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Global Artisan – oxymoron or the future?

Elizabeth Finn, managing director of Cowan London, asks whether the concept of a global artisan is oxymoronic or the future for drinks brands

Elizabeth Finn Cowan London

It seems that nowadays everyone wants to be an artisan. For a long time, the trend was towards big iconic brands, with the brand’s history distilled down to one aspect of its story. This led to strong recognisable logos and symbols, such as Johnnie Walker’s striding man, the Bacardi bat, and Courvoisier’s Napoleon silhouette. And it worked — Johnnie Walker and Bacardi are in the top ten spirit brands in the world.

More recently, however, consumers around the world are increasingly looking for a more crafted, artisanal feel. Even in the fast-growing Asian markets, where the focus is on super-premium and a glamourous aesthetic, it’s increasingly deployed to tell the stories of cask finish or master distiller story.

Whether it is the individuals who have created the new spirit, or the aspects of craft that appeal to consumers, or being based around the corner under the railway arches, consumers are increasingly drawn to artisan drinks’ design and story. For many brands the challenge now is to find new ways to tell that artisanal story.

Long established artisans

For some, like the long-established whiskies, the story has been there for many years. Most malt whiskies have stayed close to their roots, telling their distillery stories on pack, whether that’s with batch numbers, distillers’ signatures, or the distillery story, often with label designs that have barely changed over the years. These are truly artisanal products, where craft and magic are everything, and the desire for malt whiskies has been growing around the world.

Jack Daniels has always stayed true to its 150-year old roots in Tennessee. The Jack Daniel Distillery was officially established in 1866, the very first registered distillery in the US. And its bottle and label design has barely changed, keeping the artisanal hand-drawn simplicity the brand has always had.

Others are discovering the power that lies in their roots. When they started out, many Japanese whiskies borrowed the language and typography of malt whiskies, with age statements and single malt whisky descriptors. As confidence has grown, not only are they producing no age statement whiskies, but newer brands have not adopted the traditional malt whisky cues, assuming, quite rightly, they can be fully Japanese and proud of the whiskies they produce. They have become more artisanal and less Western as the category has grown.

The new artisans

For others, like the new gins and vodkas, the challenge is to find and tell an artisanal story that may not have history but is at least rooted in authenticity. Look at Hendrick’s. Launched in 1999, the brand pioneered the super-premium gin category, with packaging design that was the antithesis of the rest of the category, dominated by Gordon’s, Beefeater and Bombay Sapphire. Its apothecary bottle and beautifully illustrated off-white diamond label and its small batch, handcrafted messaging lends it a strong artisan feel.

We’re seeing this happen in whisky too. Take Monkey Shoulder, a blended malt Scotch whisky, launched in 2005 with a whisky-making brand truth: after turning the barley by hand for many years, malt men often found their arms hanging down a bit like a monkey’s. Its bottle structure and label design take all their category codes from traditional malt whiskies, with the monkeys on pack adding a contemporary twist.

Reconciling artisanal and global

These are all artisanal brands that successfully reach a global audience. Yet this is a path littered with pitfalls. What is artisanal and authentic in one market can have very different connotations elsewhere. In some instances, it can grate badly. For example, tequila when it first appeared in European markets appeared full of Mexican clichés with sombreros and cacti. Many of the brands were local, artisanal products but to European eyes they looked like cheap pastiches.

More recently tequila brands have found their way through this. Jose Cuervo is the best-selling tequila worldwide. All its ingredients have been hand-picked, pruned, slow-baked, pressed, distilled and then aged in oak barrels before bottling, so it is still artisanal despite its size. Its packaging retains a Mexican feel, but uses the recognised language of spirits: medals, crests, signatures and design detailing to reassure on quality and credibility.   

What the premium brands have done beautifully is to keep enough of the artisanal codes — think Patron and Don Julio’s bottle shape and domed cork closure — whilst developing the premium codes, in particular using gold and silver.  

Sake has been through a similar journey. The recently relaunched Akashi-Tai, has been brewed for generations in small batches using traditional methods. It needed to retain this credibility in Japan, whilst engaging new audiences in emerging Western markets. 

Working with our offices in Asia, we immersed ourselves in Japanese culture, to fully understand sake, the significance and importance of Japanese symbolism and iconography, and to gain an understanding of Japanese design codes and nuances. The result was a new design that balances Japanese purity with an iconic and visually powerful aesthetic that will appeal to the Western eye, whilst at the same time retaining unquestioned traditional credibility in the domestic market. 

No passing fad

These brands have been able to reconcile their artisanal roots with perceptions across regions. They have done it firstly by gaining a good understanding of those overseas markets, and secondly by deploying the design skills needed to make it all work on pack.

Clearly it can be done, and it seems likely that more brands will go in this direction. There will always be consumers looking for elegant, contemporary design, whether that is Cîroc vodka, Haig Club whisky or Pinkster gin, but for many brands the best way to connect with their audience will be revisiting their history and story to enrich their packaging design, substituting overt design for craft. As artisan grows in popularity around the globe, and as consumers increasingly look for authenticity and depth, this trend will only develop further.

This is not to say that every brand should focus exclusively on artisanal. Brands should stick to what is relevant and true and avoid disingenuous claims. However, for those that are genuinely artisanal and willing to invest in understanding overseas markets and designing for them, there is a world of opportunity to be explored.

4 December 2018