Store Brands Follow National Brands In Aiming for Packaging Quality
As retailers continue to grow their own private label brands, they are aiming for product quality levels that are at least equal to their national brand competitors. In addition, they are also applying greater emphasis on quality and uniformity for the packaging across their various product lines. Achieving comparable packaging quality has been more difficult for the store brands because their products are developed and manufactured independently by multiple vendors scattered across the globe. Although many national brands have divested some or even all of their manufacturing, they still have the advantage of having put together the infrastructure in place for packaging quality control years ago.
Impressions Inc. is a long-time packaging converter for both national and private label brands. Through the years we regularly receive corporate guidelines on special colors, and the usage of brand logos, fonts, and other critical elements. Having these guidelines up front we have been able to catch and correct problems with art files early on. We are often furnished color chips that are to be matched on press. Knowing that the provided chip was often printed on a thin “commercial grade” stock, we took it upon ourselves to match the targeted color on the actual substrate specified for printing. Our SBS and CCNB sheets have different shades of white so we found it easier and more cost effective to provide the press operator with an exact color match rather than force them into making a judgment call as to whether or not their color match was close enough to the chip. No one ever told us to follow these practices; which just took it upon ourselves because it seemed logical and we truly cared about the quality of the product we produced. When brand owners first approached us with substantive color requirements, we were quickly able to comply because they were asking no more of us than we had already asked of ourselves.
Private label products are not only growing in volume, they are making inroads in consumer awareness and perception of the brand. Consumers are becoming both comfortable with and loyal to store brands. Reflecting their enhanced stature in the marketplace, private label marketers are now also putting more effort into packaging design and quality control. Anyone who shops regularly knows that packaging comes in a wide range of substrates ranging from plastic to paper. What these consumers don’t understand is how hard it is to get colors to match on these disparate substrates.
Color science is hard enough for people to understand in a conceptual sense; it is even harder to put theory into practice. Various stakeholders in the color management process were eventually able to attain some order in the print publications market by creating some guidelines and specifications that came to be known as SWOP. If some similar such initiative were attempted in the packaging markets, you could all but guarantee its failure because of the numerous substrates packages are printed on, the various methods in which they are printed, and the reliance on Pantone or special “spot” colors. Printing to a four-color process specification was done with the intent of predicting how these colors would appear as screened separations. Predicting the tint values of screened back spot colors is almost impossible at a specification level; each converter has to pretty much figure it out on their own. And predicting screen values of spot colors for cartons is important because packaging designers love them as evidenced by the widespread use of tints and vignettes.
There actually was an attempt to write a specification for offset package printing called PROP (Pre-Press Recommendations for Offset Packaging). Whatever became of this initiative is anyone’s guess. To the best of my recollection, all that came out of it that was noteworthy was the recognition that dot gains are actually less on clay coated news back (CCNB) than on the superior virgin board, SBS. With no paperboard printing specification to aim for, we just picked one on our own choosing the ISO spec, 12647-2.
Beyond its thicker caliper, paperboard has several different properties that separate it from publication or commercial grade “thin” stocks. Variables such as whiteness, surface smoothness, and ink holdout are so different from commercial grade paper that about the only value gained from running to any specification is in just following the best practice guidelines the spec outlines. To make matters more complicated, the tolerances for CCNB change dramatically from roll to roll due to the availability and content of the recycled pulp.
In our earliest experiences with color management for national brands, there was recognition that different substrates yielded different printing results so the emphasis was placed on process control and the use of measurement, something that was somewhat unusual to many converters at that time. The CPG provider sent out a contracted technician to perform a technology and process control audit, and if you passed you would then be provided a file to print consisting of various color measurements to fingerprint your printing presses on the specified stock. The art files you received from that point onward were based on the results of that press run.
Although not a perfectly designed process, the emphasis on training and collaboration left you with a pretty good idea as to what the customer was aiming for and that the target could be achieved, leaving you, the printer, with the responsibility for meeting their requirements.
Unlike the national brands, there were no such controls that I was aware of for private label packaging. The manufacturers (product vendors) understood how to make their own product, but had little experience in managing art files and in working with corporate identity standards. Save for a few high profile retailers, most of the colors were taken directly out of the Pantone book. We were able to provide a lot of customer value by taking in files from multiple sources, examining them thoroughly, and then making the necessary corrections to ensure consistency across the various product lines. Over the last few years we have seen a shift in brand strategy from having just the store name as the product’s identity, to the creation of “premium brands”, products with an identity independent of the retailer’s name. From the packaging converter’s standpoint, this development has created a whole new level of complexity with the introduction of new logos, special colors, and third-party certification for process control, measurements, and sampling. And it has added a lot of additional costs to meet these standards.
The need to create these standards, and the challenges and the additional costs to meet them will be the topic of our next blog entry.