I read the press release last week from HP indicating that it had become the first company to feature its corporate logo and other corporate images on legal U.S. postage from Zazzle, ushering in a new era for the United States Postal Service, and fitting a new branding opportunity for one of the world’s most recognized brands. The stamps were printed on HP Indigo presses owned by California based Zazzle.

I have to say, "What kept you so long?" This may be a new service in the USA but it is a service that has been operational elsewhere for many years. Back in 1999 I had my picture printed on legal postage stamps by the Australian Post Office. An image of this stamp is shown which was created at the World Stamp Expo in March 1999 in Melbourne, Australia. This service to customize legal postage stamps is available from any Post Office in Australia and is a very popular service.

In fact when my stepson married in Sydney in January last year I gave him a package of stamps with a picture of the newlyweds to use to send out thank you letters following the event. In Australia the Post Office uses Fuji Xerox digital presses to print customer-supplied images onto a defined area of a printed stamp where a blank area is left for the image. Many companies use this service for marketing their brand, but it is mainly used for personal events like weddings, anniversaries, birthdays and the like. This has become a big business opportunity for the Australian Post Office, and it has always surprised me that more countries’ Post Offices have not followed and done the same thing.

This is a good example of the innovative thinking that takes place in finding new applications for digital printing. Today one sees major innovation in digital printing wherever one goes. At the recent IPEX event I came across many very interesting approaches to generate printing where no such application previously existed using personalization techniques. I was speaking at IPEX on the subject of adding value for offset printers by adding digital printing. In this I mentioned a number of applications I had come across which showed many innovative thinking allied to expert marketing. These days, many show the linking of Internet operations with digital printing.

In the Netherlands Thieme Print4U have generated a major printing opportunity by providing a service for hairdressers to have an annual agreement for printing marketing materials and collateral where they choose a range of items from a specific web site. Over 400 hairdressers pay around $2,000 per year to receive personalized printed material that enhances their business. Hairdressers would not normally buy printed material and this has opened up a completely new market. Thieme also runs a similar service using a personalized web site for some 600 Dutch supermarkets. Here it allows the supermarkets to select a range of promotional printed material that is customized for their needs. I am advised that this is exceptionally successful and has generated savings for the supermarket in the order of $7.5 million each year.

It is very interesting when one looks at successful digital printing operations. In many cases one sees very innovate marketing approaches brought about by a re-thinking of processes to identify new business opportunities. In another area when speaking at the Océ Open House in Poing Germany I came across an interesting application in the super-wide format flatbed printing market. This was due to new ink developed by South African inkjet ink supplier TechINK Manufacturing (an HP company that was a division of Scitex Vision). They had created ink with great elasticity that was printed onto a flat acrylic sheet. This was then vacuum formed into a shape to create very impressive 3D signage. This opened up a major new market opportunity in the signage business for digital printing. Océ is now marketing this application with its Arizona printer in many parts of the world.

Digital printing is becoming a very successful business for many companies. The most successful ones appear to be those with the vision to see new applications, which in many cases have never existed in print before. These are opportunities that don’t exist in conventional printing, and are ones where the profitability is usually far higher than with conventional printing.