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SPECIAL REPORT: Vodka packaging design

The results of a first packaging design audit by global marketing company Affinnova have revealed some surprising truths about how consumers view the 12 top vodka brands in the US.

The company created a technology-driven exercise to examine the personality characteristics and on-shelf effectiveness of the packaging design of each brand, as seen through the eyes of the consumer.

The study illustrates the importance of package design, specifically in the vodka industry. The results showed that up and coming brands Belvedere and Pinnacle are leveraging bold and unique package designs to gain market share, while attracting more consumer attention than older brands Smirnoff and Stolichnaya.

"Design remains one of the most underleveraged assets a company has in launching and maintaining a successful brand,” says Waleed Al-Atraqchi, president and CEO of Affinnova. “As advertising becomes increasingly fragmented and has less impact on consumers, packaging must work harder to build brand equity and drive purchases. Advanced marketers need to monitor how package design is impacting shelf presence and consumer perception and respond accordingly, much in the same way they actively measure and adjust other aspects of their marketing performance.”

On-shelf competition has never been higher, with consumers having more options and variations of products to choose from than ever before. What that has meant to marketers is that the package design of physical products is extraordinarily important. More than 50% of purchase decisions are made at shelf for the majority of products, according to recent data.

Regardless of the strength of a brand, a physical package must convey the appropriate messages, reasons to believe and entice a purchase. Brands must focus on the design of their package as much as the target audience, pricing and production costs if they want to achieve significant retail results.

Vodka, as a product category, is inherently interesting. As the leading growth driver in the distilled spirits market there have been consistent innovations in the vodka category with different flavours and mixes. However, traditional unflavoured vodka remains the pillar of the spirits industry, which means brands must be incredibly effective in their marketing, advertising and package design efforts.

Numerous studies have shown that consumers become attached to a vodka brand due to marketing and advertising, rather than the quality of the actual drink. Standing out on shelf and having a bottle that effectively communicates the brand’s attributes more often than not drives purchase behaviour. It’s also been established that consumers become more attached and loyal to a specific brand over time based on brand perception and ‘status’. Blind taste tests have revealed that even self-proclaimed brand advocates routinely pick different vodkas as their favourite.

Competition is intense

More than a dozen international vodka brands are in the market, all vying for a piece of the US$5.5 billion pie. Well-established brands, such as Absolut, Smirnoff and Grey Goose, lead the way, but brands like Skyy have overtaken previous industry leaders including Stolichnaya. While Smirnoff is still the category leader, more than doubling the next closest competitor in terms of volume, high growth brands like Ciroc (47% growth in 2013) continue to grab market share. Even single digit gains in terms of growth can mean huge profits for ownership entities like Diageo and Barcardi.

Diverse pack designs

In vodka, the design and appeal of the bottle is just as important as the product that resides within. Brands have been painstakingly careful in measuring what should and shouldn’t be part of a bottle design. Some have chosen to try to stand out and grab attention, while others have remained true to traditional roots and existing brand perceptions. One thing is certain; vodka bottles are incredibly interesting from a design perspective

Design audit methodology

Affinnova has measured the effectiveness of vodka packaging design on shelf. The Vodka Brand Audit was conducted in February of 2013 and included 500 nationally representative vodka drinkers in the US, who were asked to evaluate the top 12 brands of vodka currently on the market. These vodkas included Smirnoff, Absolut, Ketel One, Skyy (limited run bottle), Tito’s, Belvedere, Stolichnaya, Svedka, Grey Goose, Ciroc, Pinnacle and New Amsterdam.

Participants were self-identified vodka drinkers that had consumed at least one vodka drink in the past month. Furthermore, 98% of respondents indicated they typically drank vodka at least once a month or more.

A mix of internal collaboration as well as collaboration with existing clients determined the key personality traits within the vodka category, which included: Sophisticated, Traditional, Celebratory, Sexy, Intelligent, Friendly, Approachable, Fun, Trusted, Modern, Genuine,


For this study, half of the consumers were only asked personality questions about brand names while the other half were only asked personality questions about the designs. Consumers were put through an eye tracking test, followed by a word association exercise, then asked to click and comment on the specific areas of the package design they liked and disliked, in order to provide qualitative feedback.

The feedback technology took various measurements both qualitatively and quantitatively, of aspects including shelf impact, brand personality profiles and effective package design elements. And because consumers were shown the package designs in a virtual shelf environment, they were viewed in a competitive context

High performers/underperformers

• Absolut, Smirnoff, Stolichnaya and Svedka have bottles that under-perform across several personality metrics vs. their brand equity alone.

• Belvedere, Ciroc, New Amsterdam, Pinnacle and SKYY have bottles which convey stronger personality metrics than their brand alone.

• Kettle One is showing potential packaging weakness, with average personality traits and open-ended comments indicating “old.”

• Absolut, Pinnacle and Svedka do the best at attracting consumer’s attention on shelf.

• Pinnacle and Svedka capitalize on that attention by disproportionately holding it, whereas Absolut does not.

• Tito’s has the weakest personality of the tested bottles and brands.

Up and coming brands

• Belvedere’s package significantly helped the brand personality by boosting all traits except Traditional. Significant positive effects occurred with Intelligent, Approachable and Modern.

• Skyy’s limited run bottle design improved brand perceptions in a number of personality traits, including Celebratory, Sexy, and Fun. These are key personality traits for the 18-35 consumer demographic.

Broader  graphic design traits/commonalities

• ‘Imported’ continues to be an important graphic treatment, with consumers responding positively to the country of origin.

• Consumers are drawn consistently to the centre of the bottle, with some brands taking full advantage with impactful graphics, logos and text. Others are falling short and not taking full advantage of that critical space.

Package design personality data

• Absolut scored higher in Genuine, Friendly and Approachable with their bottle design with men than it did with women.

• Among women, Skyy and Ciroc were seen as far and away the Sexiest bottles.

• Among 21-34 year olds, Stoli’s bottle is seen as much less Modern compared to perceptions with the 35 plus group

How the Top three stacked up

Grey Goose’s bottle design performed above the average for Visibility (consumers looking at the package in the first 4 seconds) slightly, with a 7% boost over the indexed average, and outperformed at holding attention, with a 9% boost in Share of Attention score over the indexed average.

Absolut’s bottle design performed well on shelf, scoring above the indexed average, but is pulling down the brand in a number of key personality traits, particularly Sexy

While women associate the Smirnoff brand with Sexy, men do not. Smirnoff is viewed as vastly different, as a brand, between younger and older vodka drinkers. Younger drinkers see the brand as Modern, Celebratory and Fun. Smirnoff’s bottle design evokes largely positive associations, with a strong orientation around being Traditional and classic.

Branding is a crucial managerial task and consequently a major dimension of marketing theory and practice. Two important aspects of branding are: (1) brands have personalities or human-like characteristics that distinguish them from each other, and these personalities are important to consumers; (2) consumers become ‘engaged’ with brands, meaning that they feel special emotional and symbolic connections with certain brands.

Knowing that brand personality is crucial in establishing credibility and equity with target consumers, Affinnova chose 11 important personality traits most commonly associated with the vodka category, then worked to establish the brands that had a corresponding package design that lead the way within each trait.


Absolut, Grey Goose, Skyy and Smirnoff took the top spot in two categories or more. Meanwhile, Ketel One lagged behind in all but Traditional, while Tito’s couldn’t get higher than ninth for any brand attribute.

Some interesting package perceptions also emerged on a demographic level, with men and women, as well as younger and older groups having different views of each bottle design. For example, women viewed Stolichnaya and Tito’s as nearly equal in terms of Sophisticated as a personality descriptor.

Meanwhile, Absolut’s bottle performed better in Celebratory, Intelligent, Genuine, Trusted, Fun, Friendly and Approachable among the 35 plus group than it did with the 21-34 year old  group.

Finally, the 21-34 year old  group found the Smirnoff bottle  to be Fun, Friendly and Approachable. By comparison, the 35+ group found Absolut’s bottle design to be Fun, Friendly and Approachable

After measuring overall personality of package design, we then compared these results against consumers’ perception of the brand. This shows potential areas of erosion, where the package design is actually weighing down consumers perception of  the brand in the market. It also reveals areas where the package design is helping to lift the brand.

Not surprisingly, there is often a very wide gap between existing brand perceptions on the whole and perceptions of the package on shelf. A wide gap often indicates the need for a package re-design, to better align with existing brand personality traits.

Design vs. Brand Personality winner

Belvedere’s bottle design is elevating its  brand in nearly every personality category, but most notably Intelligent, Approachable and Modern.

• It’s clear Belvedere has an opportunity to capitalize on these package perceptions via  advertising and marketing campaigns that reinforce them.

•  Belvedere finished first in package personality for Intelligent.

• Respondents had an overwhelmingly positive reaction to the image of the mansion, commenting that it was stately, regal and classy.

• Belvedere does not stand out well  but overcompensates by holding the attention of those who take notice

A critical indicator of a successful package design is its ability to quickly grab consumers attention on shelf and hold that attention for a long period of time. As a part of the audit, we measured this impact for each of the brands we tested.

Participants were taken through a benchmarking exercise using Affinnova’s patented survey methodology with eye-tracking technology, which assesses the inherent ability of a package design to be noticed within the context of competition, free of distorting biases Affinnova can measure:

Visibility: % of consumers looking at a package in the first 4 seconds

Share of Attention: % of time the average consumer spends on each package in the first 4 seconds.

Shelf Impact Losers

• Smirnoff was below the average for both Visibility and Share of Attention. It is currently the world’s No.  1 selling vodka and last went through well-publicized bottle redesign in 2003.

• Ciroc, despite scoring well  in a number of key personality traits, fell well  short of the competition on shelf.

The bottle tied for last in Visibility and second to last for Share of Attention.

• Despite having a relatively good Visibility score, Smirnoff was the least effective at holding attention at 25% below the average.

• Tito’s did not score well  in either Visibility or Share of Attention, falling more than 10 points below the average in both.

As part of the audit, Affinnova engaged consumers to provide free form commentary about their likes and dislikes of the package designs they reviewed. This exercise is useful in revealing design elements that are viewed positively and negatively, to help shape a potential new design.

Click and Comment diagnostics also analyze performance results to inform design refinements that can be made to existing packaging, in order to more closely reflect the current brand perceptions. Consumers click design elements they like most and least, with each click prompting the consumer to elaborate with free form feedback. The technology then detects zones of interest and analytic summaries, where verbatim feedback is collected and available through an interactive viewer

How consumers viewed the Big 3 bottle designs

Absolut: the logo is seen as overwhelmingly positive in terms of text, colour and message (zone A); the handwritten history is the most polarizing aspect of the bottle; it’s viewed as equally positive and negative by consumers. (zone B); and many liked the fact that the product is imported (zone C).

Smirnoff: overall, the pack is well  liked with limited and diverse negative response; consumers like the red colour, think it’s classy and stands out; they frequently note liking the triple distilled claim (zone A); and the logo near the cap is seen as a positive (zone D) and stands out.

Grey Goose: the bottle communicated its French origin and good reputation; the landscape in the centre (zone A) is viewed positively, with many liking the scene and imagery; and although the Imported from France’ message (zone B) received some negative feedback, overall it was viewed positively.


Newer brands are winning on shelf

With unique bottle designs, including bold elements and colors, younger brands like Svedka and Pinnacle are most effective at grabbing and holding consumer attention on shelf, dramatically outperforming the industry average. By contrast Smirnoff and Stolichnaya – brands with decades of brand equity – are more likely to be overlooked by consumers on shelf.
Stale packaging can lead to brand erosion

A poorly perceived package can quickly undermine the millions spent on advertising to build a unique brand personality. While consumers perceive Absolut’s brand as “sexy, sophisticated and modern,” the current bottle design actually erodes its brand equity in these areas. By contrast, Belvedere’s bottle design elevates its brand equity significantly in all but one of 11 key vodka personality traits.
Gen X’ers and Boomers don’t see eye-to-eye with Millennials

To maintain competitive share, vodka brands must consider changing demographics and adjust accordingly. As an example, Absolut’s bottle design is succeeding in positioning the brand as “fun, friendly and approachable” among consumers 35 and older. However, it’s less effective with 21-34 millennial drinkers, who perceive Smirnoff as leading in those categories. It appears Absolut is well positioned for growth with older drinkers, while Smirnoff is attracting a younger base.
“While established brands are spending millions on marketing and advertising, more nimble competitors are using innovative packaging to quickly grab market share,” said Blake Howard, vice president of design solutions at Affinnova. “Our audit shows that established vodka brands should seize the opportunity to refine their packaging to counter new competitors in this high-growth, competitive category. They can no longer rely solely on their marketing mix or even existing brand equity to do all the heavy lifting.”

5 September 2013 - Felicity Murray The Drinks Report, editor