Variable Data Applications in Retail Packaging Design

Variable Data Applications in Retail Packaging Design


Variable data is exactly what it sounds like — data that varies from printed piece to printed piece. Chances are you interact with a variable data technology (VDT) every single day. All that junk (I mean…direct mail) you toss before opening and the mass emails that flood your inbox are both culprits of data driven design. However, when guided by a thoughtful strategy, the capabilities of variable data go way beyond the preconceived notions that have marred the reputation of mass mailings.

Combining relevant static content with the appropriate variable data provides a powerful and highly-customizable solution for your brand to leverage. Think about your weekly trip to the grocery store. Have you ever spent hours searching for the Coke® bottle with your name on it, or the Snickers® bar that matched your current mood? Do you rifle through the refrigerated section for your favorite yogurt flavor, or have you purchased a product that required registration? All of these examples highlight how variable data technology has useful applications in the day-to-day lives of consumers.

The packaging industry is using variable data technology to redefine expectations for manufacturers by providing solutions that support brand integrity, streamlined workflows, and captivating customer experience.

VDT Upholds Brand Integrity

By allowing manufacturers to place a completely unique code (visible or hidden!) on each package, VDT offers transparency to the consumer and protection to the brand. This application provides supply chain tracking, authenticates a product and fosters a connection between manufacturers and the end consumer.

Consumers can see how a product was sourced and verify that the item they purchased is genuine. Both factors set an expectation of quality and improve value. These benefits are increasingly important in a market where Millennial and Gen-Z consumers hold a growing share of purchasing power. As consumers who’ve grown up with information and social opinion at their fingertips, Gen Z’ers tend to support products that are sincere and ethical. Brands that provide increased levels of transparency will have a greater impact on this generation.

For example, apparel company tentree plants 10 trees for every item purchased. Each hang tag comes printed with an exclusive “treecode”. An online registration process identifies exactly where the customer’s batch of trees is scheduled to be planted. Consumers see both the direct impact of their purchase, and a company committed to preserving their core values in every aspect.


The end consumers aren’t the only ones reaping the rewards. Manufacturers implement data-driven packaging solutions to solidify their brand image and better segment and target their market. Unique identifiers:

  • Simplify the process of recall management

  • Enable manufacturers to identify patterns

  • Reduce the risk of fallout from consumers duped by counterfeit products

  • Help encourage product registration to collect demographic / buying habit information

VDT For Workflow Management

Your creative team can spend a lot of time, energy, and money developing a packaging concept. Imagine having to repeat this process for every single variety of a product that you produce. Introducing versioning into your packaging line can help reduce expensive design fees. An initial concept can be reproduced in multiple variations with minimal effort and modifications or updates can be made with ease. Our team prefers this option and has been implementing it across several product lines for our manufacturing clients.

Production-wise, data driven print pieces can shorten run lengths and make professionally printed packaging attainable for a wider audience. Small businesses and start-ups gain a competitive edge because costs are less prohibitive. Larger national brands are required to further differentiate their look in order to stand out from the smaller producers.

Let’s take a look at the label on Trussings Craft Fizz — a Virginia based handcrafted soda. The labels pictured feature three variable elements — the flavor, the illustrations and the color on the package. What if the company decides to launch a different size or add a new flavor? No problem. All of this content can be managed with a database, as opposed to building out individual labels by hand.


With data driven design, one edit can be pushed to multiple versions. Let’s say you determine that the phrase “Craft Fizz” is no longer working for you. Reword it to say “Hand Crafted Soda” on several dozen varieties with one keystroke. Eliminating keystrokes reduces your risk for error. Ingredients are also the perfect candidate for applying data managed content. Outside of the packaging world, our clients have benefited from catalogs and point-of-sale displays created using data driven processes. When consistency is key, using data to drive content helps ensure you’re conveying product information the exact same way across all platforms.

Cultivate An Individualized Consumer Experience With VDT

In a world where consumers are inundated with content, it’s important to stand out. Brands can leverage the perks of data-driven design to provide an intriguing customer experience throughout each stage of the buyer’s journey.

Earlier, we talked about how supply chain transparency adds value to a brand. This is great for those shoppers who are carefully evaluating a purchase, or in other words, the so-called strollers and studiers, but how can you apply VDT to capture short-term attention and gain immediate value right on the shelf?


Diet Coke’s recent “Stay Extraordinary” campaign relied on variable data as a tool to generate a sense of exclusivity and bring their brand values to life. The campaign, which highlights individuality, launched 2 million one-of-a-kind bottles produced using HP SmartStream Mosaic technology. The release was followed up with one-off billboards, and interactive point-of-sale displays which allowed users to create customized gear–THAT MATCHED THEIR BOTTLE! The results? By focusing on the psychological principle of scarcity and applying variable data technology, Diet Coke saw a 3%* increase in brand preference amongst consumers.

In addition to creating completely unique designs, variable data enables manufacturers to tailor packaging content to a particular region or target market. Brands can appeal to specific values and change language, colors, or images to make a package relevant for their audience. For example, Water Street designed a client campaign to introduce a system of skincare solutions for commercial sectors. Product samples were mailed in a custom folding carton and the language and images on the package changed based on how the audience (schools, manufacturers, etc.) would use the product. One-to-one personalization addressed each individual by name. This level of personalization allows the brand to speak directly to a person or group of people, appeal to their emotions, and engage them in a distinctive brand experience.

Variable data also paves the way for a continued relationship, providing manufacturers a tool to build personalized marketing campaigns and increase brand loyalty. By using customer data collected during in-store purchases, Rafi Albo’s 2014 catalog campaign for Keds Kids combined data-driven printing with a personalized landing page to directly and effectively address the brand’s target audience — Moms.


The “Keds in the City” campaign kicked-off with a personalized postcard that included a PURL to drive users to a landing page with a casting call for new cover models. Moms could upload or select Facebook photos of their kids to place right on the front cover of the new catalog, which was already personalized with their names and had space for a custom message. Upon submission, families received a printed copy of their custom-made catalog, and Keds collected even more customer data. The landing page had a 78% response rate and 92% of families visited the physical store in the following weeks. The brand managed to infiltrate homes by creating a catalog with a lifespan well beyond the norm.

With so many avenues to take in the world of variable data technology, it’s important for brands to remain smart when discovering how to best utilize the opportunity to connect with their audience. We recommend the following:

  • Remain transparent about each step of the manufacturing process, and consistent with your messaging throughout the buyers’ journey.

  • Avoid going so overboard with variable content that brand identity becomes diluted.

  • End-user participation is sometimes the key to a successful variable data campaign; remember to educate your audience and highlight the unique benefits your brand can provide with their involvement.

  • Implement an effective data management solution — it’s the glue that holds your process together.

You don’t need a complex data management system in place to benefit from data-driven design. Let us help you realize the advantages that variable data technology provides to your brand.