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What it means to be a drinks branding specialist

The boss at Australian agency Denomination explains the journey to her current commanding position in the global drinks branding industry

Rowena Curlewis Denomination

What is your professional background and how did you come to Denomination? 

My first job was as a marketing assistant for Random House book publishers - a great fit for a book lover with a BA in communications. After a couple of years there I set off to the UK, like most Australians in their early 20s. I landed a job with Publicis Dialogue, the marketing and PR side of advertising giant Publicis. It was a 'sink or swim' experience working for David Haigh (now chairman of Brand Finance and non-executive director for Denomination UK). When I returned to Australia, I decided I wanted a more creative role, and design was the industry I chose. 

I joined Landor, and my first client was Penfolds Wines - they're still a client today. I'd long admired the work of Margaret Nolan, as did most people in the Australian design industry, and so when I was headhunted to be client services director of her then business Kirby+Nolan, I didn't hesitate. In 2001 Margaret sold her share of the business, and in 2002, with my new-born in arms, we started our own agency. We were clear about what we did and didn't want: we wanted to specialise in drinks, we wanted a linear rather than hierarchical agency structure with a collective of experts.

What's your 'brand ethos' at Denomination? How does this dictate the kind of clients you work with and the way you approach projects?

There are three tenets of our creative and strategic philosophy: excellence in creative; innovation in thinking; simplicity of messaging.

We want to create the wow factor for our clients; an abundance of choice in design solutions, the uniqueness of our approach and creativity, the reaction of trade to our designs, and ultimately the effect on our clients' bottom lines.

Getting the 'wow' requires a certain culture. We don't stop until we find that gem of a solution. We are curious; inspiration is found in all corners of the globe, and in the strangest of places. but not found in someone else's work. We sweat the small stuff. We ask ourselves: is this the best we can do?

I believe like attracts like, and most of the clients we work with appreciate our culture and philosophy. Fundamentally they enjoy working with us, and we them. We do work that we love, our clients love, and consumers love.

How do you feel that Denomination stands out in the design and branding market?

Being a specialist in the drinks industry has benefitted our clients enormously; we have an in-depth understanding of their category, the emerging trends, the production constraints, the technological innovations, the way consumers behave. Having our three studios in Sydney, London and San Francisco ensures that we're across global changes as well as understanding minute local nuances.

But one of the key reasons we stand out is our originality of thinking - from our strategic brand positionings, to the discovery of lucrative white space for NPDs, to truly unique and distinctive design solutions.

Are there any projects you've worked on at Denomination that you're particularly proud of?

We've created hundreds of brands, so it is tough to select one. However, I am very proud of a brand called Tread Softly, which launched in the summer. This is a new wine for a new generation, an embodiment of the values that many of us hold today - personal wellbeing and health, environmental sensitivity and protection.

The wine is made using certified sustainable agricultural methods, it is naturally lighter in alcohol, it has minimal preservatives, it is vegan-friendly and it has beautiful, delicate aromas and flavours. The packaging design is stunning, with minimal branding on naturally flecked paperstock on the front, and a luscious oil illustration on the back label and capsule.

What trends do you see coming in the near future for branding and packaging design?

Sustainability is gathering more and more momentum and we will see it impact everything we do: from the inks we choose, paperstocks we select, bottle weight we decide on, to recommending to our client what goes into the bottle. We are seeing luxury brands embrace sustainability, such as Ruinart with its paper shell packaging and Johnnie Walker Black with its paper bottle. We believe this is just the beginning.

Covid-19 has impacted everyone in so many ways and one of which is how we approach design. We believe we will be a redefining of what consumers see as "valuable". It has and will continue to reshape definitions of self-actualisation and esteem, shifting perceptions of what is valuable in the luxury category. In this post-materialistic and post-aspirational mindset, brands will need to convey their value in more quiet and emotive ways. This will have a significant impact on the semiotics of branding design.

27 November 2020