Jack Link’s® Beef Jerky, located in the small town of Minong, WI, produces the number one brand of meat snacks in the $2-billion-per-year category. Family-owned and operated under the leadership of Jack and Troy Link, the company traces its roots back to the 1880s, when Jack Link’s great grandfather settled in the Wisconsin wilds, bringing his Old World sausage recipes with him. Passing that recipe down from generation to generation, the family began providing meat products to local and then regional restaurants, and then they began manufacturing and selling meat snacks.
Today, the company is the fastest-growing meat snack manufacturer in the world, selling more than 100 different products in more than 40 countries under the slogan, “Feed Your Wild Side!”
When a brand has a slogan that bold and commanding, both the product and the package have a lot to live up to. Recently, Jack Link’s sought to step up its club-store presence and, at the same time, reduce its environmental footprint by replacing its plastic canisters with rigid-window cartons to improve both its graphic appeal and its sustainability metrics. Helping Jack Link’s meet that challenge was Great Northern Corp.
“Jack Link’s was having success with a lighter-weight rigid-window package for smaller-quantity items in Walmart and other outlets and was looking for a better alternative to the canister and lid they were using in club stores,” says Jim Misfeldt, Great Northern Account Manager. The existing club-store packaging comprised a rigid, round polyvinyl chloride-based canister with a low-density polypropylene lid.
According to Ashley Brandt, Jack Link’s Brand Marketing Manager, Great Northern’s StrataGraph® process—which allows for the in-line converting of high-strength, laminated, paperboard packaging with high-impact, web-offset graphics—enabled the switch to a package with a greater shelf presence and lower environmental footprint.
“We were motivated to make a change on a number of levels, but the foremost issues were sustainability and cost,” Brandt explains. “We wanted to move into a format that was more sustainable. The new cartons from Great Northern are made from recycled paper fiber with a PET window, replacing PVC canisters and LDPP lids.
“The new cartons also presented the opportunity to lower our costs, which is important in a segment like ours that is so highly competitive.”
A new option for club store
StrataGraph was launched in 2004 by Great Northern as a way to develop new business beyond the company’s core competencies—corrugated box making and point-of-sale displays—“overlaid with a real desire to get into more retail consumer packaging,” explains Mike Schliesmann, Senior Vice President, Great Northern Business Unit Manager.
“At that time, Great Northern had been living primarily in the corrugated packaging world. We also had an operation in Racine [Wisconsin] doing some consumer packaging with direct-print and litho-labeling on corrugated, coupled with point-of-purchase display work, but it really didn’t have a strong retail consumer packaging presence to it,” Schliesmann continues. “So when we came up with the StrataGraph concept, which would take some of Great Northern’s core competencies coupled with new technology and new materials, it seemed like a pretty good fit.
“Plus, we felt that there was a hole in the marketplace for this type of packaging. Folding carton products offer great graphics. However, from a performance standpoint—as manufacturers got more into the requirements for club stores, with their different shipping needs and stronger supply chain requirements—folding cartons didn’t stand up in a lot of instances unless they were reinforced with additional packaging.
“Another option was microflute corrugated packaging, and for the most part, package performance was fine. However, products were typically over-packaged, and graphic reproduction did not meet expectations. If you wanted great graphics, they tended to be a little bit more expensive, and you still had flute lines. In a club-store environment, where people rely on the packaging to make a quick decision about a product, having great graphics was a priority for brand manufacturers. So we felt there was a gap there that we could bridge with this type of product.”
The StrataGraph process and its required equipment were custom-designed by Great Northern. “It was a totally greenfield operation,” says Schliesmann. “The components all had to be put together and custom-engineered.” Great Northern worked with six machinery vendors to modify standard equipment and customize it for a unique solution.
Laminating process provides ‘the magic’
Today, the StrataGraph line starts with a Komori Chambon six-color web-offset press used to print a lightweight paperboard top sheet in up to six colors at speeds to 1,000 ft/min. The press uses UV inks and UV dry trapping, and it offers UV coating capabilities. According to a technical bulletin (456/K-01-001) from the Environmental Protection Agency, UV inks and coatings are more environmentally friendly than traditional offset or flexo evaporative products, without VOC emissions. An additional flexo deck provides spot coating and scented ink application, as well as other value-added options.
For the top sheet, StrataGraph offers two lightweight caliper options and can also print on transparent, opaque, metallized, holographic, and a variety of other special-effect films. After printing, the roll of material is routed to one of two custom-engineered laminators—one for short-run jobs and one for long runs—where the top sheet is laminated to a heavier-weight Kraft base sheet. Following adhesive lamination, custom technology ensures machine-direction decurling, critical for a flat sheet, through the introduction of steam energy to the backside of the web. “This is the magic,” says Schliesmann. “I don’t think there are a lot of people laminating like we are.”
Following lamination is in-line die-cutting, with photoeyes reading register marks to ensure the proper amount of web is fed. In the die-cutting process, scoring and cut/crease profiles have been engineered to eliminate cracking and provide sufficient flexibility to enable ease of forming on automated packaging equipment.
According to Misfeldt, “StrataGraph packaging has more ‘give’ as it reacts to stress and strain, resulting in a cushioning effect with no false scoring, giving the overall package a much cleaner, finished look.”
As the StrataGraph business has grown, Great Northern has added other capabilities, including the ability to create windowed cartons, interior surface printing, captured blister packaging, rigid window packaging, and pallet base wrap, among others. The company can also develop a full retail-ready solution for a customer combining its StrataGraph services, along with corrugated products from other Great Northern operations. Assembly and fulfillment services are also available. Great Northern is direct food contact-certified; StrataGraph is AIB-certified for indirect food contact.
Produced using the StrataGraph process, the new 20-ct club-store package for Jack Link’s Big Beef Sticks is a retail-ready, full-seam carton, perforated on top for easy opening. The carton is constructed of a 30-pt laminate paperboard material, with a 10-mil PETG window covering 2.5 in. of the 9-in. tall package. The clear window spans three sides of the carton: the front, and two-thirds of each side. The package is printed in four colors, with two spot colors and a UV coating.
According to Great Northern, StrataGraph has strong environmental advantages over alternative packaging. The web-based printing and converting process is said to create less waste and use less energy than traditional microflute or sheet-fed processes. The finished packaging also results in more units per pallet and truckload—30% less space than F-flute, and 50% less than E-flute, according to Great Northern—for less fuel consumption, lower freight, and reduced material handling costs. The Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI)-certified material used for StrataGraph is also 100% recyclable.
And because StrataGraph packaging offers the needed strength without the use of secondary packaging, there is a positive in-store gain, with less packaging waste and less labor and handling, the company says.
In terms of environmental advantages, Jack Link’s 12-oz carton used for smaller-volume retailers:
• Reduced packaging shipments by 29,843 miles annually (from converting site to packing site).
• Reduced PVC consumption by 85,200 kg annually.
• Reduced total plastic consumption by 87,938 kg annually.
• Provided a significantly improved recovery rate for the main packaging material. (Per Paperrecycles.org data, 66.8% of all paperboard is recovered in the U.S.)
Shelf appeal with structural strength
In addition to environmental benefits, the StrataGraph carton also satisfied some additional high-priority objectives for Jack Link’s that were suited to its expectations and needs around club-store packaging. First, it allowed for a premium package appearance.
In terms of graphics, the Jack Link’s logo is now more prominent than it was on the PVC package, and high-quality graphics and bold colors reinforce the “Wild Side” brand and product experience. The logo is shown on all four sides—a plus in the club-store environment where the display can be shopped on all four sides (Jack Link’s cartons are displayed 12/tray, with 45 trays on a pallet). Also, the window feature of the new package keeps the product visible, which is a priority for Jack Link’s.
“A major incentive to switch was a huge need for a carton that improves how our product merchandises itself and stands out on the shelf,” says Brandt. “This new carton does that, with beautiful, bold Jack Link’s graphics and a window to show off the product inside—something we learned is incredibly important in the multipack space. Ultimately, this is a move that we are counting on to help us grow our sales and share.”
To test the structural viability of StrataGraph for their products, Jack Link’s worked with Great Northern on compression strength and ship tests, based on club-store test requirements. According to tests conducted in an ISTA-certified lab in accordance with TAPPI Standard T 804 om-89, packaging produced with the StrataGraph process can offer greater strength and resiliency than microflute packaging.
For Jack Link’s, the switch from PVC-based canisters and LDPP lids to the StrataGraph cartons has been dramatic in terms of sustainability, nearly doubling the product’s Walmart Sustainability Index score, from 3.5 to 6.5.
“The brand owners’ sales organizations always have to have something to present to the club-store buyers on why their product should be put on the floor versus the other guy’s,” says Misfeldt. “The environmentally friendly, sustainability advantage of our package really does help them out a lot.”
Jack Link’s began using the StrataGraph rigid-window packaging in the spring of 2012. Feedback on both the Jack Link’s 12-ct and 20-ct club-store packages has been very positive. “The results have been so positive that the rigid window carton has become our standard design across our multipack business,” says Brandt. “We have expanded the design to other product forms and carton sizes to grab new sales opportunities with various customers and channels.”
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