Premiumisation and conveying craft values remain key drivers within spirits packaging, but sustainability is moving up the agenda. Joe Bates reports
There is growing public, industry and government pressure in many markets worldwide to either reduce or eliminate the use of environmentally hazardous plastics in packaging. It is forecast that more than 300m tonnes of plastic will be produced in 2018, half of this is estimated to be for single-use purposes. Relatively little plastic is used in spirits packaging, of course, where recyclable glass bottles are the main material. Yet the wider issue of sustainability is undoubtedly becoming a more pressing spirits industry concern.
This January, for instance, French drinks giant Pernod Ricard followed in the footsteps of other multinationals by announcing a new policy of phasing out the use of plastic straws and stirrers at its offices, events, promotions, and advertising and marketing events. “We believe that small acts have a big impact – and that is why Pernod Ricard has decided to stop using non biodegradable plastic straws and stirrers in any part of its business,” says Jean-François Roucou, Pernod Ricard group director of sustainable performance.
“The drinks industry has been using them for decades and following the rebirth of cocktails there has been an explosion in their usage globally,” he adds. “A straw which is only used on average for 20 minutes can take more than 200 years to break down into smaller pieces and often does not fully disintegrate.”
Addressing Pernod Ricard’s wider efforts to become sustainable with its packaging, Roucou notes that Pernod Ricard uses 1,100,000 tonnes of materials for its packaging each year – a figure that includes 900,000 tonnes of glass and 140,000 tonnes of cardboard. He estimates that over 96% of this packaging could be recycled if consumers followed the necessary steps and a local collection and recycling system is in place. “In the entire product lifecycle, packaging accounts for around 35% of the carbon footprint of products sold by Pernod Ricard,” says Roucou. “Reducing the weight of packaging is a constant concern of those in charge of packaging design, and there is a value engineering programme in place that regularly reviews and optimises the weight of bottles and other elements. “The regular evolution of packaging overseen by our marketing teams to change the image of our products and to adapt them to consumer expectations provides a unique opportunity to challenge and reduce the weight of packaging. For example, during the latest revamp of the Absolut bottle, its weight was reduced by 13%, saving around 7,000 tonnes of glass every year.” Mark Tosey, production director at international design agency Lewis Moberly, argues that a key challenge for the alcoholic drinks packaging sector revolves around closure components, which are heavily reliant on plastics. “The more traditional closures made from metal do not have the same anti-counterfeit features of the latest plastic closures, so that is unlikely to change in the short or medium term when there is such a significant potential threat of counterfeit goods for major drinks brands.”
Toby Wilson, COO of MW Luxury Packaging, an international firm whose blue-chip client list includes the likes of Patrón, Johnnie Walker and Cîroc, highlights the growing demand for lighter spirits bottles. “Many brands are now going for a light-weighting approach with their glassware,” he explains. “While glass is a sustainable form of packaging, the weight and impact it has on shipping have to be considered. Stripping glass out of the bottle while keeping a level of perceived quality is a challenge, but ultimately doable, and has been very successful in some cases when the investment is put in and the glass manufacturers push opportunities.”
Phil Bradnam, technical manager at Royston Labels, a UK label manufacturer whose drinks clients have included the Redsmith and Dam Raider gins, predicts an industry shift from synthetic to paper-based bottle labels. Switching to labels made with a percentage of waste materials such as grape pulp helps to improve sustainability. He also urges brand owners and designers to consider the label adhesive used. “Are these able to be more environmentally friendly – do they need to be less permanent, or would the product be impacted by this move? Moving the label material to a ‘wash off’ adhesive can help the reuse of the bottles.”
Evolution of digital printing
Improving digital printing technology is opening new possibilities, according to designers and packaging companies. Grant Willis, co-founder and creative director of London-based Our
Design Agency, says digital printing was critical to the eye-catching design of Brighton gin. “Digital printing was once considered the poor relation, but now it’s offering much better-quality print at an affordable price,” he notes. “It allowed us to be able to colour match the authentic 1950s Brighton Seafront Blue colour supplied to us by the local borough. It offers a wealth of opportunities for small-batch craft spirits brands, as well as bigger brands because it offers high-quality short runs, personalisation and super-fast turnaround. “We’re going to see increasing personalisation and experimentation in one-offs in spirits packaging as designers really get to grips with the technology that digital offers,” he adds. “Our work for Brighton gin with digital means they can be spontaneous with limited editions for [the Gay] Pride [Festival] and really feel part of the event. By using digital printing, we were able to lower the cost of producing the label by a considerable amount. This then allowed us to use other techniques like foiling and embossing to elevate the packaging and feel more luxurious.”
Lewis Moberly’s Tosey is also enthusiastic about digital printing opportunities. “One area which might develop more rapidly in 2018 is the use of digital print for cartons using special effect foils and varnishes,” he says. “These types of finishes have usually been associated with more traditional print processes and techniques. However, there are some highly impressive digital print technologies available, which produce metallic foils and raised varnish effects to compete with the traditional methods. The key advantages of these types of digital processes are the low set-up costs and the feasibility of producing fully printed samples or low volume production, quickly and economically. These technologies are therefore highly suited to targeted and short-term promotional campaigns, but can still provide high-quality, decorative print effects.”
Tom Hearn, business director at Nude Brand Creation, says improvements in digital printing are opening the doors for personalisation and small-batch numbering on packaging — both of which are growing trends in the drinks industry. “We recently developed the packaging for limited release Ballantine’s 30yo Cask Edition and the use of digital printing allowed for unique batch and bottle numbering on the labels,” explains Hearn. “We also used traditional embossing and foiling to ensure an optimum finish for the premium price point of the product.”
Trends to watch in 2018
Hilary Boys, strategic planning director at leading international design agency Lewis Moberly, predicts there will be a continuing preference for smaller bottle sizes such as 50cl. “This fits with overall trends regarding quality over quantity, increased health consciousness and premiumisation,” he explains. “The lower price point also enables cash-strapped Millennials (and the rest of us!) to try new products – vital for new craft spirits brands.”
One message echoed by several design and packaging firms is that in the increasingly competitive spirits market, brands, marketing teams and their designers need to work harder than ever to achieve shelf stand-out and communicate with the end consumer, whether it is an established brand or a new entrant.
“In such a competitive market, you need to lead with a differentiated proposition,” says JP Hunter, head of design at strategic brand design agency Webb deVlam. “Nearly everyone ticks the provenance, artisan, craftsmanship and agestatement boxes, but if there’s a distinctive story to tease out, it’s important to do that.
“When it comes to rebranding traditional, iconic brands, you need to do your homework and understand the brand truths. Not only with packaging, but also with communications. When we worked on Grant’s Elementary [whisky], we delved into the science behind the brand, the fact that there’s precision and chemical engineering that ensures Grant’s can deliver its unique product consistently over time. Tease out a new brand story and use that as a starting point for packaging redesign, but ensure that the recognisable visual equities are treated with respect, such as heritage,” argues Hunter. “Existing customers are looking for familiar cues, so it’s about hitting the right balance.”