Strategies & Insights

Special Orders Don't Upset Us

Posted: July 6, 2008 by
Peter Renton

For more than a decade, commercial printers have used variable data—text, graphics or images intentionally changed from one piece to the next—to create powerful personalized marketing messages. In contrast, the packaging industry generally has ignored variable data, despite the availability of digital printing technology that can create one-of-a-kind instead of one-size-fits-all packages.

Forward-thinking designers and brand managers can leverage the power of today's digital technology to use variable data printing (VDP) for variable packaging in product label and package design. Just pair it with some kind of database containing desired recipients, and a competent digital printer can take it from there.

One note of caution might be advisable here. Much like the proverbial kid in a candy store, there can be a tendency to go overboard with the one-of-a-kind freedom afforded by variable data packaging. To maintain a consistent brand, you likely will want to keep most package elements the same —and change one small part of each item.

VDP in packaging today

Soft drink purveyor Jones Soda is a variable data packaging pioneer. Walk into any supermarket stocking this quirky soda and you will see that every six pack of bottles features a different photo on the label.

These are all photos submitted by Jones Soda customers, and they have become an integral part of their brand. Since starting this practice in the late nineties, Jones has printed more than 10,000 photos on bottle labels. Today, you can submit your photo to the Jones website and order a six-pack of personalized soda!

St. Francis Winery is another forward-thinking variable data packaging company, which used a totally different approach to introduce their "RED" wine. Their designer created a series of 12 similar labels, but with different red paint splatter pattern images for each bottle in a 12-bottle case. To ensure that there were always 12 different labels in a case, these labels were printed sequentially and then repeated down the roll so they could be applied to the bottles with their label applicator.

Major consumer product companies also are taking advantage of variable data packaging. Both Heinz ( and Kleenex ( offer variable data packaging. They have special websites with simple online interfaces that enable anyone to create one-of-a-kind packages for quick turnaround shipping. Heinz limits you to three lines of black text, while Kleenex offers full-color. Upload your own photos, choose fun colorful backgrounds and different text colors, and then order one item or more.

Take advantage of VDP

Today's competitive retail marketplace affords few opportunities to differentiate one's brand instantly. Variable data packaging provides an excellent opportunity, especially given its relative lack of adoption currently. Early adopters will find themselves sitting pretty, but even late-comers will find plenty of ways to make a unique packaging statement. Following are ideas adaptable to just about any product or package.

1. Create an original art collection. Licensing the works of Picasso or Monet for a packaging project would certainly generate a lot of interest, but is simply not a realistic (or sound) option for most companies. However, placing original artwork on packaging has substantial potential.

There are plenty of struggling artists that would jump at the opportunity to have their original art featured on packaging. An art series would work well for high-end products such as wine or cosmetics.

This approach also can work for a children's product featuring a series of original finger paintings done by children the same age as the target market. Either way, the main idea is to have an art series, so each package is a little different and looks unique on the retail shelf.

2. Use digital photos. Digital photo use is exploding around the world. Online stock photography sites have millions of photos available for licensing with packaging. It would be fairly simple and inexpensive to create a packaging photo series.

For example, a company selling sunscreen could have a photo series of world famous beaches on their products. It could become part of the brand for that sunscreen and it would really help differentiate them from all the other available sunscreens. Many products lend themselves to a photo series that would add interest and shelf appeal to the packaging.

3. Weave in words of wisdom. Famous quotations are very popular. There are words of wisdom in many business publications but they rarely find their way to packaging.
With today's fair use laws, you can freely use most famous quotations on packaging free of charge. A few hours of research online should enable you to build a database of 100 or more famous quotations. The package designer simply needs to allocate some space on the package and choose a font. By taking advantage of variable data packaging, every label or package can have a different famous quotation.

4. Tell a (very) short story. The health drink vitaminwater® tells a short story on every bottle label. It is just a couple of paragraphs of mildly amusing fiction that is loosely related to the product's health benefits.

However, they are not taking advantage of variable data packaging; every story is exactly the same within each flavor. Now, it is certainly more work to create multiple stories for just one product, but done well it could be a huge selling point for a brand. People might buy the product just to read the latest story.

5. Hold a competition. Packaging competitions have been around for decades. Look under a bottle top or send in your product label and you could win a prize. The 21st century offers new opportunities for forward-thinking companies in this area.

For example, a company could print digital numbers randomly on every product label or package with instructions to go to a website to see if this number is a winner. A customer can visit the website and instantly see if he or she holds a winning package.

Obviously, the winner would need to verify the entry by mailing in the package. Done well, this competition can provide many added benefits to a company, not the least of which is having many committed customers visiting their website.

Getting a head start

Within the next decade, there will likely be many one-of-a-kind products on the shelf leveraging the power of variable data packaging. Currently, however, this is a wide open frontier for companies willing and able to start a new trend.

By starting now, a company will be breaking new ground in their industry. Individualized packaging can become a key part of a company's brand, and lead to all types of novel and effective marketing strategies.

Variable data packaging offers a rare opportunity to get noticed early, and often. It provides a way to stand out in today's hyper-competitive marketplace, where marketers spend millions of dollars trying to separate themselves from the crowd.

This technology gives you the opportunity to create a product package that is truly unique—and to benefit from consequent buzz and PR around this revolutionary concept that's destined to transform the packaging marketplace for many years to come.

Peter Renton is the founder of Lightning Labels Inc., an all-digital label printer in Denver, CO. He writes regularly about the label and packaging industry on his company's blog at, and he can be reached at .