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Personalised packaging pioneer Penny Black secures £1.5M investment

Personalised packaging start up Penny Black, which is aiming to transform mundane ecommerce parcels into engaging branded unboxing experiences, has secured additional £1.5 million investment from AGFA and VC investor ninepointfive.

Both investment funds were triggered by the partnerships and wins across the UK and Europe, with the business having shown steady month-on-month growth and attracted a number of new customers. These include sustainable toothbrush retailer SURI, gin brand Warner’s Distillery and health supplements retailer Zooki.

Retailers and third-party logistics centres (3PLs) have been attracted to the easy-to-use marketing technology to help differentiate themselves from competitors.

“The moment consumers open their order will be an opportunity for brands to entice and retain consumers, helping them drive more revenue from existing customers,” said Penny Black CEO, Douglas Franklin. “Our software seamlessly connects ecommerce stores, marketing tools, warehouse management systems and fulfilment centres, making sure brands can bring in customer data and create hyper-personalised experiences and printed material that delights customers the moment they open purchases.”

Penny Black’s marketing SaaS tool for ecommerce brands is already being deployed across Europe by global fulfilment providers like Radial, Elanders, I-Fulfilment and Schroeders.

“3PL companies currently struggle to personalise ecommerce packages and can’t do much beyond mass-printed, one-design, gift notes thrown inside. Our unique offering helps automate a revenue-boosting process for on-demand, beautifully-designed printouts, specifically geared towards each customer, location, product or package,” Franklin explains.

Recent trials of Penny Black’s solution showed that retailers saw a measurable uplift in online sales after running personalisation campaigns. The toothbrush retailer, SURI, used Penny Black inserts to drive customer referrals and saw referral share rates up to 30% per cent, driving more customers to discover the brand for the first time. Other brands managed to equate up to an additional £2.20 in revenue per insert sent.

“Penny Black’s personalised inserts increased the size of our loyal customer base by six times; and once customers are in the community, their lifetime value (of sales) automatically rises. We can invite loyal repeat buyers to join the club, interact with fellow customers and take them on a physical journey of education and delight,” says Krisi Smith, Co-Founder at British tea retailer Bird & Blend Tea Co.

“As a young direct-to-consumer brand, enhancing our unboxing experience is a crucial growth opportunity for us. With Penny Black’s platform, we’re already seeing some brilliant results and delighting our customers. The integration with our 3PL was super simple, the personalisation process is intuitive, and with regular testing and iterating, Penny Black has helped us unlock tremendous value through this channel,” says Gyve Safavi, Co-Founder and CEO of SURI.

“Penny Black has solved the problem of creating a personalised unpacking experience for consumers in the world of ecommerce. The technology allows us to produce highly personalised campaigns, printed on-demand in our distribution centres, with engaging communications that elevate the consumer experience. This adds value to the service we provide to brands and delivers a solution that few other 3PLs can rival,” says Kevin Rogers, MD of Elanders UK.

Reflecting on the company’s swift ascent, Douglas Franklin, CEO at Penny Black, added: “The moment consumers receive their online orders is the only touchpoint left for ecommerce brands to have a physical connection with them. Brands need to surprise and delight customers to secure their loyalty, especially when acquiring new ones can be so expensive. Riding the wave of global growth in ecommerce, we’re delighted to be attracting more interest. And this latest boost in investment will help us develop even further.”

The UK tech startup first launched in the UK and Europe in April 2022. AGFA and 9.5 had the vision to support the business with an initial investment of £1.3m in October 2022. This further £1.5m investment is to help accelerate growth.

2D Codes: Preparing for the new dimension

After successful implementation in sectors including tobacco and pharmaceuticals, two-dimensional barcodes or ‘2D codes’ are gaining prevalence across industries and are expected at the point of sale within the next five years. The growth in 2Dcodes presents significant opportunities for manufacturers but is not without its risks.

As James Cutforth, Domino Printing Sciences, explains, preparing for the new dimension in barcodes requires bespoke product handling solutions, designed to facilitate crisp, clear coding on a range of products and packaging types…

A new dimension in barcodes

Two-dimensional barcodes have become a common addition to product packaging – with factors such as globalisation, online trading, and the need for more robust anti-counterfeit methods driving their uptake. In several industries, including European tobacco and pharmaceuticals, 2D codes are now a regulatory requirement.

Such is the success of 2D codes that in May of 2020, global standard organisation GS1 began an initiative to support the adoption of 2D codes at the point of sale (POS) with a new barcoding standard – the GS1 Digital Link. The standard will facilitate the use of 2D codes at POS systems and allow for a gradual transition away from standard linear barcodes.

There are multiple benefits to using 2D codes in place of traditional linear barcodes2D codes enable more information within a single code, including dynamic data, and can facilitate serialisation and wider traceability. However, the complex nature of 2D codes also presents some challenges.

The challenge behind 2D codes

It is imperative that 2D codes are printed correctly to ensure that they can be effectively scanned – this is particularly crucial when using 2D codes for regulatory purposes, such as those used in pharmaceutical applications, and will be increasingly important when considering 2D codes for use at POS.

Utilising variable 2D codes on products can provide significant benefits to manufacturers in terms of facilitating better supply chain control, however, applying the code to packaging that has been packed or filled can be challenging.

Dynamic data, such as batch-related information (including batch numbers, and ingredient variations including nutrition and allergen info), product expiry dates, and unique product IDs, will require real-time, on-product coding, rather than pre-coded labels. In such instances, simply ‘bolting on’ a coding device to an existing production line may not be optimal because often, production machinery is not designed with coding in mind.

For this reason, product handling or the ‘presentation of the product’ to the coding device is fundamental to achieving high-quality codes. Manufacturers that choose to code products in-line without effective product handling will be subject to production line variations which can affect final code quality, including:

  • Product position: Small variations in the position of products may result in codes applied in the wrong area or missing or incomplete codes.
  • Product distance from the printer: Positioning too close or too far from the coding device can result in blurry or unreadable codes.
  • Product angle: A slight rotation in product positioning can result in deformed codes, even if this is by just a few degrees.
  • Line speed: Minimal speed fluctuations will affect the quality of the code, leading to squeezed or stretched codes.
  • Conveyor vibrations: At high speeds, minimal vibrations can affect code quality leading to low-quality, blurred, or wavy codes.
  • Challenging product geometry: Certain packaging types can be a challenge for a standard coding setup.

At best, a poor quality 2D code resulting from inadequate product handling will cause a high number of rejections, rework, and defective stock. Poor quality 2Dcodes can also have a knock-on effect on lines that require the aggregation of serialised products. The repercussions can be even more severe if an unreadable 2D code leaves the factory unnoticed. Brands can face financial penalties such as fines, as well as loss of business, product recalls, and potential legal implications.

What’s the solution?

A bespoke product handling solution can solve all issues above concerning code quality by ensuring optimal and consistent product delivery to the coding equipment. The optimal solution will be designed based on several different considerations, including:

  • Product and packaging type: Factors such as the shape of a piece of packaging, substrate type, and weight of a filled pack can be crucial. In pharmaceuticals, for example, boxes of blister packs are light and have regular form, but glass or plastic medicine bottles will be more challenging to code.
  • Code requirements: Code type, placement, and resolution are determining factors. Many machine-readable codes have minimum size requirements and necessitate the use of high-resolution printing technologies.
  • Existing production specifications: If a coding solution is integrated into an existing production line, it will need to be designed with existing specifications in mind so as not to slow down production or reduce overall equipment effectiveness (OEE).

A bespoke solution may use multiple types of technology to handle finished products and present them to the chosen coding device for final printing, including specialised conveyors, wheels, or product carriages and movers such as robotic arms, depending on the product type. These devices can use different methods to handle products with varying levels of force for delicate and robust products alike. A bespoke handler could be developed with pneumatic or servo-electric driven side-, top-, or bottom belts, or even magnetic or vacuum solutions.

As well as improving overall code quality, bespoke product handling solutions can also be developed to allow additional processes to enable pre- or post- treatment of a substrate, where necessary. When used alongside machine vision systems, such solutions can also help to give critical information for operations monitoring.


Product handling is the foundation that a viable 2D printing solution is based upon. When applying 2D codes directly onto product packaging, it is imperative to consider whether products can be adequately coded in situ or if a specialised product handling solution is required. Product handling solutions will help improve overall code quality on the line, helping manufacturers to improve OEE by reducing waste, increasing production efficiency, and reducing overall running costs.