Katie Ewer
Feb 16, 2015

Packaging as media in the age of digital printing

Thanks to advances in digital printing, packaging design no longer has to be set in stone. Katie Ewer of JKR takes a look at how brands are using this new flexibility, for better or worse.

This Scottish soda brand wore clan tartans
This Scottish soda brand wore clan tartans

Despite the glorious moniker ‘Fast Moving Consumer Goods’, it takes a very long time to print a bag of sugar or a bottle of beer using a conventional print process. It’s not uncommon for pack design projects to begin 12 to 18 months before launch. Partly as a result of this, packaging has been obliged to play a rather static role in the marketing mix, symbolising, reflecting, and at the most suggesting the values of the brand that are created by other more versatile and quick-footed media. The role of the pack was to remain steadfast and unchanged. Consistency was king.  

But that assumption is being undone. The role of the pack within the marketing mix is profoundly changing. For the first time, the pack is now able to build the brand idea, rather than merely reflect it. For the first time, the pack is able to drive engagement in ‘real time’. For the first time, the pack is now media. And what’s enabling this shift is the advent of a new technology: digital printing. What used to take several months can now be done in a matter of days. If conventional printing is like a freighter ship—large, cumbersome and slow—then digital printing is like a speedboat. It’s fast, nimble and responsive.


So how is packaging being used as media in this brave new world? Personalisation, as ever, is a key trend. Narcissists like to feel special, which is why we all loved seeing our name on a bottle of Coke. But it also worked because it was consistent with the brand promise, and helped add another chapter onto the brand’s gleaming, beaming happiness story. But just because putting names on bottles worked for Coke, doesn’t mean it’ll work for anyone else.

There are other ways to resonate with an audience that increasingly demands fresh, new content. If you are a global or regional brand, a geo-specific strategy is one way to create tailored design content for different markets, regions or cities. Imagine coffee cups with unique designs for each outlet. Or in-room collateral tailored to each destination if you’re a hotel. As long as it fits with your brand idea, then consider your pack as a canvas, not a branded receptacle.

In December 2014 my company created an idea for Scottish carbonated beverage IRN-BRU. IRN-BRU is described as Scotland’s ‘other national drink’ (after whisky) and outsells both Coca-Cola and Pepsi in its home country. It’s a Scottish icon and a source of national pride. We proposed that the brand celebrate its heritage by changing its packaging to the tartan of (almost) every clan in Scotland. The launch saw the biggest ever week of traffic to the IRN-BRU website. We call this a ‘design campaign’—an initiative that uses packaging as media to advance the brand story.

From a cult of consistency to endless experimentation

Forget about limited editions. Digital printing allows brands to produce limitless editions. Absolut vodka combined digital print with algorithms to create its Absolut Unique range, consisting of 4 million completely individual bottle designs. For the first time, technology was being used as a creative enabler—as a vital part of the creative process—rather than simply the executor of a designer’s vision.

As the tech geek in their promo video explains (below), the project required a complete reconfiguring of the production line "to create variation and randomness, whereas they were designed to create stability and control’’. For Absolut, using the pack as a canvas for millions of original artworks underscored its positioning as a creative, design-led and innovative brand. As a result the collection is more than mere novelty; it seems to resonate at a brand level, with technology actively building the brand story.


Me, me, me

But of course, sometimes a more brazen appeal to your audience’s narcissism is too tempting to resist. Diet Coke repeated the Absolut stunt in Israel with 2 million unique bottles. Why? Because, according to the VP of Marketing at Coke in Israel, the company wanted to show Diet Coke drinkers that ‘they are extraordinary by creating unique one-of-a-kind extraordinary bottles’. Hmmm. For me, Diet Coke’s never been about individuality, or creativity, or art, or design, so this collection feels technology-led, rather than brand-led. Just because you can print 2 million different bottle designs, doesn’t mean you should.


An opportunity for more creative packaging

If you’re the owner of a big brand, you’re obliged to make big bets with any packaging change. Big bets, therefore, tend to be safe bets. Big bets make for risk-averse clients and boring, safe creative. Digital print is more cost effective for short runs, so it allows you to experiment, to test, trial, adapt, test again and perfect a design idea. That means we should see braver, more experimental work from agencies and clients alike.

Digital printing is a new technology, and like any new technology, we haven’t quite yet got to grips with it. The same timeless wisdom still applies—start with the brand, not the trend. But for clients, designers and creators who can see its potential, the size of the prize is unprecedented.

Here are some additional examples of brands that have made use of digital printing.

Just Right by Purina creates a tailored nutrition plan for your dog and allows you to upload the dog's name and photo to a website so personalised packs can of pooch food can be delivered to your door:


Heinz Get Well Soups allow customers to send a tin of Heinz soup with a personalised message to a friend feeling under the weather:


To re-engage a young audience that shuns traditional media, Japanese newspaper Manichi took to printing news stories on bottles of water, a new story every day:


Katie Ewer is strategy director at JKR Global in Singapore.
She wrote Campaign Asia-Pacific's Asian Champions of Design series, which is also available in book (and e-book) form.


Related Articles

Just Published

1 day ago

Dentsu Creative Bengaluru wins agency of the year ...

Event crowns agency, network and most creative company of the year, as Ogilvy and WPP also win titles.

2 days ago

Cannes Lions 2022: All the APAC winners (so far)

The Direct, Media and Social categories proved popular for Asian work while Dentsu India picked up a third Grand Prix. See other APAC winners in our running tally.

2 days ago

The celebrity creative vs the everyday creative

How indie and network agencies cater to both, according to UltraSuperNew’s general manager.