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Avril Tooley on the advertising challenges and opportunities for dark spirits brands

Published:  14 October, 2014

From its invention in the 17th century gin has always had a murky reputation. Poor quality grain and low prices led to a virtual epidemic of extreme drunkenness. In fact, the impact was so great that the nickname "Mother's ruin" remains with us today.

Contrast this with today, when boutique style gins are selling 150% more than in previous years, and yet again general consumption is on the increase in the capital, by 13% a year in fact.

So then, how in the space of five short years has gin's status in the spirits rankings grown at such a sharp rate?

Whilst vodka and more recently gin have thrown of the shackles of their historic pasts, dark spirits, in particular whiskey and cognac are struggling to expand their appeal to a wider demographic.

So what can what can dark spirit brands learn from the gin sector?

The need for brand meaning

Dark spirits, in spite of the fact that they have traditionally had an esteemed reputation and clientele, also have a complex range of terminology and almost inaccessible persona.

But ultimately even the most recognisable names in dark spirits are behaving more like products than brands. Although product attributes can contribute to the brand persona, they are certainly not the starting points.

All brands need meaning before they can be remembered and be accessible to the widest possible consumer audience. To understand its meaning, a brand needs to be single-minded and true to its self, whilst communicating clearly what it is and who it is for.

Once imbued with brand meaning that goes above and beyond product specific attributes, the consumer finds it a whole lot easier to recognise, identify with, and buy your brand, in spite of price and, dare I say it, the product itself.

Lack of "eachness"

Although there are a variety of strong brand names in the world of dark spirits, they don't behave like brands because they don't use visual iconography to allow the consumer to shortcut to brand meaning.

We call this 'Eachness', a term first coined by William James to describe the inextricable differences we use to differentiate one idea on something from another. And eachness is an essential component of any brand that aspires to capture the hearts of its target consumer and market share from the competition.

But that's not to say that eachness isn't already dormant in the brand. Here are some of the ways the market leaders within Gin and Vodka reframed innate product attributes to draw out brand eachness in a visually distinctive way to shortcut to brand meaning and to capture their audience in the most effective way:

Breaking up category design conventions

Who says that you have to use the same design and presentation as your competition?

Belvedere vodka red

Belvedere vodkaBelvedere vodkaBelvedere vodka

When long-term BrandOpus client Belvedere Vodka was re-launched by owner LVMH as the first super premium vodka in 2002, they were the first to consider using a tall slim bottle format, with a frosted finish considered controversial, as it didn't allow the consumer to witness the clarity, a common product-led category attribute.

Immediately the brand's launch more than doubled the price the consumer was willing to pay for a bottle of vodka to £32. The moral being, what makes the brand different, often makes the brand.

Rise in appreciation of craft and ingredients

The micro-brewing movement of the late 20th century triggered a renewed appreciation for the crafting that trickled into many other categories of alcohol. Gin in particular lends itself to crafting with the diversity of botanicals available to subtly change the brand's product proposition.

But unquestionably the complex process that dark spirits undergo to arrive at the final product is crafting at its most arduous. And when communicated in a modern and relevant way by the brand, surely this complexity can be used to further attract consumers into the category.

Drawing upon your provenance

The rich history of dark spirits and much of its appeal lies in provenance. And yet location is an attribute put to great effect in both vodka and gin brands. Through graphic elements and product information on pack, many clear spirit brands are differentiated by connotations of their origins.

Use your historical connotations

The first mention of gin being distilled was in 1623, in stark contrast with the first confirmed written record of Whisky in 1405. But that doesn't stop gin using its back story to pave the way forward.

The most recent influx of gin brands in particular have been very savvy about using a sense of days gone by in a quirky way to draw the consumers attention. Note the dark brown apothecary-style bottle of Hendricks's Gin (launched 1999), or Plymouth Gin's roughly hewn, almost hand-blown glass and jovial Black Friar himself peeking out from the corner and offering a dash of memorable idiosyncrasy.

History, fake or genuine, adds an aura of authenticity and authority, but it needs a relevant link to make it accessible and meaningful to the modern day consumer.

So it was with great interest that I noted the launch of Diageo brand Haig Club in July, and how it ticked many of these boxes, through a design that defies category conventions: note the differentiated pack structure, the blue bottle colour inspired by the nosing glasses used by whisky blenders to kill the colour of the drink, even the stopper is inspired by the history of Coffey stills, cylindrical copper stills used by distillers.

Thanks to clear brand meaning, and in spite of its name, Haig Club feels everything but the inaccessible, old boys club that dark spirits were in danger of becoming. Category companions should take note.

* Avril Tooley is client services director and partner at BrandOpus (a strategic design agency specialising in brands)

Belvedere vodka