A brief history of labels by Mahesh Kode

As DuPont’s Mahesh Kode leaves for Jaipur (to be a part of the LMAI Conference), he reflects on the Indian label landscape, which he started observing 25 years ago. He regales what has transpired since

15 Jul 2015 | By Mahesh Kode

When labels are the subject of discussion, the question on top of the list is: Will pressure sensitive labels replace wet-glue? While this is not an irrelevant question, one must do a bit of background check in order to evaluate the answer for oneself.

If we consider past 25 years, three labelling technologies have been popular in India, namely, wet-glue labels, shrink sleeves and pressure sensitive (PS) labels or self-adhesive.

Wet-glue labels printed on conventional offset presses was an incumbent labelling technology, especially with glass being the widely used material of application, be it for medicines, liquor, jams or sauces, among other food products. At the same time, pressure sensitive labels were in use in conjunction with plastic containers for FMCG products such as shampoos and cosmetics.

This was the scenario until the late eighties when more and more container applications shifted to plastic from glass. It was in 1990 that shrink sleeve was introduced as a cost effective alternative to PS label. Shrink sleeves were printed on gravure using solvent-based inks and consisted on simple monolayer heat-shrinkable PVC film as opposed to expensive PS label structure that consisted of the laminated face stock, adhesive and siliconised liner.

Shrink sleeves offered other unique advantages over PS labels. One could use shrink sleeves to label most complex shapes. As it simply shrunk around the container body and offered 360-degree coverage by wrapping the entire container, it allowed more space to add branding, product information, etc even on the smallest pack-sizes. Aesthetics was an additional benefit, which brands derived out of shrink sleeve as it hid the mould lines and other defects in the plastic moulded containers, enhancing the final look of the displayed product on the shelf.

While all this was transpiring in favour of shrink sleeves, the container quality started improving. This was the twist.

The plastic moulded containers made a quantum improvement in terms of shapes, transparency, material, and moulding technology. This eliminated the need to hide the container body.

At the same time, new product categories were being launched by the brands. These were the products that the FMCG companies wanted the customer to see on the shelf, such as body washes with exotic beads, glitters, within the product, or product colour, texture, purity, translucency, etc. Thus, the need for ultra-clear containers with attractive shapes and sizes and see-through labels emerged and clear-on-clear labels gained popularity.

The changing economic scene also meant that the consumer had better buying power and greater discretion, moving from the shampoo sachet bracket to weekly or monthly use moulded containers, and a wider array of beauty products hitherto limited to only those in high-income groups.

Another awakening was occurring among end users. A PS label conveyed a sense of premium that shrink sleeve failed to deliver. The consumer perceived shrink sleeved product as low-cost and budget product, while a PS labelled container was more sophisticated, and brands consciously shifted to PS labels.

The PS labels also made better economic sense from a total-application-cost point-of-view, since it was a simple, clean application well integrated into the high-speed filling lines that were being deployed. Shrink sleeve application was a laborious process of applying and shrinking the sleeves at the blow moulder’s end more often than not, and wet glue a fairly messy process in the pharma and liquor industry.

Since then, the PS industry has been growing at a brisk pace, certainly over 15% CAGR, and some players even talk about growth in excess of 20%. It has been winning back from shrink sleeves and replacing the wet glue in the liquor segment.

One of the other drivers for this growth is the demand for additional decoration beyond just printing, be it hot foil stamping, cold foiling, registered embossing, holographic decals, matt varnishes, textured patterns, etc. Such decorative technologies can be done after printing in one single pass at high speeds only on an inline UV flexo press effectively.

Add other factors such as a fast propagating mall culture, packaging especially labels being the silent salesman on the crowded shelves, multitude of products within brands customised for the end-application, varying pack sizes to offer affordability to all classes etc all of which require labelling to build their identity, and the need for labels, especially PS labels, is bound to grow further.

Continued investments in imported and domestic presses and expansion of UV ink manufacturers in India are a testimony to this build-up.

While shrink sleeve will also continue to grow, albeit at a slower pace, and be limited to certain bulk products, even as pressure increases to move away from heat-shrinkable PVC to HS-Pet or OPS, taking their cost upwards. Wet glue may continue to be used in large-volume products in glass jars such as sauces and jams, but will eventually lose out, and even the traditional stronghold of beer labels will move from high wet strength paper labels to PS labels due to reasons of easy removal of the latter for re-circulation of glass bottles.

My prediction: The PS labels will enjoy a flawless victory and hence will flexo.