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That's no beer crate, bub, it's a marketing tool!

Once a commodity item differentiated only through use of colored plastics, the beer crate has become one of the latest battlefields in the marketing wars between brewers vying for consumers'' attention.

The trend began in 2001 when Beck''s began using crates with soft-touch handles and inmold labeling (IML). That brewery''s success—sales reportedly jumped 15%—created a legion of imitators, so that by 2002, inmold labeling and soft-touch handles began to appear on crates used by other large brewers marketing premium brands.

Erwin Treiber, sales director at Schoeller Wavin (Hardenberg, the Netherlands), molder of the Beck''s crates, says, "IML and soft-touch grips are now our standard. Crates used to be strictly for carrying the product, but they have become quite a marketing tool."

As centerpiece on its stand at the November 2003 Brau exhibition in Nuremberg, the company displayed a two-piece version of its developmental Eye-Catcher crate, also to be available in a single-piece version. These are expected to see commercial use this year, says Treiber. The single-piece version will be 100% PC, whereas the two-piece crates have a frame and bottom of high density polyethylene with transparent PC sides. For the two-piece version, the frame and sides are molded separately, he says, then affixed via riveting in a secondary step.

"It''s still too early to discuss costs [of the Eye-Catcher crates]," Treiber says, but they will be higher than pure HDPE crates. He expects volume production will keep costs competitive with HDPE crates using IML and soft-touch grip, though. The transparent PC sides on these crates can be printed, covered with a transparent inmold label, or left clear to highlight the product.

Schoeller Wavin has some catching up to do on molder Franz Delbrouck GmbH (Menden, Germany), which has been molding crates similar to the Eye-Catcher since mid-2003. These, too, have HDPE frames, but the PC panels inserted into the sides in a secondary operation are removable. An official at the firm says these inserts are a cost-effective means for breweries to switch marketing campaigns throughout the year without paying for new crates. Additionally, he notes, PC prints better than PP or HDPE, the materials typically used for crates, and it does not scratch as easily.

Panels can also be convex or concave, further differentiating a brand from its square-crated competition. The PC panels protect the crates against damage caused by forklift tines or other objects, an important point, he says, since crates are usually guaranteed for 10 years. One Delbrouck customer, German brewery Veltins, uses crates with colored PC panels on its alco-pop drinks to differentiate flavors.

Such niceties as IML and soft-touch grips have their price, of course—about a 15% premium over standard HDPE crates. It''s one usually only larger bottlers with massive volumes have been willing to pay, since they normally own the injection mold. But for smaller bottlers not willing to pay for their own mold, at least one processor—Linpac Materials Handling GmbH (Bad Salzuflen, Germany)—says it will lease molds suitable for IML to smaller breweries or bottlers. Matthew Defosse [email protected]

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