Wave of the future – smart labelling

6 April 2017



Barry Mansfield looks into the world of smart labelling, how it is evolving and the new possibilities it offers to brand-owners worldwide.


With consumers more engrossed than ever in the ‘stories’ of their favourite brands, labelling is becoming more comprehensive and high-tech in order to keep up with expectations. Due to the arrival of smartphones and the influx of smart labelling, RFID and QR, and barcodes, the public now expects ready access to detailed product information at the touch of a button. Many companies also benefit from traceable information on all labels, enabling them to follow a product from conception to shelf.

Labels in some form or other have been used for centuries to convey information, identify products, describe contents, list ingredients, distribute packages and goods, and market from the store shelf. Analysts and industry veterans suggest that the future potential and growth for labels will not be so much about printed content and presentation, but will rather concern graduating from QR and RFID to make labels smarter and more intelligent.

Finat, the French labelling association, estimates that two thirds of brand-owners are happy with self-adhesive decoration for now. According to president Thomas Hagmaier, “Self-adhesive labels are still versatile, top performers in today’s complex market.” However, narrow web label converters are reinforcing their toolkits with sleeve labels, flexible packaging and in-mould labels, which help to enhance their status with customers.

The manufacturers’ vision is to use new technologies to keep food fresh for longer, to absorb odour, stop moisture deterioration, offer proof of process control, provide evidence of compliance and even monitor and track temperature changes. If that sounds far-fetched, there are labels that detect gases; monitor expiry dates; indicate when food or drink is at its optimum to consume; detect and kill bacteria; or even enhance food, drug or hospital safety by identifying e-coli, MRSA, Clostridium difficile, salmonella or listeria.

Clever labelling also helps to accelerate speed to market. Ian Schofield, own-label and packaging manager at Iceland, defines the supermarket’s own brand or private label ethos as “quicker and smarter” and believes it is imperative that they “get to market faster than anyone else”.

Over 70% of sales are own-label, so the quality of packaging is key to Iceland’s growth plan. Recently, a Pizza Express product launch took only eight weeks from concept to shelf, encompassing ingredient formulation, testing, and brand and packaging development.

Schofield says packaging design must promote Iceland’s central values, which include healthy eating, product provenance (also known as ‘farm to fork’), or the stronger influence of spice in recipes. Crucially, for the 25 brands under his stewardship, no single design stays on the shelf for longer than nine months. He never prints the same job twice, because adaptations for award notices or ingredient changes are so frequent. This is a substantial change for the industry: run lengths are coming down rapidly as Iceland sells more.

Choose your moment

In other words, Iceland wants “specific packaging for a specific moment”. That could be a seasonal theme, sports tournament, or a competition. Supermarkets need to be extremely adaptive to the market but, quality remains a top priority.

Print finishes will be important, predicts Schofield, including more blocking and varnishes in a range of items. But he warns that digital is no longer only about print: ‘Iceland uses the same digital assets across all media. POS, mobile and call centres: “Using more images from a central database gives Iceland more control.”

Iceland’s speed to market demands quick-fire, automatic processing of artwork. Accordingly, Schofield has established his own standards using an asset management system.

Label buyers and users are actively seeking more intelligent labels for myriad other reasons, including to aid the automation of distribution, handling and storage operations. Sometimes, there is a requirement (perhaps enforced by legislation) to track and trace items or goods through supply chains. Some brand-owners want to keep food fresher for longer in transit, on shelves or in consumers’ refrigerators. There may be a desire to add additional consumer information, such as recipes, safety or health information or usage data.

According to labelling industry expert Mike Fairley, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. New developments in nanotechnology (nanocoatings, nanosensors, smart dust, microwire, biological and DNA encoding) are already being taken up and these will have longer-term implications and applications for the ways in which labels are made and used. Fairley reckons nanotechnology will change up 25% of the food packaging and label business over the next decade.

Gregory Bentley, SME lead for decoration technologies at Coca-Cola Beverage Services, says the company’s marketing strategy has been transformed by postponement, or late-stage decoration made practical by inline labelling instead of direct print. This has enabled the firm to slash stock, lower total packaging costs and cut back lead times. All new innovations suggested to Bentley by the bottlers must pass strict performance testing. Labels must operate perfectly on high-speed lines with a frequency of at least 600 bottles a minute.

This approach uses thin and delicate (typically 30μm) films in a wet environment, with massive costs if the line is forced to stop for any reason. Consequently, Bow Label’s supply chain was an even more sophisticated operation than the earlier share-a-Coke campaign. Bentley’s experiences make him determined that customisation and personalisation are added to the benefits of cost, quality, speed, flexibility and response time, but there is no reason to assume digital will become the dominant process in all cases, he insists.

The ability to tell a brand’s story in a more advanced way can be highly attractive in the premium alcoholic drinks business. That is certainly the view of the owners of the Lakes Distillery whisky brand, particularly since it expanded into the restaurant sector. Using the slogan ‘the one British’, the brand aims for a modern, high-end feel using a mix of direct bottle decoration and labelling. Founder Paul Currie has ideas that the company’s labels can be part of its media offering “that you can scan QR codes with smartphones”.

Are you experienced?

Lakes Distillery already carries out a great deal of its marketing through social media. Now, the appeal of a standardised branding strategy is particularly important as it plans to branch out into gin.

Labels achieve an identity for a product by telling its background story. Currie sees a trend in retail whereby “people have stuff, but want an experience”. Customers, therefore, like to know where the item is from, and Lakes has “a great story to tell through label design”.

Finat’s recent survey found that brand-owners expect total demand for labels in 2017 to jump by 3%, which represents a small decrease on 2016 expectation, but is still the sign of a thriving sector.

Brands are also expected to opt for more digital printing, to around 5%. “This is a reflection of the trend we are seeing to reducing the size of label print runs for just-in-time delivery, increased multiversioning, and, of course the current fashion for personalisation,” explains Hagmaier.

Fairley points out that aside from QR codes, brand-owners have the possibility to use multiple barcodes, matrix and snowflake codes, optical and magnetic encoding on labels, special custom designs, holograms, scratch and reveal packaging, aroma and scented labels, invisible or security print, antitheft technology, void and ultra-destruct labels, or leaflet, booklet or extensive text label solutions, not to mention tamper-evident designs, all of which have been around for many years.

“The more sophisticated labels use hydrogen sulphide indicators to warn of specific pack leakage or provide information on disruption in the cold chain,” says Fairley. “There are also oxygen-indicating labels that warn of pack leakage in modified atmosphere packaging, and labels that can be used to indicate the freshness of fruit or to stop fruit deteriorating too quickly.” This has enormous implications for the whole food chain.

Any food unsold on a Saturday afternoon may not last until the store reopens on Monday. It then must be disposed of, or substantially discounted. Similarly, it may deteriorate in the consumer’s fridge if not used within a day or so. Using these new labels inside the pack to stop the food deteriorating offers considerable benefits to retailers and consumers. In the case of soft fruits like raspberries or blackberries, these start to go watery in clam-shell packs in days.

They are still edible, but appear less appetising. Thankfully, placing a moisture absorbing label inside the pack before closure can stop the fruit from deteriorating in this way before consumption. Similar issues arise with some drugs in tablet form. They will start to deteriorate in the bottle if they are exposed to oxygen or moisture – which begins to occur each time the bottle is opened. Moisture and oxygen absorbing tags inside the bottle itself can therefore play a part in extending the item’s longevity.

Sustained effort

These technical advances do not change the typical issues faced in the industry, such as the need to recycle, though. Labelling associations see a role for themselves in helping brand-owners on sustainability awareness; Hagmaier, for example, says he is “deeply committed to making the self-adhesive label an environmentally friendly option”. Finat is also researching a way of stimulating development of practical, regular collection systems for used release liner and other label waste.

Label converters tend to be physically isolated from the label application point, where spent release liner joins the waste stream. Around half of users in Finat’s survey said they were not aware of recycling options for label release liner, and over 66% were not involved in recycling liner waste – primarily because of the complexity of the surrounding logistics; the entire value chain clearly needs educating on spent-liner recycling.

Smart-label specialists are no longer competing on price alone when they offer multicolour labels to the market.

Added-value labels will eliminate or minimise diseases; they can preserve and protect foods, protect against bacteria and microbes, and provide proof of process control or reduce counterfeiting. The future of labels is smaller – nano-scale – with previously undreamed-of opportunities for brand-owners and retailers. This technology will revolutionise the ways in which all kinds of products are packed, identified, distinguished, enhanced, stored and sold. 



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