When it comes to presenting your product to the public, the bottle and packaging you choose needs to express exactly what’s inside. We all know brands and bottles that have become iconic over time: Maker’s Mark, Johnny Walker, Patrón, even the Jack Daniel’s silhouette. But how did those products take shape (literally) in the first place? Spirited spoke with some packaging experts to help you formulate a plan for getting your brand’s message across with finesse.
Start with a story
Incorporating your brand story into the look and feel of your final product is what will truly set you apart. “A great premium spirits package isn’t just an object that exists to serve a functional purpose,” says Scott Jost, VP of innovation and design at Studio One Eleven, the design division of Berlin Packaging, a more than 100-year-old hybrid packaging supplier. “A great package offers a full, immersive branded experience—tactile, physical, sonic, and even emotional. It literally establishes a physical relationship between a brand and its membership.”
When clients come to Jost and his team, they’re immersed in the creative experience from beginning to end. He enumerates three things needed to develop a brand presence. First is understanding the product’s history—how it’s evolved, its characteristics and personality, and how it identifies as different from competitors. “Vodka is a great example,” he says, noting there isn’t a lot of difference between non-flavored variants among consumers. “You’re offering the brand as a membership experience, not just as a way to identify the vodka.
“The second thing you need to do is understand your target consumers,” continues Jost. “Not just their demographics but their psychographic profile. For example, we’ll spend hours—in some cases, days—observing bar patrons. From those observations, we model up archetypes, assigning behavioral attributes based on the brand owner’s segmentations. We then use those archetypes to model behaviors and lifestyles, culminating in a list of characteristics that will appeal to our archetypical consumer. These subtleties help define the person we’re building the brand for and help us model their decision-making processes.
“Third is deciding where the product will be sold. Things you might do to make a bottle stand out in a retail setting can often be in conflict with the qualities that make the same product more friendly to a bartender pulling from a speed rack. It’s important to know your user and to accommodate them. If a bartender hates a beautiful bottle because it’s hard to pour or hold, it will fail. Bartenders can make or break brands, because consumers place a premium on the advice and endorsements of their favorite server,” says Jost.
Reid Oliver, an account manager at Universal Packaging (a leading screen print decorator in the beverage world), agrees. “With up-and-coming brands, a common mistake is too much focus behind the distillery build-out aspect at the expense of design and packaging,” he says. “It’s important to build in time to get the packaging right. Team up with a firm that can help you create a plan to build and execute a brand. There’s so much competition, you don’t want to have to rebrand in a few years.
“In spirits, especially in a retail setting, you don’t generally have the luxury of face-to-face contact with customers like in the wine world,” continues Oliver. “Decisions are made on the shelf, so how do you interest someone when they don’t know a thing about you? Consumers want a good story.”
Find your inspiration
With a solid understanding of a brand’s story, including its target audience and context as to where it will be sold, the next step is getting creative. This typically involves sketches, models, and conversations about the bottle’s look and feel. “When trying to raise the ceiling [for a high-end spirit], the full experiential component is most important,” says Jost. “You must justify the price with more than just taste. The consumer has to see—and believe in—the product before they taste it. As the producer, I must convince you that you’re going to have an amazing experience with my product by telegraphing subliminal cues, both visual and tactile.”
Considerations include the type of material used for decorations, including various weight and colors of paper, but also perhaps using such things as metal, embossing, or foil stamps to stand out. “It can also be as simple as heft and mass,” says Jost. “We can add weight to the base of the bottle, making it three or four times as heavy as would be typical, which can contribute to overall value perception.
“One of our favorite places we go to for no-holds-barred luxury spirits research is the duty-free shop at the Hong Kong airport,” he continues. “Because many of the products there are meant to be giftable flagships, it’s not uncommon to see $10,000 bottles or floor-to-ceiling motorized displays with fiber optic effects. It’s a ‘packaging porn’ gallery we use as our luxury benchmark.”
“If someone has a shape he or she is leaning toward, we can take that and elevate it to a new level,” says David Parker, who focuses on packaging consulting and sales for TricorBraun, one of the larger rigid packaging distributors in the United States. “And think about the closure, too. Don’t put something cheap on top of a premium spirit bottle. Things like crystal stoppers can increase the look and value of a product. A newer method we’ve been using is sandblasting. You can take a basic bottle and sandblast the finish for a special edition to differentiate it from a lower-end product.”
“One of the first questions I ask,” says Oliver, “is about what brands have inspired the client in the past, and what do they want regarding shape, color, and size. Also, do they have a label design in mind or do they want to select the bottle first?” He adds, “Do you want to invest in a style that reflects your region, or do you want to be traditional? With bourbon and whiskey, for example, a paper label has been the industry standard for a long time. But we’re starting to see many more brands move to screen print instead of labels.” There are so many unwritten rules. Then again, rules don’t always need to be followed.
“Focus groups and sharing the product with bartenders both provide good feedback on a final design. Have some prototypes ready to go. It’s some of the most valuable time and money a small producer can spend,” says Oliver.
Look the part
“With few categorical exceptions, the more premium the spirit, the less visual clutter you want to put on the label,” says Jost. “It’s about presence: Have a simple, pure form, a recognizable logo, and quality glass and closure. Be understated, ensure every interaction is consistent with what you’ve been promising and leave the graphic equivalent of small talk to lesser brands.”
Do certain spirits need to be packaged in certain shaped bottles or styles? It depends on the category.
“There are shapes that are driven by category,” says Jost. “Craft whiskey, for example, will often be in a squat, rounded-shouldered bottle with a stubby neck. Some have come to refer to this as the ‘Nordic’ shape. Vodka often has a similar bottle shape, but it’s stretched upward with a longer neck. Each category has its own vernacular—with the most notable exception being tequila. Some of the craziest, most far-out bottles have tequila inside. It’s a category without convention.”
What does and doesn’t work
One of Berlin Packaging’s most recognized bottles is Crystal Head vodka. “When it launched, it made an impact by being unique. It still does,” says Jost. “And we’ve continued to extend that feeling. There’s a Dia de los Muertos version and an Aurora Borealis version that takes the initial idea to the next level.
“We’re also proud of the Jack Daniel’s ‘Sinatra Select’ bottle, which has a super-premium look and feel, including a thicker base. It sells for $200 per bottle.”An example from Universal Packaging is Dry Fly Distilling’s bottles. “The makers are fishermen and women out of Spokane, Wash.,” says Oliver. “They’ve run with that theme because their customer base is also big into fishing. There’s a fish embossed on the bottles, and the screen print decorated label plays off that theme as well.”
Another consideration when it comes to bottle style and shape is to be honest regarding how you can procure that style on a regular basis. “There are challenges in the global market regarding lead time for custom bottles,” says Oliver. “Plan far ahead and find out from the supplier how consistent its lead times will be.
“Out of the gate, custom molds aren’t always an option because of cost considerations,” he adds. “But going that route can give a brand staying power in the market.”
Another client example from Universal is The Walter Collective’s gin and vodka offerings. “The story is a tribute to the founder’s grandfather, with sort of a Mad Men style,” says Oliver. “It’s a beautiful package with a well-thought-out label and a custom glass Vinoseal closure. It’s a prime example of making the right moves early on.”
TricorBraun helped American Born whiskey create its bottles, embossed with “Don’t Tread on Me.”
“Embossing can make a brand seem ‘dressed up’ without breaking the bank,” says Parker. “It’s immediately recognizable.”
Practicality needs to be addressed as well. “Don’t be so different that you limit your options,” says Parker. “Don’t over-design something so it’s hard to get. There’s a reason certain designs work. But if you’re going to sell your product for $19.99, use a stock bottle. Save the premium look for your more expensive offerings.”
Gadgetry and gimmicks aren’t a good idea, either, says Jost: “Ornamentation applied sparingly as an accent is OK, but on premium products, it has to be high quality.”
“Don’t get too crazy,” cautions Oliver. “If you choose a bottle that’s top heavy or too tall, it’s going to require special placement, which isn’t often suitable in either retail or bar settings,” says Oliver. “You need to be realistic about where the bottle will be displayed. And think about details: Will your chosen bottle finish work with a [bartender’s] pour spout?”
Go for the full experience
“In imagining the mechanics of a custom design process, some may picture an artist toiling away to create sketches of beautiful objects,” says Jost. “But that’s only the middle of the process. What really makes or breaks a custom spirits package development project is the entire beginning-to-end process. This includes observations from consumers to gain an understanding of the target brand and its competitors, and the mastery of manufacturing and material processes needed to commercialize the concepts.”
Where you are and where you want to go play huge roles in that end game. “It’s important for brands to think about who they’re marketing to and build the brand for that ultimate goal,” says Oliver. “Appeal to your local region, but if you want to expand further, make sure you’re relevant outside your backyard.”
Parker agrees. “Knowing your audience is of utmost importance. Lots of people want to get into craft spirits, but only about one or two out of 10 succeed enough to make a living.”
Be yourself, stand strong, take smart steps toward executing your dreams, and you’ll be toasting with your biggest fans in no time.