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Customised Coke and Eco Packaging All on Show at Pack Expo

The power of personalisation, building relationships through dedicated granola corners, ousting Amazon from brand packaging, while largely mistrusting all things IoT, all saw Las Vegas' Pack Expo mark its 20th anniversary in style.

Photo: Bespoke Coke, courtesy of HP’s Indigo system.
Bespoke Coke, courtesy of HP's Indigo system.
Photo: Bespoke Coke, courtesy of HP’s Indigo system.
Bespoke Coke, courtesy of HP's Indigo system.

Bored with your beer fizzing out? Behold the re-sealable aluminium can. This marvel of packaging innovation – along with a huge variety of sorting, printing and packaging machinery – was among the many exhibits designed to impress attendees at the recent Pack Expo Las Vegas.

With the event marking its 20th anniversary, it was perhaps only fitting that it broke attendance and square footage records. This, however, was largely due to the fact that the US packaging machinery market has continued to enjoy steady growth, with the sector reportedly worth US$9.41 billion in 2014. Overall, the food and beverage sector leads the way in terms of demand for packaging machinery, although the pharmaceuticals and personal care markets are tipped to grow dramatically over the next five years.

Flexible plastic remains the dominant packaging type, with biscuits and confectionery among its top categories. Overall, though, PET bottles are expected to be the fastest growing segment through to 2019, largely on account of their widespread use in the rapidly expanding bottled water market.

While many had anticipated that the Internet of Things (IoT) would have proved a major focal point at the expo, this proved not entirely true. In fact, it transpired that many manufacturers – largely on account of security concerns – remain cautious about delegating even routine maintenance monitoring to the vagaries of the internet. As a result, it was other trends that dominated the conversation at the expo.

Unique en Masse

It was back in 2013 that Coca-Cola rewrote at least part of the packaging rulebook. That was the year its Share-A-Coke campaign offered consumers the chance to add names to cans and bottles. This personalisation proved a huge success when it came to direct marketing, with more than 250 million such items sold in Australia alone. This bespoke printing came courtesy of the Hewlett-Packard Indigo presses launched earlier that year. The new tech made it possible to customise massive quantities of product on demand, while maintaining a high level of print quality.

This year, HP was looking to build on the Indigo's success with its newest innovation – the Smart Stream Mosaic software app – and, again, it partnered with Coca-Cola to showcase the potential of its new system. In 2014, the drinks manufacturer used the app to create two million unique bottles for its Extraordinary Diet Coke collection. The app can auto-generate any number of designs, which can then be printed on a variety of surfaces, including bottles, cans or point-of-sales merchandise. In this case, Coke gave customers the option to print their designs on to both a bottle and a T-shirt.

This year, Anheuser-Busch, the beer and energy drinks giant, turned to the same variable printing technology for the roll out of its latest Bud Light campaign. Keen to invigorate this mature beer brand, while finding new ways to appeal to the millennial market, the app allowed the brand to transform variations on 31 basic graphic designs into more than 200,000 one-of-a-kind cans.

Photo: Smart Streamed customised cans.
Smart Streamed customised cans.
Photo: Smart Streamed customised cans.
Smart Streamed customised cans.
Photo: IoT wary: Packaging production lines.
IoT wary: Packaging production lines.
Photo: IoT wary: Packaging production lines.
IoT wary: Packaging production lines.

At the show, the resulting bright mosaic of cans was all but impossible to miss and saw HP's stand teeming with visitors throughout the three days of the show. Clearly delighted with the attention it was generating, Glenda Brungardt, HP's Tradeshow and Event Manager, said: "We're very excited to show just what we can do for brands. They're asking: 'If you could do this for Bud, what could you do for us? How do I get those colourful designs on my products?' Now, we can print on everything from flexible packages and corrugated boxes to burlap, while a short run can be as short as one piece."

E-commerce Opps

With direct marketing harnessing the power of such targeted personalisation, there was also, clearly, a huge range of potential applications in the world of e-commerce. Indeed, this was one of the issues directly addressed in a future trends presentation by Ron Puval, Director of Global Marketing and New Business Development for Plastic Technologies Inc.

Highlighting the new realities of the digital era, he said: "The rise of e-commerce has disrupted all of the traditional touchpoints. In the past, the first moment of truth for the customer came at the store shelf. Now it takes place online. How, then, can packaging reinforce the experience the consumer had on the website?"

In the case of Amazon, the largest online retailer in the US, Puval noted that it was only a matter of time until individual brands figured out how to deliver products in their own distinctive packaging, even if the items have been dispatched via Amazon's distribution network. With this in mind, he said: "Why does Kraft let Amazon put mac-n-cheese in its box? Why isn't it in a Kraft box? It's coming."

Playing with Your Food

In other developments, single-serve convenience and packaging that "creates a relationship" between the consumer and the product continue to be important driving forces in the industry. This relationship may be as simple as offering yoghurt with a serving of granola stored in a corner of the same container, or pre-packaging grated cheese with salad in a divided plastic bowl. Commenting on this particular trend, Aaron Wallander, Marketing Director for Bemis North America, a Wisconsin-based plastic packaging manufacturer, said: "While, fundamentally it's not all that different, it's convenience and interaction that build a relationship with any product, and that makes all the difference."

In such cases, he believed that transparency and visibility are very important, with consumers more likely to buy food they can actually see. To this end, he sees such things as granola bars in metallized wrappers as a thing of the past, with products in clear packaging now considered to have a higher premium value.

Wallander also noted that millennials, as well as consumers in a number of other demographics, are now turning away from snacks per se in favour of healthy meal replacements. This, he believes, explains the growing popularity of protein-rich products and the prominence of labels that highlight protein content. He said: "People are willing to pay for premium products and convenience."

Taking a similar tact, Mike Nielsen, National Sales Manager for Barger, a division of Placon, the Wisconsin-based packaging manufacturer, said: "A lot of our food packaging is geared towards on-the-go salads with protein, with the priority being to keep it fresh as long as possible."

According to Nielsen, the company is also tapping into another key factor in the market – sustainability. It now uses 100% post-consumer recycled, food-grade plastic, something that it processes in its own PET bottle reclamation facility. Along with developing and manufacturing packaging, it now also sells sheets of recycled plastic sheet, something that is proving to be a growing part of its business.

With Nielsen convinced of consumers' green preferences, he said: "We've started to advertise our eco-star story in stores and we've seen that it's driving behaviour." The shift towards sustainability is also taking place with regard to the packaging of medical devices, an area that traditionally has solely focussed on safety.

While health-consciousness and environmental-friendliness will continue to be important considerations for the packaging industry, novelty flavours and "bold interactions" still score top dollar for small packages, at least according to many of the experts in the sector. Given the success of such items as Flaming Garlic Turkey Jerky, it would seem wrong to demur.

Photo: Packing them in: The largest Pack Expo to date.
Packing them in: The largest Pack Expo to date.
Photo: Packing them in: The largest Pack Expo to date.
Packing them in: The largest Pack Expo to date.

Pack Expo 2015 took place from 28-30 September at the Las Vegas Convention Center. It featured more than 2,000 exhibitors, while attracting some 30,000 attendees.

Anna Huddleston, Special Correspondent, Las Vegas

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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