Standing Out from the Crowd

Over-the-counter pharmaceuticals need the latest advances in graphics and security to distinguish themselves.

by Erik Swain, Senior Editor


At any drug store or supermarket you will find a vast array of over-the-counter (OTC) pharmaceuticals. If you think the shelves look more crowded than a few years ago, you're probably right. More drugs each year are making the switch from prescription to OTC. And not only is there more competition in each class of drugs, but each brand has different variations and sizes.

Tamper-evident bands from Seal-It Inc. protect the product and complement the labels.

In addition, consumer expectations are higher than ever. A well-informed shopper wants to know not only how the product works, but also how well its packaging protects it from tampering.

Stores have expectations, too. They want to display attractive cartons, tubes, and bottles as well as protect the products from theft and tampering.

Given this environment, it is imperative that an OTC drug's package or label stand out, and that each package be safe and secure.


Graphics have become increasingly sophisticated, and pharmaceutical companies have taken notice.

"As recently as five years ago, there was not much emphasis on graphics for the label or carton," says Lance Vanden Brook, sales and marketing manager, New Jersey Packaging (Fairfield, NJ), a division of Menasha Corp. "[A pharmaceutical] would sell based on the product itself. But with the mounting competition in the OTC market, we have seen graphics change and get much higher end. Drug manufacturers are looking for more unique packaging. For the most part, the capabilities have been there much longer than the desire."

Drug manufacturers may disagree that they've been behind the times in their approach to OTC packaging. "Our manufacturers have always been interested in appearance, particularly on the shelves, as a way to distinguish themselves from other products," says Joe Doss, senior vice president and director of public affairs, Nonprescription Drug Manufacturers Association (NDMA). "It has always been important to dress up the principal display panel."

With brighter, more eye-catching elements, the new graphics give OTC pharmaceutical products a chance to compete in a crowded market. Any surface the shopper sees can be enhanced.


Cartons have been a major beneficiary of the new kinds of graphics, and many carton manufacturers are at the forefront of the innovations.

"We are seeing more gold stamping and additional colors on the carton," says Joe Elpick, president of Colonial Carton Co. (Clayton, NC). "We are also seeing some unique carton designs that almost resemble the cosmetic world, such as chisel tops."

Krones Inc. supplies Thermocol, a heat-transfer decoration system, to place such graphics as photos and halftones on containers.

"We are noticing greater use of foil stamping, and in particular, the use of brighter and more vibrant colors," says Vincent Kover, vice president of sales at Innovative Folding Carton Co. (South Plainfield, NJ). "We are also seeing more use of gradations along with holographic accents. We anticipate the trend of OTC carton enhancements to continue as drug manufacturers continually strive for shelf presence."

Foil stamping, explains Tom Grinnan, director of strategic planning and marketing for Mebane Packaging Group (Mebane, NC), "makes the product more recognizable and adds an image of quality. Brighter coatings set off light and can be achieved through UV coating or multiple passes through water bases. You see that a lot in nutraceuticals."

Design considerations are best addressed early. Suppliers say they encourage manufacturers to involve them in the design process as early as possible, because they can provide insight into what will work and what won't.

"Electronic prepress will enable drug manufacturers to get their products to the OTC market faster than ever, and it will be important for them to work closely with their packaging supplier at the initial stages of design to make sure the graphics selected are compatible with the process selected and the capabilities of their supplier, whether it be for folding cartons or labels," says Hollis F. Cobb, special projects manager for J. R. Cole Industries Inc. (Charlotte, NC). "The package supplier is an extension of the product manufacturer, and they should work together as a team."

The advent of computer graphic design has increased packagers' capabilities, enabling designers to see what will work before the package goes into production. Use of computers has also sped up the design process.

"It has changed the market immensely; everything is done on disk," says Brian Gavin, vice president, Gavin Manufacturing Group (Ronkonkoma, NY). "Once you receive the disk, you can preflight it to ensure that the design will work throughout the manufacturing process of the folding carton. It has increased the ability of the graphic artist and makes it possible to print and finish better looking boxes than years ago."


For OTC products that don't have a carton, the label is usually what must catch the eye. And that can be a challenge, as the designer must juggle appearance with the need to provide all the required copy in the correct format.

"Manufacturers want more colors, bolder copy, and more copy, and it's up to us to respond," says Les Schriber, regional vice president—pharmaceutical division for CCL Label Inc. (Rosemont, IL). One of CCL's solutions has been the Spinformation label, a two-ply label in which there is information on the top layer, and you spin the label to see more information on the bottom layer. The design provides 75% more space for graphics, Schriber says.

Labeling is the focus of much of the OTC-related regulatory concerns, as industry awaits FDA's final rule standardizing the look and content of the wording on labels. "The biggest challenge will be to make sure you have appealing graphics, but you [must also] cover all the regulatory aspects, such as the six-point type size," says Kumar Nanavati, director of packaging development, Whitehall-Robins Healthcare (Madison, NJ), a division of drug maker American Home Products Corp.


It isn't just labels and cartons that are benefiting from the new advances. Krones Inc. (Franklin, WI) uses a heat transfer decoration system, Thermocol, to put reverse-printed inks onto plastic and glass containers. Photos, halftones, and living colors can be used. The graphics are transferred from a web to the containers by applying heat and pressure continuously.

"There has been a tremendous amount of interest from the packaging industry," says Konie Brenneman, marketing manager at Krones. "The high impact of the graphics is extraordinary."

Even tamper-evident seals can become graphically enhanced. "They can be color coordinated with the label to make it so it enhances the look of the product," says Sharon Lobel, president and chief executive officer of Seal-It Inc. (Farmingdale, NY). "When you print on PVC with multiple colors, you usually print on the inside of the film. Because the film is glossy, it makes the graphics eye-popping. We are up to eight colors and can do a plate process. We can even put somebody's face on a band."

Also eye-catching are products that combine a label and tamper-evident band, which also saves labor, Lobel says.

If the graphic possibilities seem overwhelming, it's useful to remember that packaging can be simplified, too. The bells and whistles may come off a package once the product is more established, as a manufacturer might want to reduce packaging costs or devote the resources to a new product.

"Once a product is on the shelf and a consumer can recognize it by its graphics, a company might start to scale back on the package," says Keith Kiedinger, national sales manager of Queens Group Inc. (Long Island City, NY, and Stanley, NC). "The hot stamping and UV coating might be eliminated to reduce the packaging cost and maximize the profitability of sale."


Equally advanced are safety and security measures, which in many cases were pioneered in the OTC market by the pharmaceutical industry. Drug makers, faced with the safety issues inherent in pharmaceuticals, have been quick to embrace packaging with tamper evidency as well as with antitheft, anticounterfeiting, and antidiversion features.

One tamper-evident method growing more popular is induction sealing, a noncontact method of affixing a foil seal to the lip of a container, says Bill Zito, vice president of sales at Enercon Industries (Menomonee Falls, WI). "It is an oxygen and moisture barrier in addition to providing tamper evidency," he says. "It's easy to institute, and the equipment itself, because of the advancement in electronics, has become more efficient and smaller. What once took a unit the size of a refrigerator is now done with power supplies the size of VCRs, and you get more power out of them."

Mebane Packaging Group emphasizes bright coatings and foil stamping to achieve a high-quality image.

But drug makers must do more than keep tamperers out of their products. Other safety and security features available to OTC product makers, says James Macuga, business development manager at Avery Dennison, Fasson Roll North America division (Concord, OH), include:


  • Taggants, which are trace amounts of chemicals, fibers, or other particles that are incorporated into a label material to make each batch unique.


  • Covert holograms, which embed an invisible hologram that can be seen only by a specific laser device at a specific frequency in a visible hologram.


  • Electromagnetic, acoustomagnetic, and radio-frequency technologies, all of which will trigger an alarm if not deactivated at the checkout counter. Carton manufacturers say that sometimes they are asked to put such a tag inside each carton so it cannot be removed without obvious indication that the package has been opened or tampered with.

Radio-frequency identification might one day enable a microchip with an antenna to be buried within each label, which could make each one unique and enable tracking on the item level, Macuga says.


All the effort that goes into creating effective graphics and safety devices reflects the high standards practiced by the OTC pharmaceutical industry. For example, Nanavati of Whitehall-Robins Healthcare says his company takes its OTC packaging just as seriously as its ethical packaging, following the same GMPs. "The OTC production process is less costly, but the company prefers to stay with one standard, which is a very high standard."

Maintaining exceptional standards in the presentation and security of an OTC package will enable the product to distinguish itself in a rapidly growing market. Customers will continue to head for the pharmaceutical aisle of a drug or grocery store to look for pain relief and products that will improve health. It's up to the OTC product maker to attract these consumers, and they can do so with dazzling packages. They can also assure these consumers that the products are secure by using a number of safety features. Successful OTC product manufacturers realize that consumers do judge a drug by its label.


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