Constant Evolution Drives Continued Growth
Color Ink, based in Sussex, Wis., is a family business that has never stopped evolving. From its original roots as an advertising agency in the 1970s, to the decision in the 1980s to branch into commercial printing, to the full-service visual marketing services company it is today, Color Ink embodies the concept of convergence in action.
“The company was started in 1975 by my grandfather, Jim,” Austin Meissner, sales and sourcing manager for the shop, says. “He decided to start his own ad agency, but because he was brokering out so much print, he decided to get into commercial printing in 1984. My grandfather started it in the basement of the family home, and my father, Todd [Meissner, president of Color Ink], still has vivid memories of operating the shop in that basement.”
In the late ’80s, the company had become successful enough to move into a dedicated space in Hartland, Wis., before outgrowing that and then eventually moving into its current location, with two buildings and 105,000 sq. ft. of space.
But just as Color Ink evolved from an ad agency to a commercial printer, it also embraced new technologies and the shifts in the market as time has progressed. Today, Austin Meissner reveals, they see themselves not as being a commercial printer as much as a boutique printer — heavily involved in a wide mix of projects that include everything from event space, pop-up retail locations, and even interactive elements with light and sound. “We produce quirky projects that a lot of other printers wouldn’t do,” the younger Meissner notes.
Capturing the Packaging Market
One of the bigger markets Color Ink is steadily growing into right now, according to Todd Meissner, is the packaging space.
“We stumbled across packaging design firms that did flexible packaging about 10 to 12 years ago,” he says, “but they didn’t have a source for folding cartons. We started out doing short-run prototypes for those companies, and from there to serve that market, we needed to add capabilities like diecutting, folding and gluing, and structural design. We were gently nudged into that space.”
Growing the packaging business is currently a major goal for Color Ink, with Austin Meissner pointing out that investments in digital embellishment equipment from MGI, and creasing equipment from Highcon are allowing the shop to more aggressively go after more high-end projects in the space, such as packaging for food brands, high-end sales kits, and general consumer packaging.
Todd Meissner notes that even as segments such as retail signage continue to decline — although it still makes up a large portion of the company’s business — folding cartons is one area he sees still growing at a strong rate. Smaller and local brands, and regional packaging for major brands, which all require shorter runs, are becoming increasingly popular. And the investments Color Ink has made in digital production, from print to finishing, have positioned it perfectly to capture this business, he says.
“It’s really a great marriage,” Todd Meissner notes. “With digital printing, digital embellishment, and digital cutting, we can close the loop on short-run packaging. It’s a really good fit for us.”
That said, Todd Meissner reveals that he has no plans to go after short-run commodity work, choosing instead to target the higher-end work. One approach that has been successful for Color Ink has been to work with major brands looking to relaunch products with new packaging, or with a new formula.
“They go to market with these big promo kits that they share with retailers,” he notes, “and they may only do 100 of these kits. But they are high-end, structured, and embellished, with brochures, facts about the product, sales and marketing materials, etc.” With its broad mix of equipment and capabilities, Color Ink can easily produce not just the inserts or signage for the kits, but can win the entire job from start to finish, giving it a competitive edge.
Looking Ahead to the Future
According to Austin Meissner, while Color Ink has mostly focused on folding cartons, he is aggressively looking to grow the packaging segment of the business in the coming years. One area he sees the most potential is with food packaging and, to that end, Color Ink is currently pursuing what is known as SQF certification.
“SQF certification includes an auditing processes, quality control, checks, sanitation, etc. We’re going after that right now, and hope to become fully certified end of this year, or early next year. It is exhausting, but I feel like if we want to really go after packaging, this is the next step.”
According to the SQF Institute, which manages the certification, “The Safe Quality Food (SQF) Program is a rigorous and credible food safety and quality program that is recognized by retailers, brand owners, and food service providers worldwide. Recognized by the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), the SQF family of food safety and quality codes are designed to meet industry, customer, and regulatory requirements for all sectors of the food supply chain — from the farm all the way to the retail stores. This rigorous farm-to-fork food safety and quality certification also helps food producers assure their buyers that their food products meet the highest possible global food safety standards.”
What this means for print shops like Color Ink, Austin Meissner points out, is that major brands are looking to limit their liability when it comes to suppliers of everything that goes into the product, including the packaging. “They do that by partnering with vendors that they feel confident are doing the right things,” he says. “Getting SQF certification could open up the floodgates for a segment of the market we’re just not getting a shot at right now. A lot of them require you to have this certification before they even give you an opportunity to try for their business.”
Although Color Ink isn’t shy about jumping into new markets and applications, embracing new technology, or constantly evolving to stay ahead of the competition, that doesn’t mean it has any plans to abandon its commercial printing roots. “Fashion retail has always been a big market for us,” Austin Meissner explains. “It is in decline, but it still generates a good portion of our revenue. A lot of fashion retailers are trying to do more with less, so they are really leaning on us to provide solutions on the creative and design sides, and to help them minimize the shipping costs to get their materials to stores across the country.”
It’s not just the print itself that Color Ink is looking to evolve for its retail customers — the shop is also looking to evolve how brands think about and order their print. Todd Meissner says his company is trying to educate retailers how to change the way they order print. “Fifteen to 20 years ago, if a brand had 50 to 100 stores, by and large they would all get the same kit. But for example, we recently launched a successful new program with a shoe merchandiser, which now has the ability to have custom kits printed on-demand, and shipped across the country. They don’t have to be the same — it gives the stores autonomy to decide what they need.”
Color Ink created an online portal where the brand uploads all of the creative elements, and each store can log in and order the graphics on an as-needed basis. “It’s reducing inventory for the customer, with us only shipping what they need,” Todd Meissner says. “And because we can print and finish it digitally, we can turn it around in 48 hours after receiving an order. We are really trying to convince more retailers to move to the on-demand model rather than one-size-fits-all.”
Trade Show and Event Materials
Trade show and event materials is another major market that Color Ink has no plans of walking away from, although it, like retail, has seen changes over the years. “They are coming to us for display solutions that don’t require a lot of tools to assemble,” Austin Meissner notes, as well as for more sustainable products that can be easily recycled, and produced with lighter materials that are easy to move around for a fraction of the cost of traditional displays. “A lot of what they’re doing might be relevant for a single show, so they want displays that they can use once and then recycle,” he adds.
But that doesn’t mean Color Ink is content to produce basic signage; rather, it has encouraged customers to get creative, with Austin Meissner revealing that the shop has even produced things such as jumbo Plinko boards, or giant slot machines for brands looking to stand out. “They came to us with ideas, and we figured out how to produce them, and they were impressed with the results in the end,” he says.
With some of these projects that venture into activities beyond just ink on substrates, Todd Meissner notes that Color Ink has been fortunate to stumble upon a couple of individuals he considers the “MacGyvers” of the operation. “They have expertise for things like computer programming, or how to integrate a switch into a project. They use a lot of raspberry pi computers, since those are inexpensive and can be integrated into all these systems. That is a real benefit for us.”
Today, Austin Meissner notes that the revenue at Color Ink is split fairly evenly between traditional offset and digital printing technologies, although he sees digital becoming a “bigger slice of the pie” as consumer buying habits continue to change, and as brands continue to evolve to meet them.
“For us it’s a beautiful thing,” adds Todd Meissner. “The speeds of digital equipment are getting faster, the cost of their operation is getting cheaper and, every year, as the technology evolves, the sandbox that digital can play in keeps getting bigger.”
Color Ink will continue to embrace the convergence of technologies and markets that is occurring, and will continue to reinvent itself as the needs of its clientele change and evolve.
It is a great example of a one-time commercial printer that is never content with “good enough” and always strives to find new ways to grow, new markets to explore, and new challenges to