Color Accuracy and Consistency: A Balancing Act

When all of final production packaging comes together on the store shelf, it’s a brand’s moment of truth. Do the stand-up pouches, overwraps, and corrugated POP displays match? How close is the color to its standard?

We know you spend so much time and money designing, proofing, sampling, printing, and shipping… so where does the color go wrong? Is it an issue with accuracy, consistency, or both?

Packaging on Shelf

Package designs come together on the shelf. Here you see pouches, labels, cartons, and corrugated with visual inconsistencies—these are issues that can be overcome.

Today we’ll look at some of the key underlying issues in a color workflow so you can take corrective action with suppliers and get your brand color right, the first time.

1.  Substrates, printing processes and ink types all affect color.

Unique packaging helps products stand out, but the variety of printing processes, inks, and substrates required to make it happen creates a real challenge for brand owners and graphic designers to achieve consistent color. When designing layouts and approving colors, brands need to consider all of the variables that impact final color.

Many years ago, Flint Group put together a color quiz with the question: “Which swatches are printed with the same ink?”

Flint Ink Color Swatches

Even though there was no attempt to match color on these substrates, you probably see two or three swatches appear close in color. The reason? Even though they were all printed with the same ink formula, they were on different substrates. It’s amazing how much the color varies.

Plastic, metal, glass, paperboard, and corrugated cardboard are vastly different substrates. Some, like paperboard and corrugated cardboard are more porous and will absorb ink, while metal will not absorb ink at all. Depending upon the amount of absorption, the substrate color will interact with the ink and change the appearance of the color. A color that is approved on a white substrate will look quite different – and probably be unachievable – when printed on brown corrugated.

Different Packaging

Substrate isn’t the only variant in the quest for color consistency. Different printing processes also affect the printed color. Offset, flexo, gravure, letterpress, digital, and screen all use different types of inks and colorants; some are water-based, some are petroleum-based, and the curing methods and gloss levels can result in colors that vary substantially.

The key is to consider as many of the variables as possible during the design phase, and think through how they will affect final color. It’s also important to stay in close contact with your printer or packaging converter to ensure they understand, and can achieve, your expectations.

2.  Multiple packaging components can make or break the brand.

There’s more to a brand than just the package. Even if you have all the variables under control for one packaging component, the other components – such as the flexible plastic pouch, the folding carton, the printed labels, and the shelf trays – must all match when they come together at the point of sale.

This graphic shows how Pantone 3425 C will appear when printed on both white and brown cardboard. As you can see, the difference is quite noticeable. Is it OK if the green on the white cup doesn’t exactly match the green on the brown thermal cup holder? It’s a balancing act between what’s achievable and what’s acceptable.

This graphic shows how Pantone 3425 C will appear when printed on both white and brown cardboard. As you can see, the difference is quite noticeable. Is it OK if the green on the white cup doesn’t exactly match the green on the brown thermal cup holder? It’s a balancing act between what’s achievable and what’s acceptable.

3.  When you’re working across multiple sites, color is even harder to manage.

Multiple print suppliers are usually required to handle large volumes of brand packaging. But even when using the same substrates, inks, and printing processes, converters in different parts of the world simply do not produce the exact same color.

If a brand owner approves a slight variation from a printer in New York, and a slight – but different – variation from the printer in Madrid, when all of those components come together at the point of sale, those slight differences may be much more apparent.

wrong color; xrite blog

This type of color difference can give the impression that the off-color products are damaged, old, or fake, and they will probably end up on a discount store shelf.

The only real way to ensure accurate color across multiple sites is through digital specification and evaluation – that is, using digital values for color in conjunction with physical references.

4.  Color communication can be ambiguous. And expensive.

Historically, physical standards have been the accepted way to specify and communicate brand colors. While they still play an important role in a color workflow, they can also pose potential issues for brand owners.

First, they’re subject to deterioration through age, wear and discoloration. Even if Pantone 306 is communicated as the standard, what looks like Pantone 306 in the designer’s new Pantone Guide might look different in the printer’s 10-year old version, leaving room for misinterpretation. It’s also wise to reference standards for multiple substrates, which aren’t always available or practical as physical references.

Lighting plays a role in visual evaluation. A color difference may be more obvious when viewed beside a window in the store than under fluorescent lighting in the lab.

Comparing a sample with a standard in a light booth allows you to view and approve color under consistent, known lighting conditions.

Comparing a sample with a standard in a light booth allows you to view and approve color under consistent, known lighting conditions.

Physical standards can change. How do you know all of your designers and suppliers are using the most recent or most consistent ones?

There’s also the cost and efficiency impact of sending physical materials back and forth for review and approval, or sending stakeholders to each print shop to visually approve color on press.

5.  The Snowball Effect

Combine all of these variables and you get the dreaded “error stack.” Although each player in the supply chain, from designers to premedia to ink supplier to printer, may meet the physical standard within a specified tolerance, adding each of these small differences together can lead to bad color, and a negative brand impression at the point of sale.

What’s a brand owner to do?

One potential key to reducing inefficiencies is digital color specification, communication, and approval. Even if the color is specified in Paris, printed to the numbers in Ohio, and approved in New York, the digital version of Pantone 360 will always be the same when you use digital specifications across the workflow.

Stay tuned. Soon we’ll talk more about real life solutions to help brand owners achieve a color-consistent packaging workflow.

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