Shrink sleeves are grabbing consumers' attention where printing just cannot reach. Unlike any traditional printing method, they positively revel in complex shaped contours, whether glass, plastics or corrugated packaging.  Since their development in Japan, shrink sleeves are now used extensively in the beverage market. These can have the added value of being extended over the closure to provide a measure of tamper evidence so essential in today's marketplace.

John Lawless, managing director of Flight Group in Ireland, extols shrink sleeve virtues even further: "One of the key elements is that they provide a seamless 360 deg potential for package decoration which one simply cannot provide through print alone. The more difficult a bottle shape, the better it is for sleeving."

For the brand owner this provides a greater surface area in which to get the brand or product message over to the consumer. "From this aspect has come highly innovative package design, both in shape and form, together with the potential for outstanding graphics," he adds.

The sleeving process is also said to enable significant lightweighting potential for glass as the sleeving becomes part of the structure. This provides a taught and strong outer covering. A traditional beer bottle, in comparison, would be heavy and only have decoration potential on the front, back and neck of the bottle.

Costs are always important but, if the consumer is attracted to the product more and sales are higher, then sleeving is extremely cost efficient adds Mr Lawless. "From our point of view, and we also offer traditional printing, we are seeing continued growth in the sleeve market as the process expands over more and more product messages."

Mr Lawless is obviously keen to articulate the increasing design possibilities but as shape and form is now seen as an essential element in the design process where does the actual design work start.

Jamie Helly, managing director of the Irish design consultancy Dynamo, explains the importance of starting the design process with the packaging shape. "Whether it is for a bottle or a CD, the graphic design must be built around the shape. This enables the designer to look creatively at the whole entity, rather than adopting a label design principle."

He is also in no doubt that sleeving has opened up many more possibilities for printing and finishes. "From this comes ‘ownership’ of shapes as well as the ability to create competitive advantage and in today’s consumer marketplace this is highly critical".

Not surprisingly, the market sector with the greatest potential for providing consumer ‘turn on’ to the product is the youth market. This increasingly articulate sector knows exactly what it wants, and if the product and its packaging do not measure up, then it remains on the shelf.

The word ‘decoration’ almost undervalues the essential product messages that must be conveyed to the youth of today. It is not bright lights but subliminal messaging that says ‘this product fits in with the lifestyle, is desirable and cool to own’. Sleeving itself seems to have almost been invented for such a market place. It certainly has grown with the sophistication of this sector.

The creative businesses of Ireland are fast developing into one of the world’s most important barometers of youth culture. Global companies as diverse as Red Stripe Lager from Jamaica and the MTV music channel have their eyes turned towards Ireland, looking for creative answers on how to appeal to the youth of today.

Mr Helly, a self confessed ‘old youth’, explains how the design process for this marketplace works: "The consumer youth marketplace is a very volatile spot to be in. What I find very surprising is that many of the ways in which products are packaged for this marketplace have been stagnant for the last 10 years."

One area where the product has woken up to this consumer is in the drink marketplace. Alcopops have come along and other beverages are fast catching up.

There are, of course, many pitfalls in designing for this sector. The consumer is fickle for a start and, unlike another counterpart, will not have that secure brand loyalty built in. It is important then that any design, especially with regard to packaging, has legs and must be able to live long.

"If a brand gets it wrong or the product needs re-branding one is talking about an investment of six figures from beginning to shelf-application. In summary, it is important to be of the moment but not of the second!" says Mr Helly.

For new product in the youth sector Dynamo conducts extensive research built around expectation. Brand heroes are very important. "We need to see how and why certain products work and others do not. What is crucial is that the packaging, the product and any advertising programme is seen by the youth market as seamless in order for it to work."

While good design and effective branding communication is obviously essential to the exterior of the pack there are some brands which use the sleeve interior for communication purposes as well and to good effect.

Yeo Valley Organic, producer of yoghurt and ice cream, uses an outer cardboard sleeve which acts as both structure and an added value communication feature targeted at the young.

Martin Jones, marketing executive at Yeo Valley Organic explains that the company has swapped cardboard only construction for a more eco friendly combination of cardboard and plastics.

In this new design the sleeve interior is used to advise customers of the forthcoming products. These new products are also now listed after customers badgered retailers about availability, evidence of an effective marketing strategy.

"Interest really built up when we started to use the sleeve interiors to communicate with kids. We put in word searches, product mazes and various games, all related to organic. From this we then linked our web site which had games and information on organic farming. Teachers could download information for their own purposes," adds Mr Jones.

This has now developed into an interactive web facility further reinforcing the brand with the young. This is subliminal branding and product information at its best. The web is a youth information tool and organic is seen very much as a concerned youth position.

Sometimes there are children’s products that are less appealing and smack of parental power. Toothbrushes are a good example. Sleever International with its base in France, produced the ‘Smiling Sleever’ for the UK Wisdom toothbrush company. Its aim was to make its child toothbrush range appealing to children.

The technology of decoration selected had to enable the body of the brush to be fully covered with a homogenous and faithful graphic collection of characters, vivid colours and easy handling for children. A fairy, a magician and a witch were the characters selected for the brushes.

No graphic variation was allowed on the sleeve that might make these characters less striking. Reverse gravure printing reproduced the visual density of colours complete with Wisdom logo. The benefit of 360 deg printing also meant that the product could be recognised whatever its position on the shop shelf.

Drink brands in Ireland, meanwhile, have stiff competition but it is a beverage market that is highly targeted, especially among the young.

Ritz, which is a pear flavoured alcoholic drink, was aimed primarily at the young adult female drinker. The brand sold well during the ’80s and ’90s but declined under stiff competition in the search in later years. By 1997 the sales had deteriorated to such a point that its future was by no means certain. A redesign was required to encourage consumers to reassess the drink and this could not be achieved by subtle changes alone.

Caroline Murphy, designer on the project at Dynamo explains that Ritz is aimed at the early 20s clubby people, particularly female. But previously the drinker did not actually know that it was a pear flavoured alcoholic drink. "We brought this firmly into the design ethos. As this was a complete redesign the use of sleeving gave us a broader canvas on which to work."

The bottle itself was transparent with a sleeve of black, silver, red and white. What this sleeving also achieves is the ability to see when the bottle is full on the production run. This would not have been possible with a black glass bottle, says Ms Murphy, but is with a predominantly black sleeve. Black was chosen as a typical night time clubby drink colour.

Ritz was launched about six months ago and is said to be selling brilliantly. The package graphics also worked very well on all the above the line advertising which was important for the relaunch, she adds.

What all these sleeve designs for the youth market show is that sleeving is not just tailor made for this group but also that a very high degree of communication science needs to be employed in order to appeal.

From a packaging point of view sleeving is still in its infancy. As Mr Helly points out, when substrates are developed such as tactile rubber, then sleeving will have really come on.



Shrink sleeve market analysis

The shrink sleeve market is expanding at a rate of 20% per year according to a new report by packaging and labelling consultancy Alexander Watson Associates.

The ‘AWAreness Report’ Shrink Sleeves – Market technology Review found that:


  • European demand for label products is estimated at 6340M m of which 174M m is in heat shrink sleeve label format.


  • Demand is expected to expand at an annual rate of 15% in area but tonnage will increase at a lower rate as demand changes to thinner gauge and lower density films.


  • The major film type in use is PVC (90%) with PET-G and OPS films making up the balance.


  • Polyolefin films are not widely used as they do not provide the high levels of shrinkage required, although they are extensively used in other sleeve label technologies.


  • Film supply is focused on a very limited number of suppliers.


  • Three organisations – Decorative Sleeves Ltd, Fuji Seal Ltd and Sleever International – dominate the market and have combined market share in excess of 55%.


  • A high level of vertical integration with two of the leading three converters extruding films in house and designing and manufacturing labelling lines and equipment.


  • New entrants are attracted to the market often associated with flexible packaging converters utilising existing gravure and/or flexo technologies.


  • The primary market currently is for single trip containers within the UK. France is the second largest geographic region with developing opportunities in Germany, Austria, and other Mediterranean countries.


  • Printing is primarily gravure. The use of flexography is increasing.


  • Developments in narrow web UV Flexo technology are considered more suitable for future investment than digital technologies.


  • Environmental issues will become an increasing feature influencing growth as material developments are directed to improve recyclability of film labels.


  • Labelling speeds average 200 to 400 /min. Development is focused on increasing line speeds and reducing labelling costs.


  • Steam is the emerging method of effecting shrinkage, reducing the risk of hot spots on the container, providing better penetration of heat into the gap between the label and the container, and being more acceptable to heat sensitive products.


  • Developments in adhesive technology and in-line seaming on labelling lines will increase labelling and material efficiencies, but will adversely affect value added at the converter level.

Major trends in the heat shrink label market focus on continued innovation and development of new labelling applications. Increasing use of shrink sleeves for premium products sees demand for higher performance films and improved print quality. Growth is also expected in high volume applications such as soft drinks.

Labels are becoming more functional with added value features such as security and barrier properties for individual customers. At the same time demand for global trading means an evolution in global branding strategies.

Pressure to reduce costs remains but this should be looked at in terms of profitability rather than price or volume. Shrink sleeves are wanted in smaller volume orders more quickly.

Shrink Sleeves – Market Technology Review is available from AWA Alexander Watson Associates BV, tel: +31 20 676 2069, priced EUR1500.