Photo: O-I’s Covet Classics bottle designs
As far as beverage alcohol categories go, the one that can boast the most consistent growth is spirits. Flavored varieties, and more recently the emergence of an artisanal movement, have been having extraordinary impact on the category. This impact can be seen in sales trends: Super premium spirits volume was up 6.3 percent and high-end was up 7.2 percent in 2013. And craft distilling volume has grown an average of 30-35 percent annually over the past few years, according to the Distilled Spirits Council.
As the number of flavored and artisanal spirits continues to expand, marketers have turned to the package as a way to get noticed. “We are witnessing the emergence of truly revolutionary visual languages that are bringing new energy, excitement and impact—breaking established norms—to set radically new and different premium standards,” says Tess Wicksteed, executive vice president at design agency Pearlfisher NY.
Wiksteed points to two recent examples: J&B Rare Scotch Whisky Limited Tattooed Edition bottle celebrates the origins of the whisky born in London in the second part of the 19th Century, the same period when tattoos started to spread across London. The second, 7 Sirens Rum from Trinidad, which she says: “Rejects aged styling or a pirate approach in favor of a sleek and sexy approach to position alongside vodka brands in bars and clubs. For many brands, premiumization has become an increasingly complex issue now that there are so many different expressions of it: right across the spectrum from authenticity to limited editions to designer collaboration. But where the premiumization landscape radically changes and opens up a new opportunity for the spirits category to once again take top-shelf leadership is through a new—and marked—disruption of category. “
She continues, “Standout in spirits is still the same as it ever was—the trick is to create a message in a bottle—make people intrigued about what’s inside. In a rule based category like spirits there are so many disruptive ways design can suggest a story. My favorite recent examples all get the roles of the different bits of the marketing mix right: Simple iconic bottle design with layers of story revealed elsewhere.” An example she points to is Hendrick’s Gin: “Standout design,” she says, “that broke gin rules and took them to another level with its black but botanical bottle, then layers of eccentric storytelling to back it up.”
With the number of flavored spirits having rapidly proliferated over the past several years, the challenge is to not be another me-too. Seth Benhaim, CEO of Infuse Vodka, says choosing the right package for his brand therefore took on tremendous importance.
“I would never enter the liquor business, especially the vodka and especially the flavored vodka business just for fun or as a hobby,” he says. “I was drawn to the industry because I knew that I had something to offer that would stand out. My bottle had to be immediately distinguishable from every single other brand at first glance, and it is. One of the main reasons we even thought the brand was worth pursuing was because I knew I could show the customer why they might pay more for a bottle of Infuse Vodka than a mega-brand like Grey Goose. By opening the viewing area with our art, we could show the fruit inside our bottle, using the contents inside as a design element, not just a flavoring element. The challenge then became making the fruit look good, too.”
Benhaim’s philosophy is ‘packaging should represent purpose.’ “What I mean by this,” he says, “is that a spirit’s bottle—its shape, label, cork, print, etc.—must indicate the reason it belongs on the shelf. Packaging should speak to the characteristics of the product inside the bottle. Fonts can reflect flavors; bold fonts for robust tastes, and skinnier fonts for softer spirits. Skinny bottle necks for delicate sipping spirits, or elaborate corks for aged masterpieces so a customer is reminded of quality each time they open that bottle.”
As the category continues to show strong growth, packaging suppliers have innovated. Owens-Illinois offers its aptly named Covet Line, its specialty line of super premium glass bottles. “It’s very clear, very premium,” says Shawn Welch, VP of sales and marketing. “You can see the quality of the liquid that’s inside the package. What we’ve seen in the industry is the need to reflect the quality and purity of the spirits themselves as well as convey a unique, compelling brand identity.”
Montreal-based Phoenix Packaging has observed the desire of newcomers on the scene to both resemble the already-established distillers—to in a sense, fit in—while also somehow stand out from the rest of the pack. “I always tell people everyone has their own story, everyone has their own little thing that makes them different from everybody else, whether it’s an ingredient or a family recipe or something like that,” says Greg Illson, VP of operations. “And often the packaging really helps convey a large part of that. If you are putting something unique into the bottle, why not make sure that you’re also being unique on the outside with your bottle?”
And let’s not forget the ever-important badge for any package—the label. Rick Harris, market development specialist for the Spencer, Mass.-based Flexcon, says the clear label look has helped countless spirits marketers achieve the clean, upscale look that has helped grow the category. “The label on a bottle of vodka is the billboard,” he says. “That is the brand image. That’s what’s selling it.”