L&L turns 40: Coca-Cola leads custom label revolution

A breakthrough project that involved eight HP Indigo label converters across Europe allowed Coca-Cola to rewrite the rules on promotional marketing, as Andy Thomas reported back in 2013*.
Coca-Cola has revolutionized the world of promotional marketing with the launch of a project which saw many millions of labels printed with customized data by a network of digital and conventional printers across Europe

Coca-Cola has revolutionized the world of promotional marketing with the launch of a project which saw many millions of labels printed with customized data by a network of digital and conventional printers across Europe.

The project saw Coca-Cola marketing departments in more than 30 European countries supplying the 150 most popular local names, together with a range of slogans based around sharing Coca-Cola with friends and family. The names were printed randomly on labels for 0.5L and 375ml bottles of Coca-Cola® regular, Coca-Cola zero® and Coca-Cola light™.

Consumers will be encouraged to seek out bottles with their own or friends’ names in-store, sharing and swapping bottles with friends and family. The roll-out was supported by a huge marketing push on social media sites.

‘We wanted consumers to share both the physical bottles, and also share the experience on social networks,’ says Coca-Cola marketing manager Marit Kroon. ‘You can share a virtual Coca-Cola with friends and family. You can play with the virtual bottle then go and find the real bottle. You can trade bottles if you can’t find what you’re looking for. What can be more personal than a name?’

Close to 30 languages and five different alphabets are involved, ranging from Bulgaria and the Balkan states up to Scandinavia and Iceland and across to Greece and Western Europe apart from Spain and Portugal. The project would end up generating over 10,000 distinct pieces of artwork across Europe.

Project genesis

The idea originated in Australia two years ago, where inkjet printed labels carried the country’s most popular first names in a highly successful campaign.

When the marketing team suggested extending the project to central Europe, the Australian volumes were used as the estimated requirement. But as more country marketers joined, it became clear that Coca-Cola would not be able to handle the scale of the project through its existing network of printers.

Guided by this brief, Gregory Bentley, from The Coca-Cola Company’s packaging innovations group, started looking at the project from a technical angle in January 2012.

‘We had to be realistic about the limitations imposed by technology and the supply chain,’ says Bentley. ‘For example we have seven different bottle sizes across Europe, so we immediately suggested concentrating on immediate consumption packs.’

Combination print

It was decided that the labels would be printed with a combination of conventional and digital print processes. Using inkjet for the variable text was ruled out because the thickness of the ink film changed the handling characteristics of the 38 micron BOPP wraparound labels.

‘This was not an issue in Australia because the labels are laminated, so the surface characteristics stay the same whatever print process is used,’ says Gregory Bentley. ‘In Europe our labels are varnished, not laminated. The difference in surface smoothness, COF and ink film weight with inkjet printing would prevent the applicators working to full efficiency.’

After extensive research, Bentley chose the HP Indigo printing process, primarily because it lays down the same weight of ink as flexo or gravure, and for its color consistency. The presses were also thought capable of handling the delicate cavitated BOPP films without damage.

‘We knew that big volumes were involved – much bigger than the normal run through a digital press – which meant we had to optimize the workflow onto the HP presses,’ says Bentley. ‘This meant using the minimum number of clicks, so we decided to only print Coca-Cola Red digitally. A special mix was delivered by HP and we specified a double hit to deliver the required color match.’

Correct color management also required the use of a single source film supplier, in this case ExxonMobil. Two types of 38 micron BOPP were used: an opaque white (also printed with metallic silver ink) and a metalized.

‘ExxonMobil films are not necessarily better than the other films on the market, but they are excellent and we needed a standard reference for color measurement and performance consistency,’ says Bentley. ‘Up to and following this project we use five or six different film suppliers in Europe.’

The project team cut down the company’s 40 conventional label converters in Europe to a more manageable 10 for this project, spread geographically to match the nearest bottling plants.

The labels were first conventionally printed, either CI flexo or gravure, leaving a blank panel and a reregistration mark for overprinting by the HP Indigo presses. This panel had to be coated in-line with a water-based HP compatible primer, which presented its own challenges.

The conventional press widths ranged from 740mm to 1.4m, so the reels needed to be slit down to the 330mm width of the HP Indigo press. This in turn required careful planning to minimize wastage on the unused part of the web.

After the panels were overprinted on the digital press, the webs would be returned to the conventional printers for final inspection, varnishing, slitting and delivery to one of the multiple Coca-Cola bottling plants involved in the project.

Digital network

Given the complexity of these workflows, Peter Overbeek, managing director at leading Dutch digital label converter Eshuis, offered to handle the entire digital printing side of the project. Eshuis already handled personalized shrink sleeve label production on behalf of Heineken, but this was to be on an altogether different scale.

It was a radical departure for Coca-Cola to outsource print management on this scale, but given the unique situation, Overbeek’s offer was accepted.

Overbeek quickly realized that only the latest HP Indigo WS6600 press had the required technical capability for the job in terms of color management, web handling and the availability of a re-insertion module.

He identified a network of eight European digital converters with HP Indigo WS6600 presses whom he believed could handle the work and were in the correct geographical location.

These converters were required to dedicate machinery and operators exclusively for three months to the Coca-Cola work, and to have disaster recovery plans in place.

Machine reliability was a big unknown. Although a handful of HP Indigo WS6600 presses had worked 24/7 for a limited time, no-one really knew if they were robust enough for such a punishing print schedule.

Under Peter Overbeek’s direction, HP set up full time engineering teams across Europe to support the eight digital printers with spare parts and round the clock maintenance and callout. The extensive remote monitoring network used for HP’s commercial inkjet presses was adapted to the industrial market for the first time.

The participating printers sent their HP Indigo press crews to HP’s technical demo center in Barcelona where a special training program, supervised by Overbeek, was developed to cover standardized working practices and to troubleshoot potential problems.

Workshops were held with the whole print network at Eshuis, where Overbeek ran through quality control and workflow procedures. ‘If there were quality issues we had to be able to see quickly where and how the mistake had been made, since accuracy was absolutely key,’ recalls Overbeek.

Eshuis developed a web tool which allowed constant monitoring of this complex workflow.

Eshuis sent only RIPped files to each converter, so there was no chance of introducing errors. ‘The files were kept here and we decided who would print what label and in what volume,’ says Overbeek. ‘We organized and scheduled all the logistics and worked closely with the bottling partners to make sure that the bottles and labels were in the right place at the right time, and to make sure the printers knew what had to be delivered, where and when. There was a single route of information.’

‘Peter had to ensure there was always sufficient digital capacity and we could shift volume from one plant to the other as necessary,’ says Gregory Bentley.

The final result was a triumph of technology, organization and sheer determination. Multiple millions of labels were printed, applied and sent to warehouses in preparation for the launch of the campaign in May. ‘Eshuis has delivered the project perfectly. We could not have done that on our own,’ says Gregory Bentley.

Lessons learned

‘This campaign has changed the way we at Coca-Cola are looking at packaging,’ says Marit Kroon, Coca-Cola marketing manager. ‘It opens up new opportunities to use the strengths of conventional printing and digital printing together. We had done some customized labels in Germany, but that was on mixed sheet fed paper labels. For reel fed labels digital printing was the only way.

‘In addition, the company’s regional system has modified itself and become more flexible through this experience. Eighteen months ago the system could not have allowed this project to happen. In particular we have had to drive standardization across Europe. All our European printers now have the HP color swatch which defines "Coca-Cola Red".’

Gregory Bentley agrees that the project has changed the culture of all the companies involved: ‘Everybody had to let go some of the control they normally exercised over their own operations, and this involved challenges for all parties. We invited the 10 conventional printers to a joint meeting asking them to be completely open about sharing best practices and experiences. Likewise the digital converters had to learn to accept orders from Peter.

‘At Coca-Cola we had to accept that full control of the digital printing part of the operation would be handled by Eshuis and not by us. My role was to back Peter fully in the decisions he made.’

Coca-Cola also had to let go its standard lead times. ‘We added three to four months to the supply chain to allow us to focus on the digital printing bottleneck,’ recalls Bentley. ‘The conventional printing started in December and the digital in January and the job was completed in April.’

François Martin, worldwide marketing manager at HP’s international graphic solutions business, sums up the corporation’s experience: ‘Although each of the elements of this astonishing project had been achieved separately, they had never all been achieved together, at the same time, and over such an extended period of time.

‘We learned that digital is not just a short run process. We achieved 86 percent uptime on the presses, including all stops for maintenance, calibration and changing consumables, which comes close to matching the output efficiency of a conventional press.

‘We started with something we thought was impossible, but if you break it down you can build bridges and find people willing to work together.’

It seems clear that this Coca-Cola customization project has changed completely the landscape of promotional product labeling. As HP Indigo’s Christian Menegon correctly says, ‘There are no longer any excuses for brand managers not being creative on the most ambitious scale. Through this project we have proven HP Indigo has the execution capabilities they need.’

*This article was first published in Labels & Labeling issue 3, 2013

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Andy Thomas

  • Strategic director