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Preserving brand DNA

A packaging redesign can be a highly successful strategy, but only if it’s based on a sound rationale and a full understanding of a brand’s DNA, warns Giles Calver, planning director, Sedley Place

Giles Calver Sedley Place

No brand has a market to itself - or if they do, they don’t have it for long. Competition is a way of life for all brand managers, with existing players focussed on maintaining or growing market share and new entrants vying for awareness, consideration and purchase. This is especially true in the drinks sector, where competitors abound and consumers are fickle, swayed by everything from fashion and trends, as well as influencers like social media, bar staff and mixologists, and celebrity endorsements (think Sean Coombs’ involvement with Cîroc vodka).

The challenges presented by competitors can put pressure on brand managers to react to new product launches or range extensions, or respond to sales and promotional initiatives, by refreshing their own brands through packaging redesigns. Knee-jerk rationales to pack revamps include perceptions of the existing pack as old fashioned or lacking in on-shelf impact or not communicating the core proposition. Redesigning a brand’s packaging can be a highly successful strategy, as the recipients of a DBA Design Effectiveness Award can testify, but only if it’s based on a sound rationale and a full understanding of a brand’s DNA.

Brands have core attributes, which consumers associate with them and, in the case of drinks, these attributes usually relate to taste and serve; think of Guinness and Pimm’s. Brands also have visual attributes, variously described using terms like DNA, brand assets or core visual identifiers. These attributes have significance for consumers in helping them identify a brand and, in prompting a certain set of associations - some rational and some emotional. The value of these attributes is considerable, as evidenced by the rigour of their application and the time and money invested in protecting them from misappropriation and misuse.

Visual identifiers include:

  • Bottle shape - think Hendricks Gin or Tanqueray 10
  • Cap shape or format - Grolsch beer or Disaronno
  • Colour - Harveys Bristol Cream or Bombay Sapphire
  • Icon - think Captain Morgan or Bacardi
  • Label shape - think Chivas Regal or Smirnoff
  • Label topography - Absolut or Smokehead Whisky
  • Logotype design and colour - J&B or Budweiser
  • Bottle decoration - think Baileys or Ciroc

For some brands, a single attribute carries the most significance, for others it’s a combination of attributes. Their importance can best be appreciated when they are replaced or diluted, prompting a negative consumer response. Coca-Cola’s infamous, and subsequently aborted, introduction of New Coke is widely ascribed to the fact that it failed to understand the American nation’s sentimental attachment to the ‘classic’ Coke taste.

Asset refreshment
There are good reasons to review and develop existing visual assets. Take Johnnie Walker Blue Label, which broke new ground at launch in 1992, leading the way in establishing the ultra-premium whisky category. By 2006, it was looking tired and old-fashioned, with research showing the brand’s packaging no longer conveyed the right luxury cues. In addition, its status as the category leader was being challenged by competition from other ultra-premium brands, as well as premium spirits like cognac.

Diageo briefed Sedley Place to retain the brand’s core DNA, while adding new features to deliver the all-important luxury cues and cement the brand’s No. 1 position in the ultra-premium category. The challenge with Johnnie Walker was to develop the square bottle, a key attribute of the brand, without losing the equity that had been built up over many decades. Research showed the existing bottle was not conveying the right quality cues, especially in comparison to the competition, and this reinforced the decision to focus on this aspect.

Sedley Place’s solution was to retain brand equity but design a completely new bottle. Featuring a heavy glass base and thick glass walls, the new bottle suspends the whisky, in a manner reminiscent of high-end perfume bottles. The attractiveness of the new bottle to consumers can be measured in sales, with the brand hitting 62% net sales growth over first two years after its re-launch.

Similarly, Purple Design was briefed by William Grant & Sons to review assets for its Glenfiddich brand, refine them and create a holistic brand world which would maintain its market-leading position and ensure consistency in the way the brand is presented across manifest media. This work ultimately encompassed every aspect of the brand’s visual identity and brand components, but in particular involved developing one of Glenfiddich’s most iconic attributes - its stag’s head.

The new stag’s head maintains the essential shape of this core asset but develops it in two ways. The stag’s antlers have been increased from eight to 12, investing the beast with more stature and regalness, as befits the ‘Monarch of the Glen’. And the style of illustration has been simplified to make it work more effectively as an icon which can be applied in many different ways. This process has also involved slightly tilting the stag’s head upwards to give it more poise, not to mention hauteur.

Asset origination
There are times when new visual assets need to be created, particularly when existing assets are just not working to position and differentiate a brand. Cue Glenlivet. The brand is the single malt whisky that started it all, in 1824, and is now the second-biggest malt in the world. For the past 50 years the brand has featured a thistle but this device, while synonymous with Scotland, is also a cliché and not a unique device, which can be owned by the brand.

Agency Someone was tasked by Pernod Ricard to create a new asset. ‘Glenlivet' literally means ‘the valley of the smooth-flowing one’ and refers to the River Livet, the water source for the drink which flows through the distillery estate. During its research, the agency identified an old smuggler’s packhorse bridge, which has stood for hundreds of years in the grounds of the Glenlivet Estate. Working with long-time collaborator and master craftsman Christopher Wormell, Someone created a new visual asset that captures an individual sense of place and provides Glenlivet’s brand managers with a new signifier, which will accrue value over time.

Clean slate
Understanding the value of brand assets also informs the approaches of agencies tasked with creating new brands from scratch. Knowing how they work and what consumers identify as assets informs their approach to the task. The Singleton, designed by Sedley Place, is a good example of the creation of core assets that have gone onto define the brand: in particular a device, logotype and bottle shape. The leaping fish-gate device has a large resonance with certain international markets, particularly the Far East, where it is seen as a symbol of good luck, while the bottle shape not only works as a powerful on-shelf presence (with a wide profile) but as a key identifier for the brand, in a world where ‘standard’ round-shouldered whisky bottles abound.

17 May 2015