Trends in Folding Cartons Boost Shelf Impact: Eyeing Market Growth, Brand Owners Look to Decorating Techniques

by Melissa Larson, contributing writer, PostPress

Folding cartons can be printed more economically, decorated more inventively and marketed to a broader assortment of brand managers than ever before. However, the success of a folding carton still comes down to shelf impact – that connection the package makes with an individual shopper. No one understands that better than today’s carton makers, who are using new technologies to optimize the attractions of the folding carton.

Business outlook

The Paperboard Packaging Council (PPC) recently released “Trends: 2015 Industry Outlook and Market Data Report,” a comprehensive analysis of the North American folding carton industry, prepared for PPC members by RISI, a provider of forest products information and data.

According to the report, in 2014 the folding carton industry experienced its first year of growth since the recession in 2008, expanding 0.1 percent year over year. This represents a steady, but not spectacular, performance in 2014 contrasted with the six consecutive years prior, which had resulted in a cumulative decline of 13.3 percent from the pre-recession peak. “The Great Recession had a direct impact on folding carton demand. Household spending was squeezed due to high unemployment and burdensome debt loads, which ultimately translated to poor performances for most of the manufacturing sector,” stated the PPC report.

This year, the report also forecasts solid growth for the folding carton market. Are folding cartons feeling pressure from plastics and other alternative substrates? Sure. In addition, lower priced oil is aiding plastic manufacturing costs. Still, the folding carton market is expected to grow 0.5 percent through 2019, and the total value of US carton shipments should climb to $9.5 billion over the same period.

A recent report on the global folding carton market from Smithers Pira, entitled “Insight: Five Key Trends Driving Growth in Folding Cartons,” forecasts that the global market will be worth $184 billion in 2018. Citing such drivers as package downsizing, single-serve package designs and innovative printing and decorating techniques that answer the brand owner’s demand for differentiation, the Smithers Pira report clearly identifies folding cartons as a key product in the global packaging market.

Trends in decorating

What are the current trends in decorating of traditional folding cartons? According to Douglas B. Herr, director of folding carton sales, North America, BOBST, there is a resurgence of hot foil stamping and registered embossing on printing, as well as more precise, high-quality graphics, with smaller tolerances because of registration to print marks. “Along with the strength in our economy, we see many folding carton markets growing the use of carton decorations,” he commented.

“Companies are willing to invest more money in their packaging in order to gain market share. Consumers are reacting positively to more sophisticated graphics – that is, purchasing more of the products which are packaged in more attractive cartons,” Herr continued. “The growing technologies and capabilities which now are available allow the converters and folding carton companies to offer higher quality graphics at a lower cost due to more efficient manufacturing processes.”

Shorter runs, new markets

Digital printing has been a game-changer for the folding carton industry, enabling converters and packagers to handle short runs and reduce makeready time and costs. Today, the emphasis on short-run jobs extends to printing, decorating and other postpress techniques – and it’s not just digital printing that feeds the demand. Offset press-makers now are offering systems to facilitate quicker turnaround for offset package printing jobs. This includes the OffsetOnDemand system by Komori and Heidelberg’s Anicolor technology developed for short-run commercial and packaging printing.

What’s driving the short-run project emphasis? In a word or two: craft brands. “Brand owners want full folding carton printing/decorating features for runs of 5,000 cartons and less,” said Brandtjen and Kluge CEO Michael Aumann. “The level of decorating usually reserved for high-end liquor and cosmetic packaging is increasingly desired by marketers of small regional and craft brands with low volumes.” Aumann cited the following:

  • craft beers
  • craft and artisanal foods, such as pasta sauces
  • OTC health and beauty brands, essential oils and skin care, among others
  • pharmaceutical test markets

Medical marijuana and cannabis-based edibles provide an example of a group of products that is coming out of the shadows and for which marketers want to differentiate their brands, like any other market segment. In fact, they could be the ultimate “craft” product.

What else do brand owners want from cartons? Although many folding carton trends derive from consumer reactions to the package on the shelf, brand owners also demand carton materials and techniques that make them easier to process. Among the items on their wish lists are the following criteria:

  • packaging that can be automatically filled
  • consistent packaging quality
  • moisture and odor barriers
  • ability for automatic insertion of anti-pilferage features (Checkpoint Systems, etc.)
  • interactive features, such as lights and sound

Digital decorating

The folding carton industry is seeing its first steady growth since the recession, and decorating techniques are gaining popularity as companies invest in maximizing shelf presence.

Applying foil and specialty coatings digitally now is available with new technology from MGI, with its iFOIL solution, and Scodix, which has introduced a new foiling module (developed by Compact Foilers) that can be attached to its Ultra Pro Digital Press. These types of units can be used for short-run folding carton applications and also can be an excellent solution for creating prototypes or quantities for testing the market with foil and specialty coatings before a commitment to a larger campaign.

In many ways, the development of digital decorating can have a positive effect on conventional methods of applying foil and coatings, with companies having the ability to create a foil, embossed or specialty coating look to the carton without the costs of expensive tooling and set-up. If the carton is deemed to be a success and a broader launch is created for the folding carton, then conventional foil stamping and coating methods still will be the best choice for large-scale production.

What do consumers want?

Besides shorter runs and quicker setup and makeready times, the emphasis for carton makers continues to be able to offer more sophisticated packaging at an affordable and cost-effective price.

“Higher quality graphics and tactile packaging, as well as interactive and customized packaging, will continue to gain momentum,” said Herr. “The fight for shelf space will grow stronger and become more competitive. The battle to sell one product vs. another will continue to be based on many factors, including information flow to the prospective buyer and both subconscious and conscience attraction to a product via graphics, all of which are provided by the package.

“The consumer has less time to make a purchase decision, so it is the initial viewing of the product on the shelf which is extremely important. Once again, target marketing to specific regions and special interest groups will become the norm,” Herr concluded.

Teaching a new generation

The introduction to the Paperboard Packaging Alliance’s 2016 Student Design Challenge puts into words why the folding carton is such an important marketing tool for today’s brands:

“Leading consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies continue to use paperboard packaging as their preferred packaging choice not only to showcase their brand and product, but also because of its sustainability and unique design capabilities. Conventional dry goods packaging features broad, uninterrupted panels for colorful graphics and advertising; whether it’s pasta, rice, crackers, cookies or cereal, paperboard efficiently contains and protects the product.”

And this year’s PPA design challenge assignment, which calls for a folding carton for a premium dry-goods brand intended to be displayed in upscale grocery stores, also delineates the focus of folding-carton packaging design:

“The package should be worthy of placement on the second or third shelf of grocery store aisles, also known as the ‘bull’s-eye zone.’ Most importantly, the structural and functional design must be innovative and appeal to company executives and adult shoppers.”

The assignment criteria continues, “The premium package should maximize useable space for product protection, address ways to keep the product fresh, offer an innovative functional feature that distinguishes itself from conventional packaging, include ergonomic components for easy use at home and stocking the package at grocery stores, and explore new shapes and forms while still showcasing brand recognition to loyal customers.”

“…The package must be made primarily from paperboard, positively disrupt and capture customers’ attention while shopping and have visible functional distinctions that set it apart from competing packages.”

While package design students are busy learning the central precepts of folding carton design, more experienced folding-carton makers are well aware of the goals and are using new technology to help get effective cartons to store shelves faster and for less cost.

Melissa Larson has been writing about printing, converting and packaging for 30 years.