Even though all three markets attempt to stand out on the shelf with ornate labels, the spirits industry stands apart from its counterparts in several ways. The main difference is a functional one. “From a technical aspect, both wine and beer are labeled for condensation and cold because they are wet bottles, typically,” explains David Bowyer, chief executive officer, Tapp Label Company. “In terms of materials, the application is much more complicated for both wine and beer.”
The beer market is predominantly a cut-and-stack business. Spirits providers will utilize high gloss or matte litho-type papers, as well as clear films. Metalized BOPP substrates have emerged as a popular choice for many brands. Craft brands have gravitated toward paper materials popular with estate wines, and printing is predominantly done through UV flexo for larger runs. UV offset and water-based flexo are also common print methods, and digital is emerging for customized short runs.
“The three fundamental building blocks for effective branding are color, shape and size,” states John McDowell, president of McDowell Label and Screen Printing. “The following rule always prevails: you must out-graphic your competition on the shelf. Optimizing the brand design with combination printing technologies, such as employing multiple foil stamps and multi-level embossing, can stimulate an experiential phenomena that promotes fidelity between the consumer and the brand, if properly executed.”
The adhesives used for spirits labels tend to be general-purpose permanent acrylics, but with the trend toward freezing vodka, tequila and the flavored liquors, the industry is also seeing a shift toward cold temperature adhesives.
According to Bowyer, spirits also tend to have larger labels with bigger types and fonts. He adds that design plays a major role in a product line’s success. “Decoration is a critical element of successful spirits labels, as well as a lot of gimmicks,” says Bowyer. “Trendy-type names are big in spirits right now, too, particularly on the smaller craft side.”
The type of spirit and intended demographic can play a large role in the label’s design. “For the brown alcohols, the whiskeys and bourbons and such, the traditional look is very important,” explains Jean Willson, market development manager, Wine & Spirits, UPM Raflatac. “The label is easily recognizable on the shelf, and the consumer can go directly to that brand and grab the bottle off the shelf. For many of these brands, the face paper needs to be a clean, smooth material that will print successfully under many different print methods. There are many uncoated textured papers that work particularly well for this application. In regards to the clear spirits, especially the flavored drinks, the look of the label needs to grab the attention of the Millennial who is choosing the brand. Those labels that are the most successful tend to be clear-on-clear film that prints sharply with an adhesive that remains clear during the life cycle of the bottle – even if the bottle is put in the freezer or cooler.”
Inland, a Wisconsin-based label manufacturer, offers multiple printing technologies in a wide range of markets, including spirits. “One form of success that we often hear customers speak of is having various label elements,” says Tricia Sime, packaging innovation director, Inland. “A spirit label needs to grab the attention of the consumer in more than one way. Whether that’s visual paired with tactile, or adding printing elements at different angles or levels, the ‘second look’ effect is important.”
The possibilities have sparked many brands to launch a rebranded label and packaging scheme to stand out on the shelf. “The space has grown tremendously in terms of rebrand and brand variation,” explains Sime. “Many of the core brands are finding unique flavors and varieties to pair with their core spirits. As a converter, it makes for an exciting time to help brands differentiate their labels.”
Dr. Chip Tonkin, director of Sonoco Institute of Packaging Design & Graphics, Clemson University, has researched the efficacy of perceived quality in packaging. With a buying decision coming in mere seconds, Tonkin believes a high-quality appearance can be more important than the quality of the product itself. He also adds that 85% of customers will make a purchase without ever picking up an alternative product.
“Does it really matter if the beer tastes better or the butter tastes better? If people think it does, does it really matter that it doesn’t?” Tonkin says, “There are all sorts of examples where you can change people’s perceptions of the product they’re eating or drinking by changing the packaging.”
There are multiple ways in which spirits providers will convey quality to their customers. Substrate manufacturers like Avery Dennison and UPM Raflatac offer various facestocks that allow converters to create a label that will pop on the shelf.
Avery Dennison provides “a full gamut” of substrates for the spirits market. These materials include papers, films, metalized papers, laminated foils and a Select Solutions portfolio designed to provide customized options. The company also offers the S7450 adhesive, which is part of the ClearCut family of adhesives. Avery Dennison’s Aqua Stick portfolio features the Z3338 adhesive, and it is designed for variable temperature and humid environments.
“Spirits manufacturers have the same obstacles as other products where consumers have choices,” explains Jeff Greenlief, product manager, Wine and Spirits, Avery Dennison. “They’re challenged to get noticed, purchased, provide a great consumer experience and then get purchased again. In this space, Americans love a great story, and so for that reason, we are seeing requests for increased label sizes as it provides a pallet to speak to their history, ingredients or values.”
According to Greenlief, end users prefer various shapes and clear labels. The materials in this space must provide good processability, print adhesion, barcode readability and image quality.
“Papers are clearly the dominant player in spirits labels, as well as beer and wine,” adds Greenlief. “That being said, there is still an exciting area in terms of BOPPs, and then further down the list are your metalized papers and laminated foils.”
UPM Raflatac has developed two proprietary solutions that are popular in this market. Vanish is an ultra-thin and ultra-clear film product. The face material has a caliper of 0.92 mil, which is thinner than the 1.6 mil or 2.0 mil frequently used today. This film provides brand owners with a true clear-on clear look. The company also offers Silvervac WSA, which is a pressure sensitive metalized paper that is wet strength. Previously this product was only available as a glue-applied label, but the company developed a PS label product for the market. UPM Raflatac states that this product works well for the vodkas and tequilas that are exposed to moisture, such as the freezer/counter/freezer-thaw cycle or on bottles put into a cooler.
Another way to promote elegance and high quality is through printing and finishing, which can occur in a few different ways. Spirits labels often make use of foils, Cast & Cure, embossing, tactile varnish and gloss variance. “A converter can take the same metalized paper and manipulate it in a variety of methods,” explains Willson. “The metalized paper may be printed with UV inks and covered with either a gloss varnish or a matte varnish – giving two distinct looks to the label. The metalized paper may be flood coated with a different color to signify a different flavor, like a deep red or lime green, and the resulting label has a richness to it without the expense of buying colored materials. The converter would then carry just one metalized paper in stock but can print as many colors as needed. The same type of print manipulation happens with embossing a pattern onto paper, as well. One example is a varnish applied on press that is then embossed with a pattern resulting in a highly textured sheet that is much less expensive than if the pattern sheet was bought as a raw material.”
“As a converter it is our job to help our customers bring to life the effect they want their labels to have,” adds Sime. “For spirits, this usually goes above and beyond a standard paper label with a flat design.”
Perfecting the craft
Much like the beer market, spirits labels benefit greatly from a craft segment. These smaller brands frequently utilize digital printing for short runs, which could include multiple designs for varying themes.
According to Avery Dennison, the craft market has opened up new possibilities for the printing industry. “The big trend is the surge of the new craft spirits locations or craft breweries,” says Greenlief. “We’ve seen a number of them sprout up, and it’s offering creative blends to consumers.”
In order to stand out on the shelf, craft spirits are more likely to take chances with intricate and snazzy designs. For the larger brands, the name itself will sell the product. “The larger branded spirits will only make a small tweak of their designs,” explains Bowyer. “In other words, the theme stays the same for decades.”
Many craft spirits brands are going to digital for short run printing. “You’re finding that with the craft segment it’s much different than the larger national brands,” says Bowyer. “The larger national brands typically run flexo with limited decoration.”
Craft spirits also make use of finishing techniques like foil and embossing, which is less common with bigger brands. The major names will incorporate high builds into their products.
Since craft spirits are not producing the large orders like many major brands, they often look to innovative and different forms of product decoration. “Craft spirits are leading the pack in trying new materials and setting trends,” says Willson. “One primary way is to personalize the label for the specific audience through digital print. With limited runs, the labels can be highly targeted with graphics, colors and social media links. In order for these to print successfully, though, the face material must be of good quality and smoothness, whether it’s coated or uncoated papers or films.”
According to Willson, one of these trends includes the see-through nature of the bottle. A shelf of vodkas and tequilas feature film labels showing graphics through the spirit from the back label. This allows consumers to see what they are drinking.
New age packaging includes more than just a sharp label and graphics that pop. More brand owners are exploring the use of smart technology in their spirits, a trend that kicked off with Diageo.
The alcoholic beverage provider teamed up with Thinfilm to introduce a Johnnie Walker Blue Label smart bottle at Mobile World Congress in March of 2015. The scotch bottle features printed sensor tags that enable consumers to ascertain a wealth of information, including promotions, videos, background information and the open state of the bottle. Users can generate this information by tapping an NFC-enabled smart phone to the bottle.
Thinfilm uses printed-dopant polysilicon technology, followed by a combination of screen printing and additives. The sensors are printed on metal foil, cut into small pieces and then attached to an antenna, which has a conductive tail.
According to McDowell, the technology has started to infiltrate the spirits label market. “There has been an increase in the use of smart technologies,” he says. “And it has been for the purpose of improving branding, consumer engagement, event marketing, brand authentication and more. These technologies are changing and improving at a very fast pace, and it’s exciting to learn why they’re being used.”
Bowyer adds that smart technology has become popular for security and authenticity. “There are a lot of apps right now for that, and what we do is encrypt a lot of things within the label – often using a code of some kind embedded in the label,” he says.
Avery Dennison offers NFC-enabled labels with DirectLink, and the company finds that more brands are experimenting with this burgeoning technology. “Many companies are exploring this technology in wines, spirits and beer, and it can be used to create some interactive packaging for consumers,” adds Greenlief. “For example, being able to scan a code and see visually on your smart phone the harvesting of certain grains that go into a product or other venues where it’s consumed. The big thing with smart technology is the protection against diversion and counterfeiting. Many companies are looking at it for different reasons.”