This is the second time I’ve been part of the Global Flexo Innovation Awards, and this time around the world is a very different place. This year has brought a significant challenge for printers and brands: e-commerce. We knew it was on a rapid rise but, with the pandemic, our e-commerce business has absolutely exploded.
“We’re in the business of selling superior products, and we can’t do that with a package that doesn’t look premium.”
At P&G, we’ve always had a strategy of designing for bricks-and-mortar stores, because that’s where the vast majority of our sales have occurred. We may now look explicitly to design for e-commerce first. Take the Tide Eco-Box: instead of a beautifully-shaped plastic bottle that captures your attention on the store shelf, it’s designed for e-commerce. It’s a rectangle, which is the most efficient shape we can fill with liquid and ship.
As a brand company I don’t think we’ll ever lose the need to be eye-catching with our print. People coming into your kitchen are still going to see the Dawn dish detergent next to your sink, so even if the store shelf has become less important, that packaging still has to look beautiful. We’re in the business of selling superior products, and we can’t do that with a package that doesn’t look premium.
Another major trend that continues to be a challenge for printer is sustainability. That’s been on the radar for a long time, but it’s now an essential piece of everything we do at P&G. I’m having conversations about sustainability every day.
“I was hired all those years ago as a polymer scientist, and my role was all about plastics. What matters has changed: now what’s important is my understanding of how the packaging ecosystem can work to deliver the benefits we used to deliver with those materials.”
As a company, within the last year we’ve seen an extreme shift towards materials that have a more sustainable profile than plastics. I was hired all those years ago as a polymer scientist, and my role was all about plastics. What matters has changed: now what’s important is my understanding of how the packaging ecosystem can work to deliver the benefits we used to deliver with those materials.
Flexo has lots of potential sustainability benefits. Its set-up times are shorter. Its run times can be shorter. The amount of energy required to make a flexo plate is certainly lower than what it takes to engrave a rotogravure plate. And it can print at high quality on a wide variety of recycled substrates.
I don’t come from the printing industry, I come from the brand side. I’ve spent almost 26 years at P&G, working in research and development in packaging, working with disruptive new technologies to create new products.
Judging Miraclon’s Global Flexo Innovation Awards gives me a better understanding of where the print and packaging industry is moving. I get to interact with people from other consumer goods companies, as well as from right across the print industry, and I can see how they’re taking advantage of new technology. The other judges, who are all experts in their field, are wonderful sources of information too. I value these connections. The longer I go in my career, the broader my network becomes, and that means I can be stronger in my job.
“I felt a fish out of water the first few hours I was there that year, because everybody was such an expert in print. But I think I brought a different perspective: I understand the needs of industry.”
For the 2019 awards, there were nearly 1,000 entries that year, from industries I’d normally never get insight into. And the thing that struck me hardest in judging that event was seeing how businesses were transitioning from gravure to flexo – while maintaining the highest print quality.
I felt a fish out of water the first few hours I was there that year, because everybody was such an expert in print. But I think I brought a different perspective: I understand the needs of industry. Brands are demanding to do more customized shorter runs now, for example, as we seek to make products more personal for different groups of people. The ability to step away from expensive longer runs is something I remember seeing a lot of in the entries we judged.
One of the things I learned about making an entry effective was the importance of how it was framed. The more information the judges have, the easier it is for us to make an educated call on the value of the entry. Some entries were full of information, so it was very easy to tell why the execution had taken place and what the benefits were; with others we were trying to infer the benefits, because it wasn’t explicitly spelled out.
But the changes the industry has seen in the last five years have been more dramatic and more rapid than anything I saw in the previous 20 years. So while consumers tend to return to trusted brands in uncertain times, this is also an opportunity for new brands to stand out because they provide new benefits. These days, a small start-up can make a tremendous business impact against an entrenched competitor like a P&G or L’Oréal. You just couldn’t do that 25 years ago.
“This is the key point: it’s easy to become enamoured with a new technology, but unless there’s a way to make money from it, that’s all it is.”
For us that means we have to keep innovating. We’ll be doing a lot of testing of new ideas, and we don’t generally do that on a national scale, which would mean multi-millions of units. Instead we may be producing units in the thousands or hundreds of thousands. Being profitable when we’re making these smaller runs is obviously important to us. And one thing flexo gives us is the ability to do shorter runs, profitably.
This is the key point: it’s easy to become enamoured with a new technology, but unless there’s a way to make money from it, that’s all it is. That’s why the last 10 years of my career has really been about innovation, more than just invention.
I love to talk to the print folk, because I get to learn the new things being done, and I can help them marry that up with what’s important for me as a brand person, and for my company. That’s innovation. And that’s exactly what these awards are all about.
Ken McGuire is global research fellow at global consumer goods company P&G, and a judge for Global Flexo Innovation Awards.