When is a sleeve a label or even the very pack itself and just how has the sleeve become so prominent? Steve Thomas-Emberson finds the answers when he investigates a burgeoning marketplace with more and more consumer products being encapsulated

A quick look at the Oxford English dictionary at the word sleeve and all one reads is a moribund answer devoid of any life over and above enclosure. The same look at the sleeving market as seen on an average supermarket shelf and one can see excitement and innovation.

One of the initial driving forces in the development of all sleeving was the desire for tamper evidence. Scares, particularly in the US with various anarchic groups holding brands hostage with product interference (especially food and drink), called for radical action.

A simple paper seal was not sufficient for consumer confidence. If a product could be completely encap-sulated from top to bottom the evidence of tamper would be obvious and the spending public would have confidence to purchase.

This drove the technology that soon became completely effective and to a certain extent has dampened down any form of technological advance-ment in sleeve application, although companies such as Autobar Flexible Neoplast in France have successfully developed sleeves which shrink without the use of heat tunnelling.

The main technological advance and the reason why sleeving is now so prominent is that its use has been driven by marketeers who understand its vast visual potential.

As Barry Tucker, chairman of Aetna UK explains: “Advances nowadays are being driven by the insatiable desire of marketing men to obtain a more visual product on-shelf. As a consequence, both film and print technologies are moving fast to cope with this requirement and the machines to produce ever more extrovert finishes are advancing rapidly.

“There are some very key markets that are now utilising sleeves where some years ago they would have used labels on fashion drinks such as Actimel, a yoghurt derivative. One of the main areas has been polythene bottles that prior to sleeving appeared bland in both shape and labelling.

“When sleeving was adopted, product marketeers found that shape could be enhanced. What this did was to add feel to what was an ordinary product. Since sleeving is an all-over product, companies such as Mars and Cadbury have been able to boldly brand where hitherto they have been unable to go. Mars Bar drink and Nesquick are two excellent examples.

“Guinness has also used sleeving technology on its bottled brew in order to hide the widget. This adds a new dimension to sleeve use since it is possible to print on a sleeve in the round. Some brands are now using transparent sleeves so the consumer can see the product inside. Basically, you pays your money and you takes your choice!”

As marketing teams are driving sleeving applications there are obviously opportunities for sleeving companies when a brand looks for a new image and can switch from a label to a sleeve. One such change on an everyday consumer purchase has been milk containers.

Traditionally, milk bottles have only been printed on two sides – the perceived front and back. Now, dairies and milk producers are increasingly using sleeving to get over a bigger message. The ‘message in a bottle’ has now become the message in the round!

While it is apparent that sleeves are on the march for future success and continued marketplace positioning, too much of a good thing can be counter-productive. What will be highly critical is what the sleeving companies are developing themselves in order to satisfy the product difference demanded by global brands.

Sleeving started off with bright colours, the like of which had not really been seen en masse before. To a certain extent this was the domain of the popular soft drinks – Tango, Sprite and the like. For products wishing to have both a dominant shelf life and an added value concept, there were different sleeve textures ranging from opalescent and pearlescent through to a semi-rubber feel.

One company that has made these very necessary technological advances is Decorative Sleeves. Their work for Archers Aqua is a good example. The full-length sleeves feature a special pearlescent lacquer made from specially formulated ink. This ink has unique tactile properties and suggests the visual appearance and surface texture of etched glass.

There are four varieties of Schnapps – peach, lime, cranberry and orange – which were gravure printed in nine colours including the pearlescent surface lacquer. The net result of this mix of print is to produce a feminine look – its target marketplace – and differentiates the product very clearly from other pre-mixed products.

One of the key elements in the differentiating process had been the use of a strong colour designator on the neck of the bottle, signalling separate flavours. While the bottle shape for Archers was traditional, the use of specifically shaped bottles is fine when shrink sleeving but it can have the potential to distort the message.

The London packaging design company, Lewis Moberly, has recently completed a design project for Vitalis, an American manufacturer of organic foods. This particular product range comprised small drinking yoghurts (125ml) through to conventional yoghurts.

The challenging aspect of this design was the use of photography of the content ingredients without having any distortion. As part of the photographic and printing process the black colour in the photographic work was eliminated and replaced by the blue of the text, thereby adding brand awareness of the typeface in blue and keeping down the cost by not having another colour to print.

“The idea of the photography was to present pureness of product,” explains designer Lucy Rankin. “In order to successfully achieve all the print in one size we built up a photomontage with a white halo effect round each item.

“There was also the possibility that the client would wish to sell the very small 125ml bottles separately so, because of the shape, we had to counterbalance the distortion of the nutrition table on the back.

“Another important factor when using a sleeve is to ensure that you get the same printing company to produce all the pack sizes to ensure continuity. This is not commonplace and leads to brand degradation on shelf.”

What is apparent is that sleeving is a hyper visual element in packaging but it also has the ability to significantly influence what happens in the product advertising as well.

John-Paul Doyle of Ireland’s Neworld Group explained how his company’s work on Deep River Rock natural water influenced the above the line spend and creativity.

“Our design was in three colours and reverse printed to give the sleeve a lift, while still maintaining a clean and pure look. The marketplace was a metropolitan one looking for an added value product.

“This design was taken by the advertising agency Ogilvy Mather and transformed into ‘water you wear’. The advertising was seen on TV, billboards and even in X-ray view on buses, utilising the clarity of the product and design. Ogilvy took the view that Deep River Rock was your own personal reservoir and the bottle was used in this context.”

What then of new challenges facing the sleeving market? Gavin Ferguson of The Design Solution highlights one significant area – legislation.

“This is an important area, particularly in the food marketplace. Sleeving allows you to see the product, which is important, but legislation demands increasing amounts of information. Sleeves will have to cope.

“One big implication is the impending legislation for Braille on packs. Much work will have to be done in this area. Although we can now see textured finishes, it is still a long way from developing raised print that could be in Braille.

“The Braille element could be quite large with the visual messaging printed over it, thereby cutting down on the message space to allow for other more subliminal branding messages.”

As previously mentioned Autobar Flexible Neoplast in France has developed a neo-sleeve which is 100% recyclable and is made in a range of sizes which can be printed in up to eight colours, with or without a protective varnish.

One of the key elements is that it is self-shrinking with none of the energy costs of a heat tunnel. Another staggering production note is that PET bottles can be sleeved at a rate of 700 sleeves/min. Its recent work for Vittel is proof of the pudding.

What is not in doubt is that sleeves have a tremendous future with a predicted increase of 20% over the next five years.

New markets need to be found and exploited, particularly in the industrial and pharmaceutical marketplace. The visual element is proven. Now the practical and physical benefits need to be articulated across a wider global marketplace.