During one of the worst years on the books for most of the hospitality industry, the spirits category did quite well, all things considered. In 2020, spirits sales rose 1.3 points to represent 39.1% of the total beverage alcohol market, gaining share from both wine and beer, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. (Each point represents $800 million, meaning that measly-sounding 1.3 points represented more than $1 billion in sales.) This marks the 11th straight year of spirits growth.
The success of spirits even in a year when bars were largely closed can be pegged primarily to legislation allowing cocktails to-go in 22 states, curbside pickup and delivery options expanded across the country and the loosening of direct-to-consumer shipments of spirits, says Cassandra Rosen, the co-founder and president of the alcohol marketing agency FK Interactive. But the long-term continued expansion of the spirits category can be attributed to the canny approach of producers who are particularly adept at tapping into the zeitgeist.
The competition between brands for shelf space and attention is fierce and getting fiercer. In 2005, there were just 57 craft distilleries in the U.S. In 2020, that number climbed to 2,265, according to the American Craft Spirits Association, representing an 11% increase year-over-year.
Studying successful brands shows how a mixture of common sense, market research and armchair psychology create a delicious result that spirits lovers may find irresistable. “We all consume and buy things,” says Rosen. “We just don’t enjoy being ‘sold’ to. Solid and successful branding explains what a product is, who it’s being created for and why someone should choose brand A over brand B or pay a premium price. If this message is effectively communicated at the shelf and then supported with the right brand strategy, consumers will understand the appeal of a product and will hopefully be willing to take a chance on something new and different.”
Of course all of this communication has to happen without saying a word. So what sets a particular brand aside from its cohorts has as much to do, it seems, with what appears on the outside of the bottle as with what resides within.
Telling the story of a brand through the label may become essential amid an escalating demand for limits on the ability of alcoholic brands to advertise. The impact, Brand Finance estimates, could be as much as $267 billion for the top nine brands (including AB InBev, Diageo and Pernod Ricard) alone. Strategic communication, both subtle and overt, through labels may become the best and only way for brands to reach some new customers. This is how some have made it happen.
1. Establish a Visual Identity
A brand’s identity has to be instantly clear, ideally from several feet away. “The 20-10-5 principle refers to how a bottle or package is visually seen from 20 feet away on the shelf, at 10 feet and so on,” says Rosen. “At 20 feet away, a bottle or label’s color and shape need to stand out, so that at a minimum you understand what it is.”
For marketing guru turned distillery owner Umberto Luchini, this concept is deeply familiar and as instrumental to a brand’s success as the quality of the liquid inside. “My goal has always been to get people to pick up the bottle I’m selling,” says Luchini, the founder and proprietor of Wolf Spirit Distillery in Eugene, Oregon. “Spirits consumers, unlike wine consumers, are much more likely to buy a bottle once it’s in their hands. It’s part of the culture of wine to pick up labels, read the back and return them to the shelf. But if you pick up a bottle of my vodka, chances are you’re buying it.”
Luchini spent 15 years at Campari, where he worked on several major and minor redesigns, giving him insight into how to fix the images of both legendary brands and startups. “You can’t overhaul a brand like Campari with a huge presence in a market, because you’ll confuse your customers,” he says. “The opportunity for completely changing a label happens near the launch or when brands are still relatively small or regional.”
Based primarily on a label overhaul, Luchini helped turn Espolòn, a tequila brand in Campari’s portfolio, into a juggernaut that sells 800,000 cases a year in the U.S. “There were several problems with the messaging, starting with the name, which isn’t easy for English speakers to pronounce,” he says. “So I put it in all caps and made it easy to read. Then I told the story of the Day of the Dead and Mexican Independence in very simple but contemporary ways through pictures on the label. Before that, it was selling 1,000 cases in the U.S.”
In 2017, he left Campari to launch his own brands at Wolf Spirit Distillery and used those principles to launch Blood Sweat Tears Vodka, which has doubled its growth every year and is on target to sell 20,000 to 25,000 cases in 2021.
Other brands don’t need a complete overhaul as much as they need a retooling to get the next level. It’s an important distinction, especially for regionally focused producers with loyal followings.
Daniel Spivey, the head of brand development at Broad Branch Distillery in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, says that as a small craft distillery with a strong following, it was cautious about rebranding but knew that its bottles were “outmoded,” he says. “The bottles themselves didn’t reflect what we do.” The change was also a matter of backbar logistics. “Our old bottles were very clean, tall, wide and thin Philadelphia-style bottles. It was becoming a branding issue on bars and even in retail spaces where the wide bottles took up so much room they were turned to the side, so no one could tell what was inside.”
Broad Branch was launched in 2015. In January 2021, the distillery introduced a tall, slim bottle for its aged premium line and a squatter bottle for the main line. “They can’t be turned on their sides, which is key,” says Spivey. “But we also became more transparent about our production process because consumers are much more sophisticated now and want to know what’s in the mash bill and how long the barrel-aging process is.” Since rolling out the new bottle line, Broad Branch’s sales have increased 25%.
2. Appeal to a Specific Type of Customer
Everything from the font and the colors to the images and even the choice to use capital and lowercase letters sends subtle messages to the consumer. “If you’re selling a luxury product, typography and capitalization are of high importance, especially off-premise,” says Rosen. “Premium and superpremium brands frequently opt for all capital letters in their wordmark or logo. At five feet away, bottles should have a distinct purpose that directly connects with the ideal customer. Ocean Vodka is a good example of both a unique shape and visual that supports the product. Colored glass is a risk, but the aqua blue speaks to their brand values of caring for the earth, and the round shape is a nod to a drop of water.”
For some brands in tricky categories, creating a label that speaks to customers they want is especially fraught. “Hard seltzer has become a meme in and of itself,” says Matt McCormick, a multimedia artist and the co-founder of Tolago Hard Seltzer. “There are so many puns around the culture of seltzer consumption. Our goal was to communicate how the product can be a classic craft beverage, a high-quality drink that can be savored.”
McCormick worked with Tolago CEO and co-founder Nicholas Greeninger to create a look that reflected what was inside: an artful, ethically sourced product in sustainable packaging, created by and for creative eco-conscious consumers, he says. In addition to a classic Americana vibe, a hand-drawn horse and hand-lettered words, the cans prominently advertise the product’s (relative) diet-friendliness: gluten-free, one gram of sugar, two carbs, nothing artificial, made with agave nectar.
While launching during a global pandemic in October 2020 is no founder’s dream, the packaging has clearly struck a chord with buyers. “We were hoping to focus more on on-premise as a nigh premium seltzer product, so the timing was rough,” says Greeninger. “But as the world opens back up, we’re seeing amazing growth. In the past 90 days, we’ve grown 130% month-over-month, and we just cleared more than 1,000 accounts in California.”
The brand’s biggest sellers have been the “bougie high-end spa water” seltzers, such as Cherry Rose and Ginger Pear. “We’re skewing way older, according to the retailers we’ve spoken with, and we’re psyched,” says Greeninger. “We’re appealing to people who read the backs of labels, people in their 30s who may have been too embarrassed to try a mainstream seltzer.”
Other brands, such as Kinky Beverages, opt to shelve subtlety in favor of just simply going for it. (For starters, “Kinky … So good, it’s naughty” is the brand’s motto.)
“Package design is often the only opportunity to quickly tell customers everything they need to know about the brand,” says Joanne Campo, the creative director of Prestige Beverage Group, which helped spearhead the redesign of Kinky.
Kinky was launched in 2011 as Kinky Pink liqueur, a superpremium vodka distilled five times, with a fusion of fruit flavors. The brand grew to include other flavors and ready-to-drink cocktails. “But by 2018, the design had become repetitious and dated,” says Campo. “We recognized that Kinky could become a badge brand for trend-seeking socially influenced consumers.”
Kinky moved to a proprietary bottle with a “proud feminine silhouette that makes a statement and leaned into the color strategy as a way of reflecting the fun nature of our products,” says Campo. “The graphic polka dot pattern was just the right touch of timeless, playful style, creating a billboard effect on the shelf with stopping power.” Since the redesign, Kinky has been elevated to the top-10 list of cordials three years in a row and the No. 6 premium-plus liqueur brand three years in a row, according to Impact Databank.
3. Convey Your Brand’s Story and Values
On a subconscious level, brands can reach consumers seeking authenticity, fun or healthier choices through a few carefully chosen fonts, photos or phrases. But consumers also, quite consciously, want to make purchasing decisions based on their values. Seventy-one percent of consumers prefer to buy from brands whose values they share, according to a 2020 Consumer Culture Report from 5W Public Relations that assesses consumer spending culture.
For Rochester’s Black Button Distilling, that means clearly sharing the brand’s grain-to-glass DNA with consumers. “At least 90% of everything in and on the bottle is produced in-state, including many of our botanicals,” says Lauralee Vegvari, Black Button’s brand designer. “I joined Black Button five years ago, and since then, I’ve advocated for clearly communicating that and simplifying the label.”
One of Black Button’s investors is the conglomerate Constellation Brands, which allows the distillery to utilize Constellation’s vast market research resources. “Before implementing anything, we did focus groups with Constellation and did our own research through Facebook seminars,” says Vegvari. It landed on colorful trimmed-down labels for its spirits, including gin, bourbon, bourbon cream and bourbon whiskey, with all-cap “premium-style” lettering with verbiage that also focuses on their community-focused grain-to-glass credos.
Black Button also recently dove into the RTD market with a Can Bee cocktail made with its gin, lemon juice and local honey, aimed at a younger consumer who wants transportable drinks that reflect their principles. “A portion of every sale will go to the Xerces Society, which manages the largest pollinator conservation program in the world,” says Vegvari. “The entire ethos of Black Button is based on making delicious things that support our community and help the world, and we’re finding that this really resonates with consumers.”
Wolf Spirits’ Luchini, meanwhile, brought Durango, Mexico’s Bosscal Mezcal under his brand’s umbrella when he tasted the spirit and sensed its promise but knew it needed a complete branding overhaul to resonate in the U.S. market. “The product is incredible,” says Luchini. “It’s made by a fourth-generation mezcalero named Uriel Simental Enriquez. He hand-selects mountain-grown durangensis agaves, and the distiller cooks the agave in traditional ovens lined with volcanic rocks. They were selling 200 cases a year, and I knew that if we changed the color of the glass and label and communicated the story through the label, it would resonate. We added the phrase ‘Mountain to Market’ and shared a simplified version of the epic legend of mezcal,” which involves a mythological agave spirit, a renegade rabbit and the deity Mayahuel.
In just one month, since launching in May 2021, the brand sold 2,500 cases and landed in Total Wines and Whole Foods. “It was purely packaging,” says Luchini. “Nothing about the product itself changed.”