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Blend is back

Simon Jones explains how a changing culture means that single estate / single malt / single vineyard / single whatever is no longer the measure of aspiration

Simon Jones Hart+Jones

In the glamorous world of 60s swinging London or Mad Men’s New York there was no question that the finest and most sophisticated products were underpinned by ‘blend’. ‘The’ Scotch was Chivas Regal. James Bond preferred bourbon to whisky, and there was never a mention of ‘malts’. The most desirables wines were the cabernet sauvignon and merlot blends of the great Bordeaux, names like Chateau Lafite Rothschild or Chateau Latour. From expensive teas to exotic perfumes to vintage champagne, it was simply understood that to achieve the very best, it was necessary to balance the properties of each component to achieve a whole that was so much greater than the sum of the parts  - let alone of any individual part

The Master Blender was thus a figure of great status. Blend was part of the language of the expert, even of the magician or alchemist. He (and it was always a he) was a mysterious figure with arcane skills and perhaps extraordinary sensory attributes. Blend was underpinned by a kind of magic

So why did a product story that was both rational  (doesn’t it make sense to mix and balance great quality ingredients?) and emotional (that mysterious alchemist) give way to the focus on the singular?

There is no particular reason why wine from one vineyard is better than from several, or why whisky from one cask or distillery is better than a mix from a number of exceptional ones. One might even think that single estate coffee would be markedly inferior to a blend from a number of estates producing quality beans.

Yet – we came to accept that single was better. Why?

The answer lies in understanding how culture influences the way people view brands and design and how this translates into the signs, symbols and visual cues of branding and packaging. This study of semiotics is embedded into how we work at Hart & Jones. We use semiotics to decode how people interpret brands, and to encode the values we need to communicate. This enables us to create designs that moves away from the subjective to ones that are rooted in cultural truths. All too often designers and clients rely on ‘gut feel’ in place of real insight or understanding in making these visual decisions. Here we need to understand the cultural shifts that have taken place since blends were predominant.

The 80s, the 90s and the 'noughties' were the decades that were ‘all about me’. Thatcher and Reagan ushered in a world where self reliance and the individual ruled and socialism was dead.  Famously, Mrs Thatcher announced that "there is no such thing as society". Individual Masters of the Universe bestrode the Atlantic, rewarded with millions of dollars, their excesses in City wine bars documented with shock and envy. Culture was dominated by the message that singular is better – in work, in life, in product choice. It was culture that made the environment for single malts, not marketing. Marketing and design just divided the winners from the losers.

While the singular was grabbing all the glamour and the glory, the brands talking blend were pedestrian and downmarket – instant coffee, KFC, cider. What chance did the gentle marrying and mixing of the blending process have?

The answer was not a lot - until September 2008. The collapse of Lehman Brothers has ushered in a profound change in the way we view unbound individualism. The Masters of the Universe turned out to be greedy, criminally incompetent and the cause of the greatest recession since the 1930s. The singular has stopped looking quite so perfect or aspirational.

At the same time, we see the rise of the collective once more. Companies like Google or Facebook promote collaborative working with offices of spectacular design (and pay spectacular, banker level salaries – this isn’t about selflessness), co working spaces are springing up in every city, climate change requires collective action,  ‘the 99%’, the sharing economy: all examples of the myriad of small and large changes that are shifting the culture that surrounds us

Of course this cultural change now affects the way we make our product and brand choices. No consumer can articulate this, yet whole categories are on the rise that are about blend: cocktails are back, gin is back, stylish blended whiskies are being launched and succeeding. Single ‘whatevers’ won’t vanish overnight – but as Peter Drucker wrote (in a completely different context) "culture trumps strategy, every time".

Time to pay attention to those blends at the back of the portfolio?

Simon Jones is the managing director and co-founder of branding and design agency Hart & Jones

9 May 2016