Question Time

Question Time

How will digital print technology affect packaging design over the coming years?


Digital print technology has changed the way that we approach printing, with the developments allowing for a more streamlined operation and expanding the possibilities that can be achieved through printing processes. These advancements have yet to take off completely in the packaging industry, with cost implications still making it difficult for businesses to justify printing digitally. The packaging perfectionists have also casted doubt on the quality of digital printing compared to it’s analogue counterparts.

The ‘Share a Coke’ campaign that went viral in the summer of 2013 is a brilliant example of how digital printing can help a well-thought out branding and marketing campaign, and Coca-Cola were undoubtedly the envy of the packaging industry with the success they have enjoyed following the campaign. So are Coca-Cola leading the way in digital print technology or do we still have a lot of questions to ask before digital becomes the go-to way of printing our packaging?

Smithers PIRA, Packaging experts


Digital printing is beneficial in packaging applications for three fundamental reasons. Firstly, it allows short runs to become economic, ideal for increasingly fragmented micro brands and versioning. It also enables new, interactive and dynamic features to be added to packs, helping brands to engage more deeply with their customers. Then there is the added factor that digital technology allows converters to improve the overall efficiency of their plants, by taking short runs off analogue presses.

However, these are not the only ways in which digital print technology is impacting packaging design. As this technology continually changes, digital press formats are enlarging and the economics are improving. Quality is now generally accepted to be on a par with offset and gravure, and higher than flexo.

Coca Cola’s European ‘Share a Coke’ campaign provided a landmark for the technology; it has brought digital printing to the mainstream and also to the attention of many designers. Developed over several campaigns on smaller brands such as Sprite in Israel before the billion European labels were produced, this campaign taught an important lesson. That lesson was this; have a great idea, test it on a small brand or in local territory, measure the results and then refine and expand to make a meaningful campaign. This brings to mind the maxim of AG Lafley, (CMO of Procter and Gamble) who famously commented that “Advertising is almost as important as packaging.”

Designers now have a new set of tools to explore and develop which will push the capabilities of packs. There are many innovative examples being publicised, not just Coke, and designers should take heed and use parts in their work.

In the future, there are bound to be both successes and failures, and as with all packaging good design will support the brand. Digital print provides new opportunities to vary the content and is a great way to differentiate a supplier from the traditional analogue tradition. Most interestingly, it finally lets converters talk about new possibilities, rather than the common price debate.

Neil Turnbull, Production Manager- bluemarlin London

Fundamentally there are three reasons that digital printing is yet to take off in our industry – price, consistency and size.

At the moment, only huge global brands like Coca-Cola are in the position to finance digital printing technology in marketing campaigns. It has to be said, they did this brilliantly with ‘Share a Coke’. It was a pioneering approach that definitely got people talking and brands thinking of the possibilities digital printing could open up for them. Brands are always keen to exploit opportunities to create limited edition ranges or include competitions with pack-specific entry codes. Also important for brands would be the ability to alter information on the back of pack to be in line with ever-changing legislation rules. Digital printing makes it all the more possible – saving businesses time and money in the long run.

Inflated pricing aside, the lack of colour and quality consistency in digital printing is also a concern. Until large-scale digital print runs can absolutely guarantee that what’s printed will all look and feel the same, companies will remain reluctant to make the switch.

There’s no doubt that it’s only a matter of time before digital is commonplace and analogue printing becomes thing of the past. There will be nothing holding the industry back from digital if the obvious problems it currently has are resolved.

Gillian Garside-Wight, Packaging Technology Director, Your Packaging Partner, Sun Branding Solutions

Coca-Cola’s ‘Share a Coke’ campaign was marketing savvy at its finest – the number of column inches a simple packaging tweak has resulted in are testament to that.

Commercial digital printing has improved dramatically over the last decade and is now a realistic competitor to conventional printing methods, both in quality and cost. Coca-Cola is the biggest brand to push the boundaries and openly advertise some of the advantages of digital printing to the masses, but there is still a marked difference between bespoke generalisation (in Coke’s case) and real personalisation when it comes to packs. While the 150 named bottles is a major leap in the right direction when it comes to making inroads to personalisation, with the use of available technology, it’s just a first step.

It’s clearly not right for Coke to fully adopt personalisation, but for those brands that do want to do so, there are a number of effective options available.

For ‘Share a Coke’, Coca-Cola printed its packaging commercially in regular runs, with only the artwork being altered. This was a cheap and safe way to test the waters and the results speak for themselves. The downside to this approach is that the level of ‘personalisation’ that can be achieved is limited – many names were left out.

Greater personalisation means higher cost, but digital printing can be used to meet personalised packaging halfway. For the next tier of personalisation, titles, sub descriptors and even images can be altered. These can be specified by customers at point of order or purchase, adding a further level of engagement to retailers’ online shopping sites.

True personalisation – the most complicated in terms of logistics and cost – involves digitally printing packs with individual personalisation and this can be implemented at point of order or point of purchase. Because of the leaps and bounds that technology has taken in production processes, this option is no longer as cost prohibitive as it used to be. E-tailers, Getting Personal and use these methods extensively and successfully, although mainly on gifts and greetings cards.

Digital printing has a realistic part to play in the printing of packaging going forward. As with all printing techniques, they must be fit for purpose with regard to the substrate, design and volume required, but digital printing offers USP’s that conventional printing can’t match and that is personalisation and personalisation is only just emerging into mainstream products.

Digital printing opens up a new opportunity for brands to communicate with their consumers. Packaging designs are no longer restricted but can be tailored to specific demographics or individuals.

Lara Klaassen, Production Director- BrandOpus


Increasing improvements in digital print technology and quality has introduced new flexibility for brands to be creative and push the boundaries of their packaging. We see four key areas in which digital print technology will affect packaging design over the coming years. Digital print technology is perfectly positioned to allow brands to personalise. Whether commercially available or accessible via a social media campaign.

Commercially available personalisation

Of course the campaign front of mind when thinking of customization is ‘Share a Coke’. Unquestionably the campaign was an engaging way to reconnect the brand with its consumers. By nodding to the fact that Coca-Cola is so much more than just a logo, the brand itself was strengthened in the view of the consumer. Of course the Coca-Cola brand is so iconic that replacing its logo with any other word does nothing to detract from it being unmistakably Coke.

‘Share a Coke’ saw approximately 800 million personalised labels were printed with the top 150 names in each of more than 32 European countries, in 15 languages and five different alphabets. Running the campaign with a standardised yet personalised range of names reached out to consumers as individuals, enabling them to get up close and personal with the packaging on shelves, as opposed to the majority of personalised packaging campaigns we have seen to date, that rely on bespoke online orders and no personal interaction.

Whilst digital print technology made the personalisation opportunity feasible, it was the strength of the brand and the fact it could be commercially sold in stores was invaluable in heightening the brand experience, leading to the media attention and success of the campaign. But brands with an identity as iconic as Coca-Cola are thin on the ground, and this particular campaign achieved so much coverage that marketers should hesitate before considering a similar campaign, which would undoubtedly be deemed copy-cat.

It is also worth noting that whilst ‘Share a Coke’ used digital print technology, the project wouldn’t have been possible without conventional print methods too.


Social media-based personalisation

Despite the obvious success of ‘Share a Coke’, it would be remiss not to recognise that social media has fast become the most public ‘personal’ aspect of our modern day lifestyles. Whilst not all brands can adopt the same commercial selling approach as the Coke campaign, they can take advantage of the rise of social media and combine this with digital print technology to deliver timely and economical packaging campaigns – as long as it’s right for the brand.

A great example is the Heinz ‘Get Well Soup’ Facebook campaign, which enabled consumers to order online and send a personalised can of Heinz ‘Get Well Soup’ to their poorly loved ones. This is an exemplar case of a campaign that comes from the heart of the brand and makes sense as a cohesive story: from the comforting product already associated with the road to recovery after sickness, right through to the personalised packaging, which follows current brand styling conventions, just as Coke achieved.


A consumers ability to customise packaging, should not be confused with personalisation and can in fact weaken a brand rather than create an engaging brand experience. It’s much more difficult for customisation to work from the brand as a larger amount of creative freedom is left in the hands of the consumer, and consequently campaigns have a tendency to be diluted to a limitless number of DIY designs that have little connection to the brand.

Your Heineken, Malibu by U and My Kleenex are all examples of digital print-harnessed, consumer customisation, which are interesting as one off pieces. But each of these examples only serve to erode the brand in the long-term as the freedom the consumer is given to customise is not brand relevant.

Customisation does however offer a great avenue of opportunity for the brand that manages to harness it effectively. Limited editions
Adapting branded packaging to celebrate special occasions has long been a favoured marketing campaign approach. From coronations to Christmas, royal weddings and babies to the Olympics, brands adapt to harness the spirit of the moment to increase purchase propensity, particularly in the UK.

Digital print technology is ideal for limited edition runs as it offers the ability to react quickly to special events that make sense for the brand. Digital print is often too expensive for long runs, but limited edition campaigns are by definition short to increase consumer attraction, so by its very nature digital print technology lends itself to the occasion.

In conclusion, digital print is a great tool to have on board when planning a packaging based marketing strategy, but the campaign must be born from the brand rather than launched for the sake of using the print technology we have on hand.



Smithers Pira, Packaging experts. Smithers Pira is the worldwide authority on packaging, paper and print industry supply chains. Established in 1930, the company provides strategic and technical consulting, testing, intelligence and events to help clients gain market insights, identify opportunities, evaluate product performance and manage compliance.

Neil Turnbull Production Manager, bluemarlin London. After starting his career at Brown, Inc. 12 years ago, Neil Turnbull now heads up the Production Department at bluemarlin London. He has a wide range of experience with all types of packing brands that utilise a variety of print techniques. Key clients include Masterfoods, Diagio, Unilever, Shell, SAB Miller, GSK, Britvic, Isklar and Weight Watchers.

Gillian Garside-Wight packaging technology director, Your Packaging Partner, Sun Branding Solutions. Gillian is a highly respected senior professional in the packaging industry, recognised for her expertise in new packaging design and creation, supply chain management and communication of trends and needs within the food packaging value chain. She frequently authors articles and comments on features relating to packaging trends and innovations, including anything from own-label to luxury to regulations.

Lara Klaassen Production Director, BrandOpus. Lara is responsible for the overall production output across a wide and varying portfolio of mostly FMCG clients. Her career started in the printing industry, where she worked at Collotype Labels, one of the world’s leading premium wine and spirit label producers. Her passion to work within a creative environment led to a transition into the design and branding field, at companies such as Blue Marlin and Apple, where she has continued to function in a production capacity for over 10 years.

Stephanie Cornwall
Stephanie Cornwall