It is no secret that digital printing is on the upswing in packaging. It’s on cans, bottles, cartons, pouches, sleeves and labels. In terms of quality, it is frequently indistinguishable from packaging printed with rotogravure or flexo. Of course that is unless you can see that telltale mark: Variable printing in which one package is printed with a different image from the previous or the next one on the production line.

Many factors have impeded the rapid adaptation of digital printing: quality, size, speed, availability and cost. However, many of those hurdles have been overcome. Digital printing is now a viable choice for many applications. Still, one big stumbling block remains: How to design packaging that optimizes all the possibilities that digital printing has to offer?

One converter, Flexible Technologies LLC of Orem, Utah is going all-in on digital printing. FlexTech has installed four HP Indigo digital presses, including three Series 3 presses and one Series 4 press with expanded graphics, size and speed capabilities that has dramatically FlexTech’s capacity to include seven-color color expanded gamut printing, EPM printing (CMY), spot colors and custom matches for flexible packaging, labels and tag stock. The converter specializes in a number of finishing methods, too. Believing that digital is the future of package printing, FlexTech is positioning itself as today’s new go-to solution.

A Marketing Challenge

“The overlying challenge for designers is that digital printing opens up a completely new world of possibilities because it’s so broad and so wide open,” says Nikki Johnson, FlexTech’s vp of sales and marketing. “It is very difficult for a marketing professional to grasp what to do with it, how to leverage and really position variable print as a mechanism to grow market share. Complexities are added when you consider it’s not just digital print. There are connection points, whether it be social media or events. Digital printing allows for expansion into all these other marketing media.”

According to Ryan Chai, vp of technology, many marketers love the concept of digital printing but their first question is: “What do I do with it?” They have a litany of concerns, such as how can they fit it into a full marketing campaign. “I think the challenge that brands have with digital at the marketing level is that they want an end-to-end solution presented to them in which everything is already connected. I don’t think that exists yet.”

So, how can a designer connect all the dots to create this, the holy grail of consumer marketing strategy? It’s not just about putting variable print on a package.

Chai points to the 2015 “Share a Coke” campaign in which common first names were digitally printed on bottles, cans and labels of Coca-Cola products in 70 countries. As part of the campaign, consumers were invited to share these containers and their experiences on Twitter and other social media in one of the company’s most successful marketing campaigns ever. This allowed the brand to connect with consumers on a very personal level with a great call to action that made sales spike and prompted millions of photos and online conversations. In spite of this success, the FlexTech execs say marketers were only scratching the surface of what might be possible with digital printing.

Economic and Indirect Benefits

Digital printing’s strengths come in two halves, Chai says. First is the practical economic consideration for supply chain pros. Digital printing’s economic benefits include factors such as just-in-time inventorying, low minimum order quantities for A/B testing and reduced obsolescence of packaging. But digital printing, hasn’t yet realized a level of efficiency where a brand can say, “I’ve got an idea and I can do it this way.”

More important, he says, are the indirect benefits of how you can convert the package from being the final touch point as a simple container to actually adding more value to the product through the use of direct messaging to the consumer, couponing and engagement campaigns.

“Let’s say you have a sports-related product where you could do hyper-local campaigns that may not carry a huge volume and would qualify as a short run. Take that a step further and throw in the idea of variable print and the ability to make a package geared to a college team,” Johnson says. “This is where designers are struggling with digital print. There’s just so much they can do with it. It’s a matter of choosing a direction and running with it.”

Chai predicts there will be a trigger point among designers in which someone launches a brilliant marketing and sales campaign that marries digital printing with other media. “From that point forward, the brands will realize they must do something.”

Trying a New Approach

To take full advantage of digital printing, they suggest that designers will have to think differently about the package—more like Web designers or video producers. They urge designers to first make sure they understand all aspects of the digital technology so they can take advantage of every square millimeter to sell their product. The best way to do that, they say, is to visit your printer and learn their capabilities, which may extend well beyond what the designer currently envisions.

That experience with the printers may open designers’ eyes to the functional and operational elements with which they are unfamiliar.  For instance, Chai points to the use of a color gamut that can be achieved in digital printing with three colors in one pass instead of four colors. Using this Enhanced Productivity Mode without a black ink can allow the press to run 33 percent faster, saving costs and time without sacrificing quality. He also mentions different digital techniques that can rival traditional finishing effects such as spot gloss coatings.

Brands that let their designers work directly with the printer find much more value in digital printing, Johnson says.  She urges designers considering digital printing to have an open mind to techniques they never thought possible. By integrating social media, video, active packaging and events, designers can put together an end-to-end campaign that brings it all together.