Brands strive to profit from the personal touch

By Jenny Roper, Monday 29 September 2014

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To say last year’s Share a Coke campaign was a success would be something of an understatement. As teenagers and mums alike rummaged through chiller cabinets (and Wilhelminas and Wilfreds begrudgingly contented themselves with ‘Will’), volume sales for the brand grew 3.9%. And its YouGov Brand-Index Buzz ranking jumped from 25 to 7.


People tweeted and Facebook-ed pictures of themselves posed with bottles. People printed their own names using kiosks at special Share a Coke touring events. The nation, and indeed the other 31 European countries targeted, collectively fell in love with caffeinated fizz anew. 

Little wonder, then, that the campaign is back with thousands rather than just 150 names. What is less clear is whether huge numbers of other brands will follow suit. 

Certainly there would seem plenty of incentive to do so. Other stand-out stats on last year’s Share a Coke campaign include that 53% of conversations about Coca-Cola on Twitter during the campaign were positive (according to YouGov’s social media analysis tool), and that Coke’s Recommendation score, reflecting the likelihood of consumers recommending the product, increased from 3.7 to 12.7 over the campaign’s 30 days.

Slow take-up

And yet, the number of brands that have actually taken advantage of digital print-enabled, cost-effective variable packaging are still only in single figures.

And of those brands active in this area, many have not actually carried things forwards in quite the same vein as Coke. That is, while Coke’s is most accurately described as a randomised, mass customisation campaign, much other activity has been true personalisation, as it were, with packaging customised at the behest of a specific consumer each time.

Take the examples of spirits brand Pernod Ricard and Heinz’s HP Sauce. Following in the footsteps of Heineken a few years back, both brands this year launched campaigns, both to coincide with Father’s Day, where consumers could order personalised bottles. 

While consumers can still go to to order a bottle of Glenlivet, Aberlour or Chivas Regal carrying a message of their choice, HP’s campaign was shorter lived and more prescriptive, involving a Facebook competition where 100 winners were sent a bottle with Dad’s name on.

Along with similar The Famous Grouse and Heinz Get Well Soup campaigns, these two initiatives seem to epitomise two distinct emerging true personalisation trends: that of high-value items personalised as gifts, and lower-value items personalised as part of limited-edition campaigns. 

“I think personalisation will be used in particular for brands trying to get new products out,” says Bob Leahey, associate director at Infotrends. 

“So imagine a firm that wants to launch a new version of a product and knows of 10,000 customers in Europe who are regular purchasers because they have made contact with them through QR codes, or email or Facebook. They would probably give serious consideration to using personalised packaging for a mailing.”

These kinds of FMCG campaigns will probably always be limited to short, sharp campaigns though, believes Mark Ritchie, product manager at Xaar. He explains that delivery of the product and design constitute disproportionately high costs for such low-value items. 

“Any design work, even if it’s five minutes of uploading the right photograph and putting it in the right place, that’s a one-off cost for that print alone,” he says. 

Indeed, when interviewed about Heinz’s Get Well Soup campaign back in January, Richard Baverstock, account director for Heinz at creative agency Magnet Harlequin, told PrintWeek: “It’s the postage that can be difficult because obviously the cans can’t fit through letterboxes, so that can be tricky if people aren’t in.” 

“If you’re in the premium sector, arguably price isn’t too much of an issue; it’s not a very price-sensitive sector. But price sensitivity becomes much more of an issue in the realm of mass goods,” adds Dick Searle, chief executive at The Packaging Federation. 

It could be countered of course that consumer appetite for paying above the odds for true personalisation hasn’t really been tested yet. If consumers were willing to pay £5 for a personalised tin of beans for example, in theory this might still end up a decent money-spinner for brands. 

And in fact, the logistical challenges cited by Ritchie and Baverstock could be overcome by consumers being encouraged to buy the product from a bricks-and-mortar store and then send off for a personalised label afterwards, which is how the Pernod Ricard campaign works. Such logistical issues might even be overcome in future by in-store printers.

But there are still other obstacles. Even where consumers are sending off for labels, digital technology has to be slick, says Phillip Adcock, managing director of shopper research organisation Shopper Behaviour Xplained (SBXL). 

“There’s a big gap at the moment between what technology can deliver, what consumers are prepared to use and what consumers actually can use,” he says.

“We film people in store every week and we can count on one hand how many times we’ve seen people using a mobile phone in store as part of a shop. They just don’t do it.”

He adds: “The agencies think it’s a 23-year-old technology freak that’s buying Jammie Dodgers. But it’s 35-year-old Mrs Smith, who doesn’t spend her life in front of a screen – she’s bringing up a family.”

Ritchie adds that, although the most obvious markets for true personalisation are high-end products, personalisation could actually devalue some items. And consumers could soon tire of what once seemed so novel.

“Would it work for expensive perfume, having your name on it? I’m not sure,” he says. “And if everyone does it the value drops off. It could become a bit overloaded if all the food brands do it.”

The area Ritchie, and many besides, feel has much stronger potential is mass customisation. That is, something more akin to the Share a Coke campaign, where brands approach standard pack design much more playfully to offer a range, some perhaps for certain occasions, for the same product.

Brands have, as discussed, by no means rushed in here, suggesting appetite may be limited. But there are signs of change. The Famous Grouse for instance, which as well as running a similar Father’s Day campaign to Pernod Ricard this year, also offered limited-edition gift cartons celebrating dad characteristics, including The Famous Cyclist and The Famous Moustache. 

“Thornton’s have a whole range where it’s the same chocolates inside but with different messages, so ‘Just to say thank you’ and ‘Just to show I care’,” reports Adcock. “Because supermarkets won’t let brands do anything but clever things on their own packaging – like more POP displays for example – brands are coming up with different ways of connecting emotionally.”

Graham Leeson, head of European communications, Fujifilm Graphic Systems, adds that digital printing will hopefully soon encourage brands to be more reactive with packaging, rolling out pack designs in response to recent events or local commemorative, perhaps local hero, anniversaries for example. 

“One area I see taking off is the ability to connect with consumers when there are events like the Olympics,” he says. “If you take that to its ultimate conclusion it might get very local.”

Other opportunities

Other ideas shared at a recent ‘Packaging opportunities for brands with digital printing’ talk at 2014’s Dscoop EMEA in Budapest, included various recipes on the same pack, different stories on kids’ food packaging, and packaging rallying behind a local individual taking part in The X Factor, for example.

Leahey adds that technology will soon become available to produce every-one-different packaging, tapping into an appetite for collectable packaging.

“There is an organisation, not public at this point, working on software where you create algorithms to adjust the appearance of the packaging so that every pack is slightly different. In fact there’s probably more than one group working on this.”

He adds that, although awareness of digital printing is still limited among brands, there are signs of a shift. “Only a minority are aware of this at the moment. But awareness will grow because more of the convertors will have digital printing and they will be selling awareness,” he says.

There are, though, still hurdles for mass personalisation to overcome, the biggest being brand integrity. “Changing packaging is so off the menu for so many people, it’s crazy,” says Adcock. “It’s in line with changing the logo. Think about how hard it would be to get 10 Nike logos – that’s how hard it would be to get 10 Nike packs.”

Leeson adds that the existing printing technology is still a limiting factor. “Perhaps the label market is more mature, but for proper carton board packaging the technology is very much in its infancy,” he says, adding that the arrival, commercially, of the Jetpress F next year, will be a turning point for Fuji.

Of course other vendors will also soon be reaching turning points. And as more brands get wind of how successful initiatives such as Coke’s and Thorntons’ can be, perhaps packaging design will become less sacred. 

Whether truly personalised packaging will ever take off in a big way, remains to be seen. But it seems logical for this to stay largely confined to high-value, special occasion products and one-off marketing campaigns. Where the larger opportunity perhaps lies is in variable and much more reactive and locally targeted packaging.

With consumers confronted with an ever-proliferating and ever-more bamboozling array of choice these days, highly varied, even every-one-different, packaging might end up being just the thing to cut through the supermarket shelf  noise. 

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