Silent salesman must speak up

As consumers and regulators alike demand more information about products, new developments are in store for labelling, writes Nick Martindale

Once little more than an afterthought, labelling is now playing an increasingly prominent role in the world of packaging.

As consumers and regulators demand greater transparency around product provenance and contents, brands are seeking ever-more interactive ways to engage with customers.

“With a label often being a brand’s only way of directly communicating with consumers, brands need to use them to differentiate themselves from competing products, grab consumers’ attention and potentially build loyalty,” says Fiona Mills, marketing director at Avery UK.

At the most basic level, labels are there to convey information to consumers. Jocelyne Ehret, director of packaging consulting services at HAVI Global, points to the need to outline ingredients in foods, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals for those who suffer from allergies.

“According to Allergy UK, millions of adults suffer from at least one allergy, with numbers continuing to rise,” she says. “If a brand does not respect the rules, it could damage its image and, even worse, cause harm to the consumer.”

Increasingly, though, customers expect more than such basic details, particularly in the wake of the recent horsemeat scandal. Leigh Banks, director of London-based Spinach Design, gives the examples of M&S and Burger King as brands that have placed a greater emphasis on labelling in a bid to stand out from rivals.

“We are seeing an increase in consumer awareness and concern for where the products they purchase and consume have been sourced, and how they have been manufactured, through to their ingredients,” he says. “Brands are using labelling to demonstrate higher corporate values using cues such as environment, health and quality.”

The issue of sustainability is particularly hot at present, says Darran Messem, managing director of certification at the Carbon Trust. “Businesses want to find a way to demonstrate the sustainability credentials of their products because consumers tend to prefer sustainable products,” he says. “The best labels convey a clear message that a consumer can trust, based on a serious assessment of environmental credentials.”

Regulations, too, are having an impact. In the food industry, where many brands have already acted to create a voluntary “traffic-light” system around ingredients, two new EU regulations will have an impact. Jessica Burt, a lawyer at Mills & Reeve, says the Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation will tighten the rules around claims that can be made. “If, for example, a producer is reformulating a product and wants to claim that they have reduced the fat content, it has to be reduced by at least 30 per cent,” she says.

We are seeing an increase in consumer awareness and concern for where products have been sourced, and how they have been manufactured

The Food Information Regulation, meanwhile, will create the biggest labelling challenge to hit food manufacturers in the past 20 years, says Andrew Jackson, partner and manufacturing specialist at law firm Thomas Eggar.

“From December 13, 2014, companies must comply with mandatory food labelling guidelines and can no longer simply apply their own voluntary labelling,” he says. “A number of additional new requirements have been introduced, including a minimum font size for all mandatory text, mandatory nutrition declaration, a clearer indication of allergens and country-of-origin labelling to fresh meat of pork, lamb and poultry.”

The increased amount of information that must be provided and the requirement for a minimum font size – the “x height” of any copy needs to be a minimum of 1.2mm – is likely to cause particular issues.

“It will drastically impact how on-pack information and the packaging itself can be used,” says Sarah Dear, managing partner at design agency Elmwood. “The ultimate impact is that there will be less space to sell the product and, in some cases, the information will need to take up space on the front face of the pack in order to fit it all on.”

The emergence of new technology, though, might help brands to cope, as well as offering potential to further engage with customers. QR codes in particular can enable people to find out more information about products, although they cannot replace the mandatory requirements. They can also access competitions or rewards by taking customers through to mobile versions of the brand’s website, via a smartphone.

“It gives the brand owner the opportunity to create an eye-catching pack design without having to worry about cramming too much information on the actual packaging,” says Malcolm Allum, managing director of carton pack manufacturer SIG Combibloc.

This can be complemented with “behind the scenes” labels that can provide supply chain information around the source of products, which would be needed in the event of a recall and can help to combat counterfeit products.

“These could contain, for example, the source of raw materials, current location of products in the supply chain and expected end-destinations with retail outlets to provide ‘farm to fork’ traceability,” says Steve Ellison, a printing and labelling specialist at Zetes.

Smart labels are also having an effect in the supply chain, particularly in the pharmaceutical industry, by providing real-time information around the conditions products have been kept in.

“A third of the vaccines in the world are discarded for fear of being compromised by warm temperatures,” says Jennifer Ernst, executive vice president, sales and business development, at ThinFilm. “Companies can be alerted if an individual item has been in transit for an extended period of time or crossed a temperature threshold.”

Interactive or augmented reality is another development that can help brands better engage with customers. Eric Seiberling, solution experience director for consumer packaged goods and retail at Dassault Systèmes, flags up the use of 3D technology by Nestlé on cereal packages.

“This allows consumers to use the packaging as part of an online gaming experience,” he says. “Promotions such as these see large percentage sales increases, and improved brand recognition and loyalty.”

At the moment, the use of such labelling or packaging is in its infancy, says Stuart Chapman, associate director at consumer design research agency The Big Picture, but the future potential is huge.

“If wearable technology, such as Google Glass takes off, expect to see more packaging taking advantage of opportunities to convey information off-pack,” he says. “Initially that’s likely to be promotional material, but I can foresee a future where legislation-imposed nutritional information is handled digitally, leaving the pack and labelling to focus on being the silent salesman again.”