How Digitally Printed Corrugated Helped Brands Meet Three Pandemic Challenges

By Robert Seay and Johann Perera

Conventional wisdom holds that people – and businesses – retreat to familiar, safe positions during times of upheaval. In 2020, corrugated packaging went in exactly the opposite direction, as brands embraced new digital print options allowing them to meet the pandemic’s biggest challenges with newfound capabilities.

Digitally printed corrugated packaging proved its worth during the coronavirus pandemic by meeting three key customer needs: quick turnaround time, supply chain flexibility and consumer engagement.

From Full Stop to Fast Forward                                         

As the coronavirus began spreading across the globe in January and February, brands began to slow activities and kept a watchful eye on the developing threat. In March, nearly everything came to a standstill when global lockdown orders went into effect and economies went into hibernation.

By April, it became clear that consumer demand was being dramatically impacted. In some cases, it was accelerating to unprecedented levels in many CPG categories. Brands that were in high demand needed corrugated packaging, and they needed it fast. Many had delayed packaging orders in the early weeks of the pandemic, and now found themselves needing to play catch up.

Digitally printed corrugated packaging was the perfect solution for the moment. Brands that had been testing the capabilities of digitally printed corrugated went all in, capitalizing on turnaround times of as little as two weeks to restock supplies and catch up to demand.

Navigating Uncertainty with Flexibility

“Unprecedented” was the most overused word of 2020, and for good reason – nearly every aspect of life included a level of uncertainty and unpredictability that none of us had experienced. That was true for brands as well. While some categories reached previously unknown levels of demand, others went dormant. Forecasting became nearly impossible.

In the early days of the pandemic, businesses struggled with or wanted to protect cash flow and looked to minimize near-term expenditures to help stay afloat. Carrying a large inventory of corrugated packaging, a typical practice during normal times, became untenable. Brands simply could not afford to tie up resources in product packaging that might not sell in the short term.

Once again, digitally printed corrugated became the answer. Unlike traditional print processes, digital print can be cost-effective at lower quantities. It also allows brands to print multiple package designs side-by-side in a single run. This flexibility allowed companies to order lower quantities of packaging for multiple brands by aggregating them into a single press run.

Brands have come to grips with the new normal and realized their performance will depend on agile responses to ebbs and flows in consumer demand. Introducing new products has always been a bit of a gamble, but it is even more unpredictable in the current environment. To that end, digitally printed corrugated packaging helps brands minimize new product risk by increasing speed to market and decreasing the need to warehouse packaging inventory. For some CPGs, that represented a multi-million-dollar savings when new products didn’t sell as well as expected.

Engaging Consumers in E-commerce

There is no way to examine last year’s corrugated packaging market without acknowledging the domination of e-commerce. According to Digital Commerce 360, e-commerce in the U.S. grew 44% in 2020 – almost triple the 15.1% increase of 2019. E-commerce accounted for the entirety of the 6.9% retail sales growth last year, which was the highest growth since 1999. Online sales accounted for 21.3% of total retail sales in 2020, up from 15.8% the previous year. No matter how you look at it, it’s clear that digital was dominant in 2020.

Moreover, e-commerce was a lifeline for many brands during the pandemic, but it presented new challenges and opportunities for connecting with consumers who are engaging with products via a delivery box instead of a store shelf. Packaging became the best – and in some cases the only – way of communicating with customers. Brands expanded their use of digitally printed corrugated to meet this need, applying imagery and messages both inside and outside the box.

Fulfillment companies also capitalized on digital print by beginning to experiment with on-box advertising. This creative use of digital print is likely to accelerate in the coming year.

The Future

The pandemic supercharged the growth of digital print, which had already been on a steady upward climb for several years. Worldwide volume of inkjet corrugated packaging grew by more than 20% in 2020 from the previous year, according to Smithers market analysis. More important, digital print was put to the pandemic test and it showed its worth. As a result, more brands are benefiting from digital print while meeting consumers’ evolving preferences and needs.

Robert Seay is vice president of digital print solutions for GP Hummingbird®. Johann Perera is area general manager at GP Hummingbird®.