Hands on screen

When philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said "once you label me, you negate me", it's unlikely he was talking about the packaging industry. Labelling is huge business, and rather than negating a product, it can often be the making of it.

Customers increasingly want to know about the product they are about to buy, and are legally entitled to be given certain information about it. The appearance of a label must carry such information clearly and effectively, while still delivering shelf appeal. Nutritional and manufacturing details, along with promotional graphics and text, are all housed on labels, and so the possibilities on offer from the labelling sector, allowing users to enhance a product without having to change the whole package, make it both a useful and practical aspect of the packaging process.

Experts in the packaging sector agree that smart labels can add value. Hugo Geel, sales director for award-winning manufacturer of custom labels Mercian Labels, based in Staffordshire, UK, explained how working alongside customers helps them grow their business. "We've been trusted as a packaging partner for over 45 years," he says, "working with everyone from start-ups to global blue chips to trade buyers. We consistently deliver short lead times and superb service, with our broad range of custom printed self-adhesive labels, cartons and security seals."

In with the new: a market-leading position

It is Mercian Labels' approach to innovation that Geel believes sets the company apart from its competition and has kept it in its market-leading position. "Our default three-day lead times for digitally-printed labels are famous in the UK label printing industry," he continues.

"The right labelling solution needs to incorporate a clear and concise message, be the right colour and size to meet specifications, and adhere to budget and timing requirements."

"Being first and fast is important to us. We are proud to be well known as specialist labelling innovators, and our dedicated R&D team is always working hard to develop new products and processes that answer customers' changing labelling needs. Our flexible approach is what allows us to keep coming up with fresh ideas, including our two own brand products, Gammatex and LabelLock."

These two products are good examples of innovation in the labelling sector; both were developed in-house by Mercian Labels' team of scientists, engineers and packaging specialists. Gammatex labels include a colour change indicator when the product is exposed to gamma radiation. LabelLock is a smart label that visibly deforms the package when it has been tampered with, which could be a useful feature across a range of packaging applications.

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Freelance packaging designer Gareth Roberts notes that innovation within labelling is restricted to the 'limited canvas', but that the opportunities for making a quick impact is pretty exciting. He comments on label design: "Labelling is such a broad area within the packaging sector, as it comprises everything from beer to pharmaceuticals. But whatever the product, the principles of label design remain the same: the communication of essential information within a limited canvas. The need to present concise and accurate information can – without hyperbole – be a matter of life or death.

"If you take your mind back to the Looney Tunes cartoons, where the villain is trying to poison the protagonist: what image immediately comes to mind of that bottle of poison? A white skull and crossed bones on a black label? A big, black X on an orange label? In either case, we are left knowing, in no uncertain terms, that the villain is wielding a bottle of poison. Simple, accurate and instantly recognisable. All designers should strive to achieve this level of effectiveness when creating a label of any kind."

In terms of the latest trends in label design, Roberts' experience in creating directional products for brands such as Belvedere Vodka and Twinings has seen him staying close to the action. He continues, "Trend-wise, the Lo-fi, retro, screen-printed label, similar to the Looney Tunes poison I mentioned before, is the style that many designers are attempting to create – especially within the beer sector, and spilling over into jams, sauces and preserves."

Listen, then label: a clear and concise message

So, how are leading label manufacturers able to integrate the latest customer demands into their offering? North Yorkshire-based provider of high-quality bespoke labels, Humber Print & Packaging, is known for its ability to create and deliver a wide range of labels that "accommodate all kinds of demanding requirements." Marketing manager Helen Charters tells Packaging Today that the most important aspect of its service is to understand that there is no "one size fits all" approach.

She says: "Our reputation is built on assisting businesses through our product variety, knowledgeable staff and competitive pricing. We work with a range of clients, from bakeries to breweries, and county councils to chemical companies; we're all about individuality, and we recognise that not one business or customer is the same as another. That's why we've developed a way of working that means we don't label you – if you'll excuse the pun!

"The right labelling solution needs to incorporate a clear and concise message, be the right colour and size to meet specifications, and adhere to budget and timing requirements," Charters goes on to explain. "It also needs to be reliable quality for the application, whether that's as a security label, hot or cold foil labels, industry-specific labels such as beer bottle labels, or anything else."

Sarah Greenwood, managing director of Barnsley's Greenwood Packaging Consultants, agrees that – like in much of the packaging industry – speed and quality are of the essence when it comes to labels. "Successful label companies have to be flexible and fast, not to mention able to make attractive labels that precisely convey the correct message to customers," she says.

"It's important to remember that labels are used on practically every kind of product, to brand, decorate or provide information to consumers; so they're an incredibly useful way of conveying a message effectively."

"Finding the right positioning and scheduling in the factory, getting the film… in digital printing, all this can add up to a lead time of just seven days. So being able to respond quickly to a client who's running a promotion and quickly wants to change their packaging label: that's where label companies really come into their own. And there are fresh ideas in digital printing all the time, like the Coca-Cola promotion involving printing individual names on bottles. It's about improving to-market speed, but without compromising on quality. There are lots of opportunities for development, which is really exciting, as it's not so much a big commitment as a whole new packaging range."

Rising to demands: labelling is a growing market

This sense of exciting new opportunities is echoed by the Processing and Packaging Machinery Association (PPMA). Marketing executive Tommy Fisher notes that labelling is a growing market, with increasingly important functions, such as security applications, sitting neatly alongside the design and marketing lead elements. He says, "We are seeing huge potential in the label machines sector, particularly when it comes to the growing market of security labelling to counter fraud and theft, and give brands protection and authentication.

"There's also an increased demand for tamper-evident labelling that ensures the product reaches the consumer unopened and without interference. In-mould labelling is gaining market share too, and we represent members that create solutions for blown bottles, injection-moulded containers and thermoform fill seal machines. It's important to remember that labels are used on practically every kind of product, to brand, decorate or provide information to consumers; so they're an incredibly useful way of conveying a message effectively."

So, while the packaging is, perhaps, the cake, the label might just be the deciding factor: the cherry on top. Good utilisation of labelling offers a cost-effective way to share information with consumers without the need to reinvest in or deal with the lead times of new packaging developments. And as new technology and design capabilities result in better-looking labels that are smarter than ever before, it looks like being labelled is a good thing, after all.