Coca-Cola recently delighted football fans with its Panini football sticker labels for UEFA EURO 2016™. Gregory Bentley, one of the company’s "decoration technology" experts, tells the story of how this complex project came to life and why labels are such a hot area of innovation. 

Packaging innovation is a key focus area for Coca-Cola, as the company puts its packs and labels to work in ever more innovative ways. A great example was seen earlier this summer, with a new range of UEFA EURO 2016™ football sticker labels appearing on 265 million bottles of Coca-Cola products around Europe.

The stickers, the result of a partnership with football collectibles publisher Panini™, allowe fans to peel a player or "national pride" sticker off the back of their Coca-Cola label.

The campaign ran in countries across Western Europe and Central & Southern Europe, with around 172 million labels carrying Panini stickers and 93 million national pride stickers.

At Coca-Cola, numbers like this are not unusual, as the company refreshes millions of consumers every hour of every day. However, it’s easy to overlook the innovation and complexity that goes on behind the scenes to make a promotion like this possible. Just how do you get peelable football stickers printed behind the labels of 265 million bottles of Coca-Cola?

Not easily, is the answer.

According to Brussels-based Gregory Bentley, Coca-Cola R&D’s global packaging lead for decoration technologies, it took a year to devise the technology and supply chain to launch the labels in time for the UEFA EURO 2016™ tournament. This may seem like  a long time, but is relatively fast compared to some of Coke’s other outstanding label innovations, such as the ingenious and award-winning Christmas Bow Label (2-3 years) and Share a Coke (18 months).

Precision and Partnership Essential

Morgan Schneiderlin
“This was a project where precision was paramount,” says Bentley. “A sticker may sound simple, but you have to find a way to apply it to the label without the ink scratching, glue squeezing out of the sides and many other technical and supply chain challenges. This was particularly essential when you consider them being used in a high-speed production line, where labels are printed at a rate of 200 per minute and then applied to bottles at a speed of up to three meters per second. The last thing the bottler wants is a problem that can bring their whole line to a stop.”

Meanwhile, the Coca-Cola team needed to convince Panini that the process would could run smoothly before the stickers were printed. Coca-Cola’s marketing teams and quality assurance experts working for its bottling partner played a crucial role in this process. Partnership with Panini was paramount, too. This, in part, led to the company naming Coca-Cola "Best Panini Partner 2016".

Close collaboration with operations teams at Coca-Cola European Partners and Coca-Cola HBC, and with commercialization teams across Coke's European business units also was critical to the project. The full cross-system supply chain teams worked to deliver the right technical solution for the best possible system cost.

Bentley says that in order to minimize disruption to the production lines, where downtime comes at a high cost, the intricacy of the project was handled outside the plant.

“We tried to remove as much complexity as possible for our bottling partners," he said. "That’s why all the delicate elements – to do with the assembly and printing of the sticker labels – was done in a completely separate supply chain, working with partners in Denmark and Germany. We then delivered the completed reels of the sticker labels to the bottler which they could simply place onto the production line as normal.”

Teamwork made it happen

"In terms of scale and speed to market, this was one of the biggest and most ambitious packaging innovations we have ever undertaken in Western Europe," said Patrick Condon, Coca-Cola Western Europe commercialization and supply chain manager. "We have taken what was a simple idea on paper, back in June 2015, and have developed, validated and invested in application technology with the first commercial printing and application of stickers happening just six months later. We have activated this innovation on our biggest volume products during one of the most critical periods of the year, overcoming many challenges along the way. Overall, this giant undertaking is down to a massive collaborative effort between different departments in Coca-Cola and with our bottling partners, which clearly demonstrates the power of an entrepreneurial minded project team and an empowered connected system.’’

Bentley and his team are now looking ahead to the next innovation. Having mastered the technical and supply chain challenges behind this latest project, they are exploring how the same model can be applied to new ideas. 

“It opens the door for more innovation on labels," he said. "Because we have the technical know-how and also satisfied the bottler that this can be done without any disruption, we can think of other ways to use it. We have some good things in the pipeline I can’t tell you about now, but you can be sure that now we have this capability, we will be using it with some great new ideas.”

Labels have become a key area of packaging innovation, driven by the success of the Share a Coke campaign and the increasing sophistication of digital printing technology.

“The label is the easiest and most cost-effective part of the pack to work with – you can do a lot with it to engage and interact with the consumer," Bentley said. "There is a great deal of energy and focus on this in our industry, and I think we are leading the way."