In the 10 years since Sun King Brewing Co. first opened its doors in Indianapolis, it has grown from 500 barrels annually to 30,000. Despite the exponential growth, Clay Robinson, co-founder and co-owner of the craft brewery, says Sun King’s goal of connecting with communities has remained the same.
With an ambitious desire to become “Indianapolis’s beer,” Sun King has branched out into various communities within the city, developing specialty beers for local partners including the NBA’s Indiana Pacers, the Newfields art and nature museum, and Gen Con, an annual tabletop gaming convention that brings thousands of enthusiasts to the city.
For many of these releases, Robinson says Sun King relies on digitally printed shrink sleeves that are applied to its cans. The ability to produce short packaging runs, he says, has helped Sun King introduce its brand to these communities and connect with them on a personal level.
“If you get the branding right and it all looks and feels great and also tastes great, you’re winning hearts and minds and palettes of people,” Robinson says. “It’s a good way for us to attack all of the sensory levels. It’s more than just taste, there’s visual appeal and even heartstrings that get pulled with it. It’s a really cool way to connect with consumers.”
As digital printing has grown across all packaging segments, brands, agencies and printers have become increasingly aware of the impact it can have in multiple market segments. With cost reduction opportunities, increased design creativity and unprecedented security features, package printers that have embraced the technology have more to offer their customers than ever before.
Targeting a New Type of Customer
While large-scale CPG brands still dominate shelf space and require the majority of packaging volumes, consumers are increasingly seeking out craft and boutique brands in a variety of vertical segments.
However, the food and beverage markets — particularly craft beer — are where these brands seem to be thriving. That is why four years ago, Mossberg & Co., a nearly 90-year-old commercial and package printer based in South Bend, Ind., launched Mossberg Beverage Marketing.
According to Mark Alstott, director of marketing and business development, the goal in creating the new division was to serve these emerging craft beverage brands with cost-effective short runs of labels and shrink sleeves designed for cans. In 2015 when Mossberg’s beverage division debuted, Alstott explains that decorated or “painted” cans were largely only available by the truckload, or 155,000 cans. For brands in need of smaller quantities, undecorated or “brite” cans were an option, but they still required labels.
In a segment where new flavors, varieties and styles are constantly in demand, Alstott explains the flexibility of digital printing gives brands — particularly on the beer side — the ability to nimbly react to their consumers’ desires.
“As a craft beer drinker, when’s the last time you bought the same beer two weekends in a row?” he says. “Everyone’s looking for the new thing coming down the line, and that’s where digital printing has its niche. If you’re not running through hundreds of thousands of pre-printed cans, you can change your brands. You can change your styles week to week, just by ordering the right can.”
While start-up and boutique brands have presented printers and converters with new opportunities to leverage digital printing, the continued growth of e-commerce has also presented larger brands an opportunity to directly connect with consumers via digital printing.
For example, Creative Retail Packaging, a provider of packaging design and production solutions, primarily works with brands in need of high production volumes. While these long runs of packaging typically don’t lend themselves to digital printing, CEO Kathy Bintz says that in an e-commerce scenario, additional collateral within a shipping container can be produced digitally, elevating the consumer’s experience with the brand.
Bintz explains that these digitally printed elements could include personalized thank you cards or envelopes that consumers access during the unboxing experience. Though the packaging itself may not be digitally printed, Bintz said these larger brands can still make the most of these personalization opportunities.
“All brands big and small can have better personalization with digital printing than what was available to them previously,” she says.
With its short-run capabilities and opportunities to boost consumer engagement, the impact digital printing can have on retail-based CPG brands has been well established. But in market segments such as pharmaceutical and medical products, the digital value proposition can take on a different meaning.
For example, Nosco, a Gurnee, Ill.-based printer and converter with six production locations, specializes in pharmaceutical, natural health and personal care packaging. According to Nosco President Craig Curran, the company first invested in digital label printing in 2004, adding digital carton printing capabilities 10 years later. He explains that the initial drivers for Nosco to invest in digital printing were meeting demand for decreased turnaround times and accommodating short runs brought forth by SKU proliferation.
However, Curran explains that customers in Nosco’s key segments faced significant challenges from counterfeiting and diversion, and with digital, the company was able to help them increase product security via packaging.
“What digital allows us to do is variable bar codes, sequential or random alphanumeric characters, and we can do a host of different variable features with digital to allow our customers to implement other means for security,” he says.
In particular, Curran explains that track and trace capabilities allow brands to monitor a product throughout the supply chain, and pinpoint its precise chain of custody. This becomes especially important when tracking for product diversion, an unscrupulous practice of selling a product through channels it is not meant for.
In the medical and health care segment, for example, products are often produced for a specific practitioner to provide to his or her clients. However, somewhere along the chain of custody, that product may get “diverted” and end up for sale online. With variable data printing, applied digitally, brands can trace a specific product throughout its journey and determine precisely where it was redirected — and often who is responsible.
To take its digitally printed security features to the next level, Nosco recently invested in covert printing tactics, utilizing HP Indigo Invisible Inks. The invisible inks, which it has implemented on its HP Indigo WS6600 and 30000 digital presses, can be applied to both labels and folding cartons. Curran explains that this covert method of producing variable barcodes and serial numbers can be even more effective in catching diversion since the bad actors along the chain of custody are not aware security features are in place.
Since Nosco has introduced the benefits of variably printed invisible ink to customers, Curran explains that despite it only being available via digital technology, brands have not been hesitant to utilize it in long runs.
“We’re doing it in smaller short-run volumes up to larger volumes,” Curran says. “The clients who are using this technology have a problem; they need to solve the problem and digital helps them solve the problem. So it’s not so much about the quantity they’re doing.”
Meeting Consumer and Brand Needs
At the start of the 2015-16 NBA season, fans in basketball-crazed Indiana were eager for their beloved Pacers to return to their winning ways. And when more than 18,000 fans filed into Bankers Life Fieldhouse for the team’s home opener, a new beer celebrating the Hoosier State’s storied basketball history had been added to the concession stands.
Sun King Brewery had partnered with Century Label to digitally print shrink sleeves for Tip-Off Ale. The sleeves were styled in the Pacers’ blue and gold color scheme and featured an outline of Indiana front and center. But what made these sleeves stand out even further was that no two were alike, as variable graphic elements were applied to each can.
As a brand that strives to connect with its local community, Robinson explains that finding new ways for Sun King to engage consumers helps the brewery grow.
“With all of these opportunities, we get to work with various different partners and create something that resonates with their consumers, which sometimes are our consumers,” he says. “And sometimes it brings new people to our brand and gives us better visibility.”
While digital printing has helped brands connect with consumers in new ways, technology has also introduced brands to new packaging formats. For example, Alstott says Mossberg Beverage Marketing has helped wine and coffee brands begin to offer their products in cans. The newfound portability and convenience of the packaging format, he explains, helps these brands reach consumers in locations that had not been feasible previously.
“Wineries want to get into something that’s more portable than glass,” Alstott says. “But glass isn’t welcome at the beach. Glass is rarely welcomed at concerts. You want something that can chill quickly and is easy to transport.”
On the production side, Curran explains that with digital, brands that are highly protective of their distinct colors have benefited from the consistency digital printing provides from run to run. As a print provider, he says it’s never fun to receive a color complaint from a customer, but with digital, brands can rest assured their colors will be precise.
Additionally, with customers that have jobs running flexographically, offset and digital, Curran says Nosco’s G7 Master Qualification gives it the skills and capability to maintain color consistency, no matter the print process.
“As a leader of a printing company, I love that I don’t have to go talk about color problems with my customers,” Curran says.
An Ambitious Project Made Possible
With its 10th anniversary coming this summer, Robinson says Sun King plans to implement digital printing to embark on its most ambitious project to date. The project, titled “10-4 Good Buddy,” is a four-pack release of collaborative beers Sun King is producing with four of its closest craft brewery friends.
The limited edition launch requires communication among several partners, as each four-pack carton will contain beers that have an individual shrink sleeve representing Sun King’s and its partners’ different branding elements. With so many stakeholders in the project, Robinson says the decreased lead times and flexibility of digital makes the launch easier to manage and get out into the awaiting craft beer market.
“By the time it’s done, it will be a yearlong project,” he says. “But it will be very much unlike anything anyone has done before.”