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What's in a box

Packaging can convey various messages about a whisky, but how we respond to a particular design also says something about us, and the way we see ourselves, write Ian Wisniewski.
By Ian Wisniewski
Whether a bottle of whisky is perceived as appealing and interesting, or not, reflects our own personal sense of aesthetics. For some of us less can be more. But less can also be less, while more can certainly be more. So, while there aren’t any rules or guarantees, packaging plays a strategic role.“For most malts and whisky brands packaging is a key, so making sure it communicates the right values and image is essential. You’ve got to attract attention and convey a message,” says Michael Cockram of Beam Global Wines & Spirits.Highland Park’s Jason Craig adds, “Every aspect of your packaging communicates so you should pay attention to all parts of your packaging, if you get any part of it wrong it sticks out and consumers will notice.” The significance of packaging also depends on the scale of marketing support. Less marketing generally means a brand is more reliant on the packaging. Greater marketing support that includes a mix of mediums, such as TV, radio and public relations, means the packaging doesn’t have to do all the talking.The initial appeal that style and design create is essentially emotional, while also giving a sense of a whisky’s inherent values, which obviously vary from one whisky to another.“The ‘established 1798’ statement is quite overt on Highland Park’s packaging, and touches such as this engender a feeling of being hand-crafted.“We’re inferring that if we take so much care with the packaging it’ll be the same with the contents,” says Jason Craig.Meanwhile, “J&B has one foot in whisky land, but also one foot in a world of partying and fun, we’re not trying to be a conventional whisky. Packaging conveys elements of our bold, colourful and different personality, but also conveys quality and heritage. For example, we have more Royal Warrants than any other brand producing Scotch. These are big quality messages,” says J&B’s Nik Keane.Packaging also gives consumers a clear idea of a whisky’s position within the price hierarchy.“If you took the price away and said to consumers arrange these seven brands in terms of price they could do that, that’s why packaging is very important, you underinvest in packaging at your own peril,” says Jason Craig.So, while packaging conveys various messages, what about indicating the actual flavour profile ?“It’s rare that packaging communicates the style of whisky within. We put a two sentence descriptor on the front label to describe the flavour of the whisky, which is very unusual. It’s also unusual for a whisky label to communicate style through the graphics. We tried to do that with Peat Monster, by showing a big hairy monster on the label,” says John Glaser of Compass Box.Meanwhile, the impression that packaging initially creates also evolves, as learning more about a whisky, and actually tasting it, changes the context in which the packaging is perceived.“As one gets to know a brand everything links up, liquid, packaging and communication, and as a consumer you can make a richer connection with the packaging,” says Nik Keane.Another factor influencing how we perceive a particular example of packaging is how it performs when standing on a bar or retail shelf among other contendors. But with such a broad range of packaging design now being utilised, and innovation continually on-going, is it now harder than ever to stand out from the crowd?“We’re in a period now when there’s much more liberty with Scotch whisky packaging than ever before. The more contemporary packaging there is out there the more consumers are prepared to accept it.Consumers are more accepting of greater individuality and will continue to be so.Does that make it harder to stand out ?No. Great design will stand out,” says John Glaser.While innovative packaging can help establish a whisky’s individuality, there are also certain parameters involved.“You can go contemporary but if you push it too far people won’t realise it’s whisky, and not take the whisky seriously, as whisky is so rooted in heritage. There’s a balance to be struck between being contemporary and approachable, but also conveying luxury quality and a sense of whisky,” says Glaser.Deconstructing design into its component elements, an initial impression is based on ‘structure,’ which includes the size and shape of the bottle.“Structure is a critical element of design, and is where it starts. Structure is critical in how consumers perceive your brand, and it’s under-appreciated,” says Nik Keane.While green is a traditional colour of glass used for Scotch whisky bottles, the broad move towards clear glass offers an obvious insight.”For The Family Casks, our new collection of 43 single casks of Glenfarclas, bottled at natural colour, we developed a new clear glass bottle to highlight the differences in colour between the different casks. We’re celebrating diversity,” says Robert Ransom of Glenfarclas.Label design must also accommodate practical and legal requirements. The front label for example needs to state certain details, such as the alcoholic strength.Meanwhile, information legally required on the back label can vary from country to country, which may entail printing a number of versions.With packaging playing such a crucial role, it needs to be reviewed periodically, as design has a natural life cycle. But how often this needs to be done depends on various factors, including trends in design.“Packaging does have a shelf life, type faces, colourways and graphics come and go in terms of fashionability,” says John Glaser.How long the life-cycle of a particular design may last also reflects what rival brands are up to.“You have to look at what the competition is doing, and deciding who your target market is,” says Michael Cockram.Nik Keane adds, “Though there is no formula that guarantees success, well managed brands usually regularly update the presentation without radical change. A small update every three to five years is typical.” This approach is typically described as ‘evolution rather than revolution.’ Whether consumers conduct a ‘compare and contrast’ exercise between the previous and current incarnation, and notice every amendment hardly matters. What counts is that the new version appears ‘fresher,’ more contemporary and more relevant to its target audience; in which case the desired effect has been achieved.And then of course there are examples of more profound changes, with new packaging heralding a new product range, as introduced by Glenmorangie, for example, last year.“The previous packaging was like an old friend and had been around for many years. We firmly believe our whiskies are very different, even better than before, so having revised the whiskies we felt it was appropriate that the quality of what was in the bottle was reflected in beautiful, elegant new clothing, giving more stand out appeal and to contemporise it, while also using a lot of the old cues. What we were aiming for was style with substance, everything starts off with the quality in the bottle. We’ve been delighted by the response,” says Glenmorangie’s Dr Bill Lumsden.Packaging has reached an ultimate expression with the growing number of limited-edition, deluxe bottlings at significant prices.“This also provides an opportunity for alliances and co-branding, such as The Macallan in Lalique Natural Colour decanter. The Macallan has now released two Lalique decanters, the first in 2005, followed by the second in 2007. So, what brought about this Scottish-French partnership ?“We loved the idiosyncratic way Lalique go about things, their approach to design and the degree of hand craftsmanship that Lalique put into everything they do.“This struck a chord with us, and felt we had a lot in common.“We’re both at a level where one complements the other, that’s been a very successful aspect of this partnership, and gives another angle to our respective stories,” says The Macallan’s David Cox.