Shelf Differentiation Through Labeling

By Annie-Marie Kennedy

Beverage brands use shrink and stretch labels to stand out
Graphics, color, bottle shape, unique labeling and environmentally friendly packaging — all of these factors will play a critical role for beverage companies in 2008 as they bring their products to market and compete for consumer attention. Shrink and stretch labeling continues to be one of the most sought-after labeling solutions for on-shelf differentiation, and as the technology develops, this next generation of packaging is seeing improved cost effectiveness, functionality and sustainability.
“The beverage market was an early adopter of shrink sleeves and has continued to embrace shrink labels to achieve on-shelf differentiation through the use of shape and color,” says Gwen Chapdelaine, marketing director for Fort Dearborn Co., Elk Grove Village, Ill.
Brian Metzger, director of business development for SleeveCo, Dawsonville, Ga., agrees. “Perhaps the most interesting trend is the growing utilization of shrink sleeve labels for private label beverages,” he says. “Shrink sleeve labels are becoming the great equalizer between national and private label brands.”
“The market is growing, and growing in areas that we would not have seen in the past,” adds Ed Farley, sales manager for Axon, a division of Pro Mach, Raleigh, N.C. “The process has become faster and more affordable, and customers who would not have considered shrink sleeving for their products because it was too cost-prohibitive, are now able to reap the benefits.”
Those benefits include an increased consumer awareness and shelf presence as more companies fight to keep up with trends that offer custom-molded bottles and premium labeling for their products.
“A major factor in creating brand awareness is to have a uniquely shaped bottle,” explains Amy Brown, marketing manager for Overnight Labels Inc., Deer Park, N.Y. “The labeling solution to accommodate those uniquely shaped bottles is shrink sleeves. With shrink, a company can maintain brand identity by building a virtual billboard around their product. Their options increase tenfold — what  the product can look like in terms of shape and overall aesthetic. We’re talking 360-degree graphic ability.”
Improved production
While customers prefer the high-quality look of shrink sleeve printing, traditionally, the overall cost of design and production has been prohibitive. However, advances in application equipment are helping drive down the total applied cost for these newer methods, including pressure-sensitive, stretch and shrink labels, and suppliers say more of their customers are requesting cost models to evaluate label technologies.
To keep up with the speed of innovation, Alcoa Flexible Packaging, Richmond, Va., recently installed a wide web W&H flexo press at its Downingtown, Pa., packaging plant. This high-speed, quick changeover press allows Alcoa to offer lower-priced labels, even at small volumes. It also allows customers to make more frequent copy changes (for example, for special promotional packaging) due to lower front-end plate costs.
“Digital printing offers speed-to-market as well as a platform for prototyping, sales samples and small-volume production runs,” Fort Dearborn’s Chapdelaine adds. “UV flexo printing approaches gravure quality (more opaque whites and gravure-like metallics) for medium-volume production runs. There has also been a lot of activity with shrink sleeves for merchandising purposes: multi-packs, on-packs and promotional full-body shrink sleeves for regional, seasonal or sporting events.”
Farley says Axon’s customers also have seen the cost-saving benefits of faster production technology.
“We’ve been able to provide machinery that is capable of providing labels at speeds our customers look for,” he says. Axon’s Ez-Seal 400SL is a heat shrinkable sleeve labeling system that provides high-production rates for full-body and tamper-evident banding applications, capable of 400 packages per minute. Its 2-400 SL is a dual-sleeve applicator, capable of 800 packages per minute, which translates nicely for soft drink customers.
“They are both affordable machines that fit their speed needs,” Farley says. “Particularly with international customers, this allows them affordable equipment to do short label runs for special promotions or limited-time holiday packaging, for example, and remain competitive in their speed-to-market turnaround time.”
With so many innovations in premium shrink sleeve packaging technology making it more widely available to beverage companies, suppliers say interest also is growing in more sophisticated inks and films.
To answer the call for more challenging graphics and colors, the Seal-It division of Printpack, Farmingdale, N.Y., SleeveCo and Fort Dearborn all offer a wide range of specialty inks to their beverage clients. The lines include metallics, fluorescent glow-in-the-dark for trendy beverages, thermochromatic inks that indicate hot or cold temperatures, holographic inks for premium beverages, raised tactile inks to highlight logos or special features, and even scented inks.
“These inks and coatings provide shelf appeal as well as economical ways to achieve looks via printed labels only previously possible through more expensive processes such as etched glass,” Chapdelaine says. “Commercial applications developed specifically for the beverage markets include high-coverage metallics, frosted, pearlescent and acid-etched finishes in water-based flexo and gravure printing.”
More companies are seeking shrink innovations to not only create high-impact shelf appeal, but are looking to add functionality and extend product life. Films that increase barrier and insulating properties top the list.
For example, f'REAL Foods, Orinda, Calif., chose Fort Dearborn as its supplier partner to switch from preprinted cups to shrink sleeve cups for its frozen dairy products. The packaging has since been implemented on the company’s egg nog, milkshakes, smoothies and cappuccino products. Fort Dearborn developed a custom freezer-grade adhesive to ensure tack during the shrink tunnel application and to maintain a strong sleeve-to-container bond from freezer environment through consumer consumption. The milkshake’s label utilizes metallic inks to simulate the look of a stainless steel cup.
Additionally, Alcoa is offering new Conceal barrier labels, which block 100 percent of UV light and up to 99 percent of visible light. Trials of the Conceal barrier labels are underway with some of the company’s major beverage customers. The company anticipates seeing the new patented Conceal labels on store shelves to help extend the flavor and shelf life of  beverages, in the coming months.
Green labeling
It should be no surprise that the fastest-growing trend by far remains the development of greener packaging through the use of sustainable materials, earth-friendly inks and the continued development of greener production. As consumers continue to become more aware of and push for green products, beverage companies are striving to reduce their global footprint with environmentally responsible practices.
“Effects of packaging on the environment have become an important issue to both industry and consumers,” Chapdelaine says. “Initiatives are currently being driven by Wal-Mart/Sam's Club and Target for ‘cradle to grave’ sustainable packaging. Consumer awareness of sustainable packaging is also increasing as they are starting to equate environmentally friendly products with their packaging.”
Fort Dearborn has developed a number of sustainable product options, including recycled C1S paper, recycled wet-strength C1S paper, and the development of water-based and UV flexo printing for shrink sleeves to supplement solvent gravure.
Hammer Packaging, Rochester, N.Y., has boosted its green quotient within the past year by installing a Drent-Goebel web offset press, the first of its kind in North America. This innovative press offers electron beam (EB) inks and coatings in addition to UV to allow Hammer to provide greater options for presenting the customer’s brand image. “We see it as our gravure replacement strategy, with the added advantage of being more environmentally friendly,” says Doug Wegman, Hammer’s marketing manager. “EB and UV inks do not emit volatile organic compounds making them a more sustainable option.”
Hammer invested in downstream finishing technology, which includes a continuous-operation KOR slitter. Additionally, Hammer’s Karlville seamer is able to produce a certificate of compliance for every finished roll. This combination turned out to be a perfect solution for Bolthouse, a national juice producer.
“We are also seeing an increase in mono-web films for roll-to-roll labels. Our EB coatings do not require lamination, and this reduces a step in the printing process and potentially reduces costs,” Wegman adds.
Most suppliers are offering their clients environmentally friendly options like PLA films, which, since they are made from corn-based materials, are 100 percent compostable, which makes it more appealing than traditional petroleum-based films. Shrink sleeves also are being printed on PETG and oriented polystyrene (OPS) which are considered more environmentally friendly due to their superior recylability.
Inks are playing a role in earth-friendly processes as well. “As a flexographic printer, we have the option of using water-based inks for printing and that’s exactly what we’ve done,” Brown says. “This means that the inks are environmentally safe and hold no threat of solvent retention or migration.”
A recent EPA case study found that a company that switched to water-based inks showed a significant reduction in volatile organic compounds, which helped eliminate hazardous waste from waste ink and cleaning operations.
Overnight Labels anticipates the arrival of new equipment within the month that will allow them to separate the water in the ink from the colored pigments, which can then be recycled. “Since water-based inks can be recycled, it means a reduction of total generated waste,” Brown says. “The bottom line is that shrink materials are improving in terms of shrinkage and environmental friendliness. In addition, the processes used to produce these products are becoming increasingly more important to both the manufacturer and consumer.”
Seal-It recently commercialized one of the first full-body labels made from Earthfirst PLA film. It is being used to decorate a glass bottle for a nutraceutical beverage produced by AgroLabs.
“Its exceptional shrink-ability, up to 75 percent, allows the film to fit to the contours of the glass bottle, and the glossiness of the film allows for excellent printing and terrific graphics,” says Barbara Drillings Seal-It’s marketing manager.
“Like other consumer packaged goods companies, beverage manufacturers are coming to us, looking for ideas about how to reduce their packaging footprint,” she says. “One-full body shrink sleeve label could include graphics, nutritional information, bar codes and even background information on the product, serving as an effective replacement for multiple pressure sensitive labels. And recently we’ve been getting requests for full sleeve labels with tamper-evidence, an all-in-one label that can replace two pressure-sensitive labels and a tamper-evident band. This helps reduce the amount of packaging used, which has been an important requirement recently for retailers.”
MRI Flexible Packaging, Newtown, Pa., cites its new enhanced stretch labels as its latest innovation. Designed for recycling, these stretch labels tear away easily from the beverage bottle, making it easy for the consumer to prepare the PET bottle for the recycling bin.  
“Because the labels are applied in a one-step process, with no glue or heat tunnel necessary, there is a lower energy use on production lines,” says Jim Mallon, MRI Flexible Packaging’s vice president of sales and marketing. “In addition, these stretch sleeves use less material per square inch vs. shrink or roll-on-shrink-on. Ultimately that translates to less material entering the recycling stream.”
Innovations in shrink and stretch technology will continue to push the industry forward, as beverage companies invent new ways to establish a memorable brand identity.
“The market will continue to grow,” Farley says. “Label pricing for shrink has gone down over the years ... As long as the beverage industry continues to come up with shapely bottles and creative packaging to make their product stand out, shrink will remain the best method to accomplish that.”