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SPECIAL REPORT: Sustainability in branding

There is a lot of discussion now about how brands are trying to integrate sustainability into the heart of what they are about, taking on a social purpose and considering the environmental and social impact of every aspect of the product journey. But of course, brands are really neither sustainable nor unsustainable: they are a way of defining and delivering benefits that meet people’s emotional and functional needs. The challenge is that we need to find new, more sustainable ways to meet these needs. Brands have an important role to play in making these new ways aspirational and acceptable. And of course, for alcoholic beverages, packaging itself plays a very significant role in the delivery of the product and the brand.

Over the last few years, focus has grown on reducing the environmental impact of drinks packaging. From light-weighting glass to the use of post-consumer waste paper on wine labels, there have been steps taken to reduce the amount of energy and raw material used to bring product to market. And of course, there are some limitations on what can be achieved, compared to other consumer product areas. For example product concentration, as has been done in detergents or deodorant, might be seen as both technically difficult as well undesirable from the consumer perspective! There have been some interesting challenges to our assumptions about packaging materials, perhaps most notably with the PaperBoy packaging for premium wine, made from recycled card with a plastic liner inside.

Discourse around reducing environmental impact is now moving quickly towards the context of the ‘circular economy’ – the concept of a closed loop system where every material used, whether biological or technical, needs to find its way back into the system. The focus is on re-using or remanufacturing everything, rather than simply reducing the amount that is wasted. This is a long-term view, promoted among other organisations by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. As members of their C100 group of companies, Dragon Rouge is contributing to building understanding of the implications of circular thinking for consumer products – including in areas such as food and drink where the answers may still be far from obvious. From the design and innovation perspective, this presents a real challenge – but also a great opportunity for new thinking about products, packaging and entire business models.

Within the alcoholic drinks sector, this circular thinking puts reuse in the spotlight again. A strategy that has worked in some countries, for products like bottled beer, reuse has been eclipsed by a focus on recycling. Perhaps, if we want to create a truly circular concept we should be thinking more broadly around the whole production, shipping and consumption process. Many beverages are already shipped around the world in bulk. Maybe we should be keeping the ‘bulk’ concept for longer, rather than transferring so much product into bottles?  We could extend current on-trade bulk delivery through kegs and fonts, re-positioning these as delivering a superior drinking experience. Bulk product sales for home use already exist through package formats like bag in box, but for ‘circularity’ the aim has to be to refill or reuse packaging. In the UK, Borough Wines introduced the ‘Straight from the Barrel’ system, where people fill wine from a barrel into a reusable bottle. They believe it encourages trial and repeat purchase, building customer loyalty, and focusing attention on the quality of the wine.

The challenge for brands here is how to create impact and distinction at point of sale, so this approach can work well for retailers, less well for manufacturers. However, circular thinking implies a closer and more continuous relationship with the end user, ensuring that they play their part within the closed system, and this has the potential to deepen relationships and extend loyalty. Both bulk and reuse approaches feel in urgent need of some innovation and inspiration, to position these for an aspirational future, rather than as a quirky alternative.

Packaging has an important role in building sustainable brands through the opportunity it affords to tell an interesting story in an engaging way. As more and more brands make their raw material and whole supply chain approach more sustainable, and as people seek greater transparency about what goes on ‘behind the brand’, packaging is a useful communication channel. Bruichladdich Whisky, for example, present their sustainable raw material and production story as a key support for their brand positioning, and communicate this in a visually and tonally appealing way through packaging.

It is essential, if we are to move towards more sustainable ways of consuming and living, that a more sustainable offer is seen as desirable and appealing rather than a less appealing compromise. Aesthetics and craftsmanship have important roles to play. In a sector where the highest standards of structural and graphic packaging are the norm, is there an obligation to go even further towards adding even higher perceptions of value through beauty and craft? At a time when responsible drinking is at the heart of the corporate responsibility and sustainability strategy of all major alcoholic beverage companies, how can the power of design and aesthetics be harnessed to deliver experiences where people drink less, but enjoy more? This could encompass a wide range of approaches, from the development of highly appealing low or no alcohol drinks, to the presentation of beer in a way that subtly aligns expectations with savouring rather than swigging!

Overall, packaging has a significant role to play in building sustainable brands within the drinks category. This can be functional, in terms of creating new formats and mechanisms that can help facilitate a shift towards some form of closed loop, circular system. It can be as a communication channel, to help brands tell their story in an engaging and appealing way, involving consumers in the broader story about the sustainable sourcing of the ingredients involved. It can be as a way of adding value to the experience, encouraging people to derive the most benefit and pleasure from product use. What is certain is that reducing negative impacts is no longer the whole agenda around sustainability and packaging.

9 December 2014 - Dorothy Mackenzie Dragon Rouge London, Chairman