Keeping up appearances

15 March 2012

Displaying an outwardly consistent image is the often subliminal key to retaining consumer loyalty, reports Sam Cole

Whether it’s contained in a can, packed in a pouch, stacked on a shelf in Shoreditch or Sharjah, part and parcel of the brand proposition is that its image be replicated precisely even down to the finest detail. Otherwise, the received wisdom is that even a fractional difference in colour pigmentation from one format to another could be all it takes to shatter the veneer of consumer confidence; propelling even the longest-established, best-loved brand on a downward spiral towards retail oblivion.

With the average supermarket stocking over 40,000 separate lines, and an estimated 75% of all purchases more likely to be made on impulse within a 10 second time-frame rather than pre-determined – the pressure upon a brand to stand out on-shelf is intense.

Despite there being no research data to the potentially adverse consequences of that trademark shade of red being even marginally out of true, the fear of being out-shone by the competition is far too high to put caveat vendor to the test.

Practice makes perfect

This mostly unchallenged requirement upon brands to keep up appearances has spawned a beauty-care industry dedicated on behalf of its clientele to delivering impeccably turned-out imagery time after time, irrespective of packaging substrate, print and production process or location. It’s the same uniformity that equally dictates the no surprises bricks and mortar composition of the High Street; the menu in a fast food chain; the atrium in a Hyatt hotel and so many other aspects of contemporary consumer culture.

While the technology designed to manage prepress and colour is readily available, what sets apart the specialist repro service from its customer base is the level of expertise in applying it, says Schawk Europe’s business development director Sharon McGuire. “In theory there is nothing to stop brands bringing prepress and repro technology in house. At a base level, anyone could create their own packaging. Yet technology is only ever as good as the people who use it; the magic lies in the skills of an expert who understands the principles of packaging build and can make brand ideas come to life,” she says.

“For clients, where prepress and brand management is not a core competency and where capabilities are likely to be relatively small scale, it is unlikely that there will be the required investment to keep equipment, software and skills up to date. Also, a specialist provider has the scale, capacity and flexibility to manage the process through the inevitable peaks and troughs in packaging print; something an in-house department will find difficult to do.”

With digital solutions such as Studio, Dynamic Content Engine and WebCenter, Esko has done more than any other technology developer to demystify the colour management for end-users; the company’s recently announced partnership with X-Rite/Pantone will provide a cloud-based colour management system throughout the global supply chain (see News section). Yet, says UK director Paul Bates. “As good as we make our software to be, if it’s not used in an intelligent way, well, it’s not magic; you still need to have people setting up the automated workflows or understand what’s expected.

“There is still a requirement for specialist skills that are most likely to be resident within the repro bureaux. There are things that we can do to automate, but when things go wrong you need somebody with that packaging knowledge to be able to put it right. Some brand owners are looking to bring prepress in-house, but the greater likelihood is for the prepress company to become embedded within the client.”

That’s as likely to be on-site at the packaging manufacturer rather than the enduser; for example, the Reproflex3 unit that now routinely produces 16,000 Flexcel NX plates/year direct for a battery of 18 Gallus, Mark Andy and Nilpeter flexo presses via its implant at Norprint MagnaData’s Boston (Lincs) site for retail clients inclucing Asda, M&S, Sainsbury’s and Tesco.

It’s a first-time experience that Reproflex3 is keen to repeat for other clients, says joint MD Andrew Hewitson. “There are pressures on label manufacturers to have on-demand plate services – so if we want to compete in this industry then we have to follow this model.

“The advantage to the converter is that they’re able to tap into the knowledge that we’ve accrued over the past eight years with the Kodak technology. Likewise, we’ve developed our workflows including a lot of automation on the back of the Prinergy system to suit today’s label market – and unlocking the potential of the workflow is the key to all this.”

In the right hands, the further addition of Kodak’s new Spotless software has significantly expanded the range of spot colours that can be produced out of the CMYK gamut, says Hewitson. “It’s a great concept. You establish the required number of spots when you set up the press. You then generate a colour space that they’ll achieve, and then you convert all of your Pantone colours into that space. The cost savings it delivers are just mind-blowing.”

Brand guardians

It might sound disarmingly straightforward, but don’t be fooled. Anyone can try to drive a Ferrari, but it takes a very particular ability to win a Grand Prix. Rather than the systems and the software, it’s that specialist skill-set in handling them that’s the repro house’s stock-in-trade, says Tag Pac director Jonathan Milner.

“When we started the packaging division business four years ago we saw that with all this new technology we don’t need imagesetters, we don’t need proofing presses, we don’t need drum scanners; we have an entire digital end to end process.

“Actually, it makes for quite a dull experience when we get brand owners to come and visit us now, because we don’t have any of that big, interesting-looking heavy machinery around the place. Instead, it’s all Apple Macs and the clever stuff sits in the server cabinet in the corner of the room.

For Tag, the ‘clever stuff’ is co-ordinated within its proprietary CMD workflow webbased solution (create, manage and deliver) used to track everything and to trigger key stages throughout the project management and production processes; not only across the group worldwide, but also by more than 100 brand owner clients.

Colour management issues can occur even within the standard CMYK gamut itself, says Miller Graphics’ Bridlington site’s MD Sean Hancocks. “Every time we deal with a printer we aim to create a fingerprint. There can be quite a variation in even the process colours; you can get really dark magentas, really light magentas, and some that are very red, while others are more of a salmon-pink.

“Where we would like to think that we add value – and this is where working directly with the brand owner is of benefit – is through our understanding of colour and of retouching, ensuring consistency irrespective of who prints the piece.”

Invaluable though that level of prepress knowledge might be – not least when things don’t go to plan – there is evidence of some brands opting to manage their own repro requirements. “Artwork and prepress passes information of a design to get it printed,” notes Sun Branding Solutions’ sales and marketing director Ian Schofield. “Colour is now pretty standard, as is the equipment it’s measured on; that’s good for the end-users. The more we automate, the more they’re given the choice of whether to do this internally or externally.

“We’re still the experts in getting products to market in the fastest possible way, of course, so it’ll be a mix. We’re already working with some end-users that are taking on the prepress themselves, and are producing artwork on our equipment. Others prefer to have the process managed on their behalf. As time goes on, however, and with the equipment that they can buy themselves, there will increasingly be the option for bringing it all in-house.”

As colour reproduction becomes more predictable and correspondingly less dependent upon their well-honed expertise, repro houses will develop additional brand management skills; Schawk, for example, already refers to itself as a communications agency. Meanwhile, it’s not only systems suppliers such as Esko and X-Rite that are targeting brand owners.

HH Global’s recent extension of its commercial print management operation to encompass packaging – primarily for existing clients – could be seen as an indication that technology is not only de-skilling the prepress process, but is now also serving to commoditise its output.

For many brand owners, that is already how packaging print is viewed, despite its key role within the marketing mix, says Jonathan Milner. “At a senior level, packaging is never on the agenda apart from when it goes wrong and there's the potential for a huge cost because the print is incorrect, or the packaging is late and the product is being held up in production.

“So, the likelihood is that when the CEO hears about packaging it's usually going to be for all the wrong reasons. Yet, talk to the same CEO about their latest advertising campaign and they'll probably know all about it, as there's a good chance they’ll have been personally involved.”

Not so, says Schawk’s Sharon McGuire. “Our clients place the pack at the heart of their brand, increasingly thinking about communicating with their consumers from shelf out. Packaging is not only a vital brand communication tool, but also an important interactive and navigational tool which directs consumers to further brand experiences and information sources via different media including web links, QR codes, augmented reality and so forth.”

Tag for fresh lemons produced for Norprint by Reproflex3 Reproflex3 Esko’s Studio helps to demistify colour management Esko Packaging for Young’s Seafood, by Miller Graphics/Ultimate Packaging Miller Graphics Esko’s WebCenter software, used for making online amendments WebCenter

Miller Graphics Miller Graphics
WebCenter WebCenter
Esko Esko
Reproflex3 Reproflex3

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