Gift packaging

Hamish Smith ponders the enigmatic link between product and consumer

As the title of James Pilditch’s seminal book tells us, packaging is The Silent Salesman. That was written 50 years ago but Pilditch’s assertion still cuts to the crux of consumerism. Packaging is the link between brand and consumer – without saying a word it speaks to us, influencing our purchasing decision.

Packaging is at its most loquacious in the augmented, parodied world of gifts. Here, at the luxury end at least, the concept of a ‘design budget’ sometimes seems as arbitrary as the prices attached to the bottles. Luxury products are an opportunity to stretch a brand’s legs and go on a journey. Indeed, that sentence could have been taken from the minutes of one of Diageo’s creative meetings. “We see John Walker & Sons Odyssey as the next step in our luxury journey,” says James Thompson, chief marketing officer of Diageo Asia Pacific, “and we believe the integration of heritage and progress, provenance and innovation will make it of the utmost interest to luxury connoisseurs in this region.”

There are new ramped-up editions of everyone’s favourite scotch. And why not? The much-heralded growth of the category isn’t down to run-of-the mill lines. “There is an insatiable demand for super-deluxe spirits globally, and particularly in Asia Pacific,” says Thompson. “Globally, net sales for scotch whisky are up 12%, with most of that growth coming from super-deluxe. In Asia Pacific, scotch whisky delivered more than 80% net sales growth, with almost half from super-deluxe whiskies.” 

Through heightened graphics, stand-out colours, materials and styling, luxury editions offer brands an opportunity to interact with buyers on a deeper level than in the general market where there are price points to hit and budgetary restraints to observe.

James Boulton, creative director of Claessens International, suggests some fundamental differences between the mass market and gift packaging: “Regular packaging can be a little less innovative because it has to be more tightly controlled in terms of budgets and logistics – and branding has to work for a longer period and feature in lots of countries. Gift packaging is normally targeted at a specific outlet or country so the brief can be more open.”

Travel retail is undoubtedly the spiritual home of gifting, where added value – be it luxury packaging, exclusive or rare editions, or added volume (1-litre packs instead of 70cl) – are the standard attraction devices. And then, of course, there is the tradition that travellers should never arrive anywhere empty-handed.

Uniquely with gift packaging, the product is not always marketed to appeal to the consumer. Paul Foulkes-Arellano, client services director of Seymourpowell picks up the point: “Generally, drinks packaging is aimed at the consumer, ie the person drinking the product, whereas gift packaging is aimed at the gifter, who could be a family member or a business associate. Briefs normally expect the design team to appeal to both.”

With instant attraction the goal, it’s not surprising gift packaging is flash. This normally translates to a competition around who has the best handcrafted mahogany cases, bespoke crystal and jewellers’ shop window of precious metals. But the product that seemed so natty in-store to the buyer may not necessarily seem so useful when it finds its way home. Recipients of Prince Hubert de Polignac’s beautifully styled 888 Trunk will know precisely what to do with the fine grand champagne cognac, but perhaps less so with the somewhat incongruous trunk.

Newborn super-rich

There is no denying the market for such creations, thanks to the world’s newborn and airborne super-rich. It is now commonplace in the sector to hear a day’s sales can quickly turn from bad to good with the arrival of a handful of Chinese travellers. And this is not confined to Asia. In Spanish travel retail growth was driven by the spending power of Russian, Chinese and South Korean visitors to the country’s major hub airports, reports Alexander Wiegel, joint chairman of the Airport Promotion Agencies.

With luxury spirits it wouldn’t be too cynical to say the price of the product is probably decided in the marketing department – the task of packaging, which is by no means a small one, is to justify the exorbitant price tag.

“If you were to try to sell such a product in a milk bottle you would be unable to communicate the rarity and preciousness of that liquid,” says Claessens’ Boulton. “Consumers who have the means want to be able to show off to an extent, so the gift packaging becomes even more elaborate to attract their attention.”

Luxury packaging is almost solely the preserve of brown spirits, but perhaps not for long. According to Diageo CEO Paul Walsh, baijiu brands have premiumised in recent years and the spirit is now the number-one selling SKU in Asian travel retail. “If you look at some of the baijiu offerings and some of the innovations, the packaging is gorgeous – it’s got huge potential.”

Diageo has picked its horse in market-leader Shui Jing Fang, so who knows, one day the £10,000 luxury product launch we read about could well be a baijiu.

Another traditionally under-premiumised, conservatively packaged sector is rum, but after 150 years in the business, Bacardi clearly wanted to break the mould. Its Bacardi de Maestros de Ron Vintage MMXII, which launched this year, pulled out all the classic luxury stops. A rare, aged rum presented in a hand-blown crystal decanter in the shape of El Coco – the coconut palm planted 150 years ago at the first Bacardi distillery in Santiago de Cuba – and housed in a luxury leather case. As a study in packaging, you might say Bacardi’s effort lacks the finesse of Ballantine’s new silver-trimmed 40-year-old or Martell’s XO Architect, but for what it means in the context of rum in the luxury market, it was a job well done.

New technologies

If gifts are the innovative end of the packaging business, it is odd they do not lead the way in digital interaction. For now devices such as QR codes and augmented reality are mainly employed on mass-market packaging. But considering that with one click of a smart phone packaging can broadcast advertising, project 3D images of the product in action and direct a consumer to an app or microsite, luxury packaging surely can’t afford to ignore these devices? As Steve Osborne of design agency Osborne Pike reasons: “The more I spend on a product the more I want to know about that product.”

Osborne sees a clear future for new technologies in gift packaging – so much so he’s written an article on the subject. Turn to page 34 for his take on what’s in augmented reality for gifts?

But as Kevin Shaw of Stranger & Stranger says: “QR codes and augmented reality are still very niche. I assume it’s just über -anoraks [that use them] – I’ve got a bunch of cool kids in my office and they don’t do it. It’s one of those great marketing things people say is going to happen but it just doesn’t. We’ve never had a brief involving QR codes. It’s marketing companies selling the idea to clients. It’s a tactical, promotion-led idea.”

Claessens’s Boulton wouldn’t rule out such technologies in the future but for now has his doubts. “Soft drinks brands have started to embrace that kind of technology, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the same approach is right for high-end drinks. In terms of brand development we use subconscious communication – allowing the consumer to understand why they should pay a certain price for a brand. Adding gimmicks such as QR codes will not encourage further persuasion.”

For now it seems consumers of luxury goods are more interested in the physical experience. But in seasonal gifting there is an opportunity for digital gimmicks to prosper, particularly around consumer celebrations such as St Valentine’s Day. Diageo seems to think so too. Indeed, this year the group piloted +More technology, a souped-up QR code on the neck collars of bottles of Old Parr, Johnnie Walker and White Horse around Father’s Day in Brazil. The technology allowed buyers to leave a personalised video message on a unique website, accessed via a QR code.

Diageo was so happy with the launch it will be rolled out to markets including the UK and Asia, and to other brands in the run up to Christmas (not coincidently).

It is early days for the marriage of gift packaging and digital technologies. But then, a bottle of whisky capable of passing on a Father’s Day greeting must be classed as packaging progress. One can only wonder what James Pilditch would think about a talking whisky bottle. Perhaps he would say the salesman is no longer silent.

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