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The self-adhesive label: an unusual product and an amazing story

By James Cryer - JDA Print Recruitment
We all know that industries take years - if not centuries - to evolve, they don't just ''pop up'' out of thin air. Well, one did.I don't know how many of you know the fascinating story of how - in an attic in Los Angeles in 1935 - Stan Avery literally invented a whole industry when he pulled a strip of silicone-coated paper, dripping with latex, through a cigar-box.

Let that be enough to whet the appetite as we fast-forward, unfortunately to the outbreak of WW II, and Uncle Sam needed a way of stopping fabric labels falling off ''Mae West'' life-vests when immersed in seawater. That lead to the then, tiny Avery Products Corp in Southern California, winning a contract worth many $1,000s - and the rest is history, as they say...

Stan Avery and Will Cryer
Stan Avery (Left) and James Cryer's father, Wal Cryer back in 1982.
Graeme Staas and James Cryer
Men at work: two scions of the Australia label industry- Graeme Staas and James Cryer, chewing over some of the issues confronting the industry.

Fast-forward to now, when the industry is almost incalculable in its scale - but suffice to say it's a multi-billion dollar industry - and the world would not be the same without the humble self-adhesive label.

But things that we take for granted now, were huge break-throughs then. Like back in the 1950s at Stan Avery's plant, when the silicone-backing wouldn't dry, so they had to feed the web out through a hole in the factory, across the carpark and back in the hope it would cure on the roll. Or the time they developed a removable adhesive, ''Kum-Kleen'' which was in addition to the only other version: the permanent one, logically enough called ''Perma-Grip''. How simple life would be to have only two adhesives!

How do I know all this? I know I don't look (or some would say, act) my age, but I can still recall my father jumping on a Lockheed Constellation in the late 1960s and spending a month with Stan Avery, learning the ropes of this exciting new technology. Well, we hoped it would be exciting - it was then still largely an unknown in this country and buyers were quick to point out that the newfangled ''self-adhesive'' (or ''pressure-sensitive'' as it was also called) was up to twice the price of a cheap gum-label!

And so began the battle of the ''applied cost'' sales strategy, whereby the aspiring label rep had to remind the buyer of all the other hidden costs involved in messy ''alternate'' methods of labelling.
But the 1970s were heady days which saw the rapid growth of the local Australian label sector - where fierce competition was tempered by strong camaraderie which also spawned long-term personal associations. (At this point it may ruin my reputation to admit that I recently had lunch with Graeme Staas - but what the heck!)

But on a serious note, in that heyday of the humble label when it was still in its infancy - and dare I say, in an age of innocence - there were four ''pioneers'' (who I would rank more or less equally - and in alphabetical order, so there's no squabbling) -

- David MacMurray (Unistat)
- Harold Mackay (Briginshaw Bros)
- Syd Staas (Assta/Label House)
- Wal Cryer (WJ Cryers/Avery Label).

From those ''four horsemen of the apocalypse'' sprang a myriad of small, energetic, resourceful and fiercely competitive proprietors, upon whose shoulders the modern label industry of today still rests.
To the above could also be added Bruce Mansell, of Rapid Packaging, Australia's pioneer in labelling applicators.
It also bred its share of wild-eyed entrepreneurs, more so from Victoria, but that's a personal observation.

Fortunately for all those frustrated historians (like me), the industry association known as LATMA was inaugurated ''back then'', and enjoyed overwhelming support from the industry for several decades and luckily many of the ''leading lights'' of our industry are listed as former presidents on the honour board (currently in the safe-keeping of the PIAA head office, in Chatswood).

But enough of these romantic notions - let me be a hard-nosed armchair economist: we are taught that there are various forms of ''competition'' from monopoly down to ''perfect competition'' - and milkbars are often cited as an example of the latter.

I would also like to suggest that the self-adhesive label sector in Australia was/is (?) one of the best ''real life'' examples of fierce competition at its most positive and productive best.

- we were all small, lean and mean, and no one firm had a comparative advantage,

- we were virtually ''unregulated'' - the competitor down the road kept us ''honest'' and on our toes; no ACCC or government intervention required here!

- we were fuelled by a constant flow of new products and materials - not to mention new applications,

- we enjoyed a high level of, and were early-adopters of, technology ''trickle-down'' from overseas suppliers and OEMs, to the point where ...

- Australia's self-adhesive industry punched way above its weight in international label competitions.

On that note, may I make one final observation: I don't get the chance to use the word ''symbiotic'' very often, but here goes.
During the 1970s there occurred a rare example of ''industrial symbiosis'' - our local wine industry was looking for ways to differentiate itself from its boring Northern Hemisphere cousins (you know, the black script on matt-white stock variety) - and our burgeoning label sector was flexing its muscles for new markets. Hey presto! There was a massive explosion of creativity like a latter-day Krakatoa, as wine-owners, graphic designers and label companies all collided in a flurry of activity, where everyone was a winner. Graphic designers could create the most garish colours without clients objecting; label companies could entice the designers with ever-more exciting effects such as embellishing, weird die-cutting, etc - and the local wine growers became (in some cases) multi-million dollar exporters!
I'm not sure if this triple-whammy has ever happened before, or since, but one thing is certain: it helped propel the Australian label industry to fame and fortune. Well, fame, anyway.

Certainly the industry has changed - and it's slowly consolidating - and we can feel the hot breath of overseas influence - and profit margins may not be what they used to be - and new notions like augmented-reality and food-security are making their presence felt.
However, we should not lose sight of the fact that we bult a ''model'' industry; an example of the fiercest of competition yet untainted by any scandals or corruption (please, let me know if I'm missing something!)

The local self-adhesive label industry (now freshly merged with its wide-format brothers, under the unpronounceable FPLMA banner) has a lot to be proud of.

On that note - let the games begin!!!


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