Trends in Label Decorating

by Melissa Larson, contributing writer, PostPress

It can be argued that more technology and artistry has gone into label decorating than any other aspect of modern packaging. Label converters have become proficient at adding textures, foil effects and other postpress wizardry to produce labeled containers that demand to be picked up, touched and taken home.

Business outlook

According to Freedonia Group, world demand for labels reached 51.6 billion square meters in 2015 with a value of $110 billion US. “Advances will be driven by gains in manufacturing activity, which will increase from a low 2010 base. Pressure-sensitive labels will remain the largest product type and continue to take market share from glue-applied products in major packaging applications such as food, beverages, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics,” stated the report.

Above-average demand growth also was predicted by Freedonia in other label segments such as stretch sleeve, heat-shrink and in-mold labels, but slightly more than half of the global label market (in volume terms) remains in the pressure-sensitive segment.

Plastic stock materials will continue to benefit from a broad shift in favor of plastic packaging, as well as from their aesthetic and performance advantages over paper-based label stocks, according to Freedonia.

Brand challenge

Before label converters can cost-effectively use enhanced label decorating techniques to react to the latest shifts in consumer mood, they must familiarize themselves with the desires and demands of brand owners, who in turn rely on focus groups, trend boards and analysts to interpret consumer sentiments. And, those sentiments are always changing.

While the clean, minimalist look held sway in package decoration just a few years ago, the trend now seems to be swinging the other way. Brand challengers are countering “clean” design with hand drawings, letterpress printing, silk-screen decorations and chaotic graphics. It’s not only the challenger brands that are using disruptive decorating techniques. Established brands also are having fun highlighting the equity and value of their less-pristine pasts. This is especially true in the craft brewing and high-end wines and spirits categories; and all of these design aesthetics rely on labeling.

“Brand owners are looking to differentiate from the competition,” said Jeff Salisbury, president of Orange, California-based Label Impressions. “It used to be that only the bigger brands could afford striking, high-quality full-color graphics, but with the advent of digital printing that has changed. Now even a small startup brand with just a few hundred label demand can achieve a high-end, full-color look at an economical price point using digital. As a result, we’re seeing designers opt for more special effects such as foils, embossing and raised tactile finishes – often in combination with other effects.”

Hot stamping

The progress of hot stamping techniques for labels depends not only on new and effective foil materials, but also on machinery which can ramp up speed and efficiency. Both of these areas have seen significant improvements that have allowed flexographic presses to run at high speeds with improved foil releases and hot stamping equipment.

There are still an abundant of applications for foiled labels where hot stamping is the best choice. Many wine and spirit labels are printed and decorated on uncoated paper substrates. The cold foil process works most effectively on coated paper or plastic substrates and creates additional challenges on uncoated materials. There also are processes, such as foil refraction, where micro-embossed lines are used to create definition and movement within the foiled image. This, again, can only be accomplished through hot foil stamping.

Lastly, although cold foil has made great strides in its workability and brilliance, many brand owners are still more comfortable with the look of hot stamping. This especially comes into play with labels for high-end products.

Cold foil

“In our industry, cold foil has really taken hold,” said Salisbury. “In 2007, we sold our three offline hot stamp presses and dove head-first into cold foil. While we were concerned about a quality trade-off and limitations in terms of fine type and detail, we’ve found that we’re now able to achieve even better results in these areas using cold foil due to the advances in sizing/releases, foils and advanced adhesive technology.”

Cold foil has been described as expert UV lamination. Converters can use flexo presses fitted with a UV curing lamp and a laminating tower for cold foil decorating, once they master the use of specialized inks and adhesives.

“We see a greater focus on using multiple effects: combining tactile with foil and embossing for example,” continued Salisbury. “We also see Cast and Cure™ taking center stage. Cast and Cure effects can be striking and, if done right, can be very economical. I don’t think brands have been fully exposed to this technology.”

Cast and Cure

According to the web site for Breit Technologies LLC (, Cast and Cure, or C2 for short, is a decorative coating process that integrates casting and curing techniques to form a consistent high-quality surface. That surface in turn can include ultra-high gloss, matte and holographic finishes on a variety of substrates. Breit Technologies sells all of the specialized equipment and film needed for this process.

This effect can be created in both sheet-fed and web-fed (flexo and gravure) environments. C2 can be incorporated with security and anti-counterfeiting features, according to Breit’s online data, and also is sustainable in that it uses non-VOC ultraviolet inks and varnishes. In addition, the process can make packages more easily recyclable by eliminating the laminated metallized films used in traditional holographic processes.

The process is performed by laminating casting film to a wet UV coating or varnish. While these two surfaces are in contact, UV light is passed through the film to cure the varnish. The film is then delaminated from the surface and rewound. No material is transferred from the film to substrate, and no varnish is transferred to the film. This allows for multiple uses of the film. The film acts as an embossing tool to manipulate the surface of the coating on a submicron scale.

Shrink sleeves anyone?

Tom Brough, sales manager for cold foils at KLaser USA, Sarasota, Florida, is a proponent of coil foil decorating on shrink labels – if the proper process preparations are made.

“Cold foiling on shrink sleeves…creates a trendy metallic, high-impact look. Special effects coatings add a textured surface you can feel. Matte areas or glitter ink provide contrast between a glossy shrink film surface and the bling of shiny foils,” he said.

Brough specifies several equipment and material requirements for using cold foils on shrink labels. Among those requirements are:

  • an adhesive made for shrinkability;
  • a press fitted with chill rollers;
  • specialized anilox rolls;
  • a cold foil nip roll with an 85 to 90 durometer hardness, in order to print fine detail; and
  • graphics for the cold foil plate that have been cut back between .15 and .2 points in order to compensate for image spread.

For those converters who make the investment in the proper tools for cold foil decorating, the final results can be highly successful – and profitable.

“With regard to cold foil itself, we’re seeing that designers now realize they can achieve the level of detail they once thought impossible,” concluded Salisbury. “Now they send over files with very small, fine type with serifs, and they understand and expect that their 4pt ‘Circle R’ will print in foil legibly. We accept cold foil file separations with the same expectations as ink separations.”

Beyond decorating?

Label converters are reporting increased pressure from brand owners for interactive labels using a number of technologies. Electronic packaging, or e-packaging, is a catchall phrase for a number of these next-generation applications.

Functions range from tamper-evidence, error detection, freshness monitoring and color changing, to motion graphics, sounds or music and even controlled aroma release. These value-added effects are in their infancy but are establishing benchmarks for how consumers engage with e-packaging. They’re also creating a challenge for label converters, as methods and technologies for postprint label operations enter a whole new era.

Radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, as an example, are being used for unit-level applications, most often in the apparel and electronics categories. These passive RFID tags have many advantages. They are more robust for harsher environments, and they can provide sell-down data to retailers and consumers. One innovative use was by Oakley, which implemented mirror message displays that “magically” surprised shoppers trying on their sunglasses.

Nicole Mercer of Universal Engraving, Inc. – a UEI Group Company, Overland Park, Kansas, predicts an “increased demand for brand authentication and security, accomplished in a manner that compliments the design/brand (through micro-embossing/shifting color foils).” So security features embedded in the label probably constitute number one on converters’ wish lists, from a practical standpoint.

While considerable effort goes into, for example, making containers that protect food and medicine in the US, label decorating belongs to the realm of real and instant connection with the shopper. As Brough put it: “The look and feel of these” effects coatings on the outside that you can see and feel, and sometimes smell, activate several of our senses to elevate the highly designed container towards a work of art. They are so attractive and compelling that many will buy the product just for the container because there is nothing else like it.”

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