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Challenging convention in spirits packaging

If all older men of a certain social class drank whisky, all party girls necked vodka and only the British ever touched gin, then alcohol brands’ work would be done and we could all go home...

Shaun Bowen B&B studio

Of course, nothing could be less true - but until recently, an alien wandering the supermarket aisles would have been forgiven for thinking that’s exactly how the world of drinks worked. Change, in spirits marketing, seemed to be a dirty word.

In fact, it’s sameness that is the dirty word, and brands and the agencies they employ know it. But doing things differently is always problematic: the temptation is just to copy what worked before. That’s why, for years, whisky bottles were mostly amber and masculine in style, with Celtic imagery of stags, crags, and castles. The purity of vodka was showcased by bold, graphic fonts on clear bottles, with the Russian or Polish pedigree made, so to speak, clear. And gin was all bowler hats, the London skyline, the essence of a British gentleman who hadn’t actually been spotted since about 1970.

Breaking the rules

Then things changed. Design agencies started breaking the rules, consumers didn’t turn teetotal due to confusion over what they were supposed to drink, and in fact, the younger market embraced brands that didn’t simply look exactly like every other offering in the same category. This leaves a highly competitive field wide open – so how can brands really take advantage?

Know your market

For a brand design or redesign to have real impact, agency and brand owner must agree on who they’re talking to – and what will make them listen. There’s no point coming up with an edgy design for a whisky brand that really is chasing the grouse-shooting Scottish landowner, after all. Nor is there any point in going so far beyond the accepted category codes that the consumer doesn’t understand what it is you’re trying to say. Everyone wants to stand out – and to kick back against the last thing that worked – but there is a right way to do it. Everyone dreams of designing a classic, something like the Hendricks Gin black bottle, that changes everything. Yet change for its own sake won’t win hearts or sell product.

A match made in heaven

So if, as a design agency, you’re keen to break out and do something different, you need the client who thinks that’s a good idea. We were lucky with BrewDog, which is absolutely committed to doing things differently. Its methods have worked really well for it with beer – it has been the fastest growing food and drink company in the UK for several years now, and it still has the hunger to challenge accepted ideas and make people drink differently - and think differently about what they’re drinking. For LoneWolf, its first venture into the spirits market, BrewDog is putting the focus on purity – and transparency, from start to finish. It chose a name that represents an earlier stage of the dog’s evolution, and it wanted a suitably unevolved design: simple, clear and unpretentious – unbranded branding, in a sense.

So we created an unfussy but memorable brand identity, a wolf’s head distilled down to its purest geometric elements. We kept it simple and raw to celebrate the ‘spirit’ of vodka, gin and whisky and not get carried away with branding. (You’ve got to know the rules to break them – after all, the consumer knows them without even thinking about it.)

It’s always about the story

And that unconscious knowledge is the design agency’s friend. After all, every brand needs to tell a story. That’s the point of difference, no matter what the product – or how many other products are cluttering up the same marketplace. If you can burst through the assumptions that people have around a brand, you’re halfway there. So, with The Duppy Share rum, we wanted to rethink the Caribbean sunshine-and-piracy image that has been purveyed so often that it has stopped being any kind of individual brand story and become just the story of rum.

Usually, rum branding is full of slightly maverick characters – seamonsters, sailors, tattooists, even a bat. Not only is it almost impossible to recreate this in an original way that will make people think, but times have changed, and focussing purely on adventurers and seafarers feels out of date. A Duppy is a character from Caribbean mythology, a kind of zombie or walking undead who is held responsible for criminal acts. So celebrating this creature felt very post-imperialist and we wanted to reflect that, but without losing the Caribbean feel that consumers recognise and associate with rum – after all, it would be pretty self-defeating to wilfully ignore the ‘fun and sun’ aspect of Caribbean rum.

A marriage of opposites

So the challenge was – be simultaneously white and black, sunny and dark, real and mythological… and all in an enticing package. Quite some challenge! We played with dark and light, with a bottle design inspired by travel posters from the 1920s and 1930s, with that lovely romantic feel. The story is deliberately enigmatic, with a silhouetted nighttime figure that could be a Duppy – or a late-night holidaymaker having a tipple on the beach. But part of the label is that same scene in daylight, as a reminder of all the natural beauty that makes the Caribbean such a great holiday destination, and rum that holiday in a bottle.  

Dare to be different

A design and branding agency should not have its own look. They should be fully adaptable to the needs of the client, otherwise there is no way they can think outside the bottle and do something truly mould-breaking. And that’s a waste, because in a really strong spirits market, differentiation is everything. All the major players, including Pernod Ricard, William Grant and Diageo, reported increased annual sales at the end of 2015, and the vibrant cocktail scene continues to be a launchpad for new brands. That’s the good news: but in a thriving category, it’s vital to be different, and that means looking different. In the world of cocktails, spirits are meant to be blended – but spirit brands cannot blend in. Or, as the Caribbean pirates might have put it: no guts, no glory.

20 June 2016