraf and Smithers Packaging Report 2019, 75% of flexible packaging is printed, along with 80% of corrugated and solid fibre packaging, and 90% of cartons.

This means that, as printed media like newspapers decline, packaging has been cemented as a key market for printers of all technologies.

“Today, flexo dominates the printed packaging market in Europe, with a market share of around 56%,” says Annie Scanlan, membership and information officer at Intergraf, the European trade association for the graphic industry. “In 2017, digital printing commanded only around 1.6% market share, but this is expected to increase to 5% by 2022. Offset will increase very slightly in 2022, with gravure and other analogue technologies decreasing.”

She adds that traditional printing methods, like flexo and litho systems, will still dominate for the next few years because digital struggles to support long runs of packaging.

“Digital technology providers have a key challenge to come,” she says, “specifically, to develop an offering that is profitable, while not compromising on quality, productivity and format. Nevertheless, the expected growth in digital print is the result of packaging converters increasingly adopting digital printing to improve efficiencies and service levels in response to changing consumer needs.”

Above all, many brand-owners are noting the ways that digital print can help them personalise and customise their packaging. Beginning with Coca- Cola’s ‘Share a Coke’ campaign – which has returned with creative new iterations every summer – digital print has paved the way for some sophisticated customer engagement strategies.

Examples have included Oreo’s ‘Oreo Colorfilled’ campaign, which allowed consumers to design and digitally print a personalised pack of cookies, and Frito-Lay’s ‘Snackable Notes’, which allowed parents to print lunch notes for their children on the side of a crisp packet. HP has printed personalised labels and packaging for Moët & Chandon champagne, while Snickers used customised packaging for its ‘Hunger Bars’ campaign.

Aside from these branding benefits, digital print can lead to greater flexibility, agility and the possibility to print on demand. It’s not surprising, then, that forecasters are expecting a bright future for digital.

Exponentially digital

While the label sector has been an early adopter and is now well-established, we are also seeing growth in other areas of the digital packaging sector. According to Smithers, the market is expanding at over 15% for all formats, except for labels where the curve is flattening towards maturity.

“Digital print is evolving rapidly, and inkjet will make major inroads up to 2022 in corrugated, cartons, flexible packaging and direct-to-shape,” Scanlan continues. “Significant R&D is being spent on new technology and workflows. Print companies are expected to become more responsive over the coming years, as the time-to-market of a product decreases significantly, and the need for minimum order quantities can be eliminated.”

Percentage of European printing packaging market that digital is expected to command by 2022.

She adds that the packaging industry and brands are beginning to look at how the consumer can have an ‘experience’ – not just from the product, but also from the packaging.

“Particularly due to the growth of e-commerce, we see trends like ‘un-boxing’ videos on social media, where customers unwrap what they have bought online,” she says. “Attractive or novel packaging will draw more views of the video, and therefore create greater exposure of the product.”

While the functionality of packaging is paramount, we are also seeing a growing emphasis on its aesthetic elements. Particularly for luxury brands, the package needs to be beautiful to look at and pleasing to the touch.

However, this doesn’t mean it should be ostentatious, wasteful or extravagant. Rather, it’s about thoughtful (and sustainable) design. According to the design consultancy Corrente, some recent trends in luxury packaging include stark minimalism, ‘new eco’ packaging that emphasises sustainability, nostalgic designs that reference the past and the implementation of digital technologies.

“Print companies are expected to become more responsive over the coming years, as the timeto- market of a product decreases signifi cantly, and the need for minimum order quantities can be eliminated.”

“Packaging needs to present the product well, to promote the brand, to provide good positioning and to provide information on the product,” Scanlan continues. “Colour, typography, imagery and form all come into this. Printers are responding to this demand from brands by developing sophisticated techniques like embellishments and textured surfaces.”

Packaging with a soul

On the subject of sustainability, it’s clear that the demand for better environmental credentials will impact the printed packaging sector for the foreseeable future. We are moving away from wastefulness generally, and there is a major push – from consumers and regulators alike – towards a wiser choice of materials.

For instance, the European Commission wants all plastic packaging to be reusable or easily recyclable by 2030. EU member states will need to establish extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes for all packaging by 2024, alongside targets on plastic reduction and recycling. And the circular economy is not just a buzzword, but a growing regulatory trend.

“While anti-plastic campaigns and regulatory commitments are undeniably a challenge to certain markets, there is also a lot of opportunity to innovate, as well as to educate consumers,” says Scanlan. “It is the responsibility of all stakeholders in the packaging value chain to identify how much material is required, and which type of material is needed to achieve packaging optimisation while minimising environmental impact.”

She adds that, while the packaging industry has a role to play in this, consumers and the waste management industry are also part of the solution. It’s important that consumers have all the relevant information at hand about how to recycle the product, and that recycling facilities have the correct equipment to sort materials properly.

“Part of the problem we see now, where material that is fully recyclable is not reaching the recycling facilities and ending up as pollution, shows that these two steps are not always followed,” Scanlan continues. “A close examination of collection, sorting and recycling strategies is therefore required without delay.”

Of course, the specifics of what this means will differ from sector to sector. When it comes to the food packaging market, there are certain tradeoffs that need to be made so the sustainability conversation can become more nuanced.

“The functionality of the package to protect the food and prolong shelf-life is key in reducing food waste – another serious global problem,” Scanlan explains. “Innovations in smart packaging and printed electronics – for instance packaging that turns colour as the food goes off – can help here.”

With regard to printing choices specifically, design for recyclability is essential. This impacts everything, from the types of inks used to the scope for packaging to be broken down easily.

“Sophisticated printing techniques, like the integration of a unique code into packaging materials, can support efficient sorting systems and, overall, improve recycling,” explains Scanlan. “This might include tracers in plastics, digital watermarks or engraved codes.”

Brand-led awareness

She thinks that regulatory changes may affect the way printed packaging is designed. For instance, if brands are tasked with ensuring their products are eco-friendly, they might start placing printed elements on the labelling, as opposed to the packaging itself, to facilitate easy recycling.

A further trend over the next few years will be industry 4.0, in which factories and warehouses are transformed by automation and data.

“For packaging in particular, the key advantage consists in the production of the right packaging for a specific product at the right time – such as on demand for shipping to the customer of an online retailer,” says Scanlan. “Accurately matching the packaging to the product reduces waste, and costs, by avoiding bulky, heavy or unnecessary protective packaging. Subscriptions for printed products, increasing personalisation, and smart use of digital elements, are all on the cards.”

These digital elements, she adds, have a key role to play in deepening the connection between the consumer and the brand. With tools such as QR codes, virtual reality and real-time video rendering, packaging becomes interactive.

“This enables the consumer to communicate with the brand – something that was previously difficult, if not impossible,” says Scanlan. “It helps brands differentiate themselves from the competition, and can create loyal, returning customers. Printers will increasingly be asked to integrate these digital possibilities into packaging.”

Above all, printers will need to be flexible, adapting to whatever new challenges and opportunities arise. As consumers’ preferences change, and data and digitalisation open up new possibilities, the industry will start to see the emergence of new business models.

“New market entrants will be disruptors, and existing companies will need to be brave and reflect on their processes, and provide a new offering,” says Scanlan. “This may require investments into research and machinery, which can be a daunting task. Nevertheless, the printing industry is no stranger to change, and is used to moving with the times. There is a clear demand for fantastic looking and fantastic-feeling packaging, of which printers will take advantage.”

Printers are increasingly going to be asked to do new things – but there will be no shortage of future demand.

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