Leveraging digital label printing

By Peter Renton | November 1, 2006

The age of personalization is upon us, and product marketers are seeking ways to excite individual customers. The label converter can help.

Digital printing has been around now for more than 20 years. In that time commercial printers have used the power of digital printing extensively to create more personalized communications. We all have received personalized letters, postcards and catalogs in the mail. But in the label industry the usage of digital printing has lagged behind.

The digital label printing pioneers

There are companies, however, who are leveraging the power of digital label printing to enhance their brands. Jones Soda is one of the pioneers of this concept. Jones has been producing its famous colorful soda with custom labels for more than 10 years now. If you buy a bottle of Jones Soda there is always a photo on the label and these photos continually change. The photos have been submitted by fans of the soda, and for every print run of their bottle labels they use different photos.

So Jones Soda has made custom label printing an integral part of its brand. But it has gone one step further with the www.myjones.com service, which began in 1998. This is where you can upload your own color photo and order your own personalized 12-pack of soda. You can enter in photo captions as well as several lines of text to make your soda bottle truly your own.

Obviously, to print full color labels in quantities as small as 12, Jones Soda is leveraging digital label printing. They don't share any of their secrets, but my guess is that they gang several (maybe even hundreds) of these custom label orders together and then print them in one run on a digital press. The photos are in full color, but the print quality is a little disappointing, certainly not as sharp as the high quality print you get from the leading digital label presses on the market from HP or Xeikon. But their target market is young people who may not care about the quality; they just want something personalized and inexpensive, and Jones Soda provides them with that.

Custom labels means Heinz

This past summer Heinz jumped onto the digital label printing bandwagon. In celebration of the famous ketchup brand's 130th birthday, Heinz is offering everyone the ability to create his or her very own ketchup label at www.myheinz.com. Now, you can't upload your photo here, and you get just three black lines of type — 18 characters each — but it is a bold new concept from one of the largest food companies in the world. Best of all, the minimum order is just one bottle of ketchup.

It is impressive that a company with such large volumes has undertaken this concept, but Heinz obviously sees the value in creating a more personalized experience for their customers. It is the first mass market consumer product to undertake this level of personalization, but you can be sure it won't be the last. The print quality of the text is excellent, and it is the same font as the regular Heinz ketchup. No doubt the company is printing its regular label blanks and then overprinting the customized part later with a digital press.

A new label for Johnnie Walker

Johnnie Walker has taken a slightly different approach. You can customize your Johnnie Walker label in a similar way to that of Heinz, but there are a couple of big differences. First, the labels are free. Yes, they are giving away the labels in the hope that you will buy a bottle of Johnnie Walker at your local liquor store and affix the label yourself. You can create three lines of 20 characters each of black text, and your labels will arrive in four to six weeks.

The web site for ordering the personalized Johnnie Walker label (http://stridingman.johnniewalker.com/) is quite simple, and so it probably wasn't that expensive to create. There are just two screens — an order entry screen and a preview screen with just a few fields of data to enter. The whole ordering process takes about two minutes. Again with a minimum order of just one label, Johnnie Walker is leveraging the power of digital label printing. This digital promotion goes further than the internet: In at least one US state, the regional Johnnie Walker distributor has set up promotional label printing stands inside liquor stores, so that customers can get three labels on the spot for free, and hopefully buy the bottle on which to affix them.

Other products such as M&M's, Hershey's Chocolates and Wheaties allow personalization as well, although these companies are not using labels for their personalization. But this all points to a trend that has been a long time coming to consumer product, and it is quite likely a trend that is here to stay. One day you will be able to personalize the packaging for many of the products you consume on a daily basis.

How to take advantage of digital label printing

So what can label buyers do, assuming that they don't have the budget of Heinz or Johnnie Walker? The fact is that any digital label printer can create personalized labels for its customers quite easily and inexpensively. If it is simple text personalization like Heinz or Johnnie Walker it might cost only a little more than nonpersonalized labels. Here are some ideas for you to take advantage of this trend.

1. Encourage your customers to get personal
Heinz, Jones Soda and Johnnie Walker have started this trend. They have web sites where people can enter and order the personalized product, but there is no need to start out in such a sophisticated way. You could encourage your customers to offer this to their customers in an email, and then just gather all the responses into an Excel spreadsheet. The digital label printer could import all these names and print the regular label design along with the personalized names as one job.

2. 'Regionalize' the labels
If your customers are not ready for such a high level of customization, a simpler way to get started is just to encourage your customers to "regionalize" their products. By that I mean have different designs for different regions of the country. It could be as simple as a beach scene for coastal California, a mountain scene for Colorado or Utah, corn fields in Nebraska, a maple tree for Vermont. Again with digital printing all these different designs could easily be combined into one run of labels.

3. Truly different gifts
We have had personalized gifts for decades now: You can get monogrammed shirts or bath towels from dozens of places. But it is rare to see a personalized label on a holiday gift. Encourage your customers to give away their own product with a personalized label as a holiday gift. A popular gift idea is a bottle of wine. By partnering with a winery it would be easy to create a personalized holiday message on the wine label. It gives the holiday gift an added impact and value.

The personalization generation

We are entering a new world of personalization. With new technology everyone can express themselves in their own way — in fact, the younger generation is growing up with this expectation. The companies that take advantage of this early will have a huge advantage. With advanced digital label printing technology we now have the power to create a different label for every product we sell. Heinz, Jones Soda and Johnnie Walker have paved the way, but today any company can personalize their product labels for their customers.

The teenagers of today have never known a world without the internet, cell phones, and home PCs. If you look at the popularity of social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook, this speaks to the growing trend of mass personalization. These people expect to be able to create a unique look. When the teenagers of today become affluent consumers in a few years time, the retail world will change.

The beautiful thing is that this trend is only just beginning. Innovative companies can differentiate themselves from their competition by being an early adopter of this mass personalization. By leveraging the power of digital label printing they can create a unique package for all their customers. With only a handful of companies offering this to their customers, the opportunity is certainly knocking.

Peter Renton is the founder of Lightning Labels Inc., an all-digital label printer in Denver, CO, USA. He is the author of the Blogsmith column in Label & Narrow Web.

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