The New Standard

Standard spirits sales are growing but small budgets mean its often up to the bottle to do the talking. Hamish Smith reports.


THEY HAD A VISION. A vision that premiumisation was a globalised and all-  pervading trend, a one-way journey for all to spirits enlightenment. That vision has started to show signs of interference.

Just last month we learned that spirits companies’ joyride through new frontiers of emerging economies has started to run off the road. Many of the heralded new middle classes of the world have been blighted by inflation and currency devaluation. They might still aspire to premium spirits, but they can’t necessarily afford them.

That’s not how the titans of the industry have described the situation, but macro-economics and consequential sales trends have forced a rethink. Diageo has spoken of its strategy for ‘mainstream brands’, with more effort and marketing now to be directed towards the cheaper journeymen of its portfolio.

No category more than whisky has felt the brunt of economic instability in Latin America (recession and political instability), Russia (currency devaluation and EU sanctions) and China (government clampdown).

Where once a Diageo press conference would have dripped with Johnnie Walker references, the spirits producer has started to talk up standard blends brands such as Black & White, particularly as a focus in Latin America. In Africa, its cheap-as-chips United Spirits brands have been drafted in – less as recruiting sergeants, more as plain old infantry.  

Pernod Ricard, meanwhile, has refocused its sights on occupying the ‘centre ground’ and has rebranded and repackaged its once ‘standard’ range (now called Introduction to Scotch – catchy) for the new marketing age.

The language may differ between the companies, but the sentiment is largely the same. This is the rebirth of standard spirits. And if the trends continue in many key emerging markets, these lean, once-neglected brands, will increasingly fill the breach that premium left behind.

“Brazil and Russia have had huge issues with inflation and currency issues,” says Mark Thorne, global brand director of Introduction to Scotch at Chivas Brothers. “Consumers’ standards haven’t changed – they still aspire to go back to premium – but their capabilities have.”

In scotch, the standard segment grew 2.3% (IWSR) for the five years to 2014, but the signs from the sector’s leading brands (such as Passport, William Lawson, Vat 69 and Black & White) are that growth has accelerated since then.

Indeed, standard scotch now has a larger share than premium (standard  36%, premium 35%, super-premium 26%, ultra-premium 2%, prestige 1%, according to IWSR). 

“Normally companies do not talk about this segment,” says Thorne. “We’ve been chugging along but we’ve had great growth recently – double digit for four years.”

In the year to June 2015 Chivas Brothers’ Passport saw volume growth of 18% and value growth of 20% while its 100 Pipers grew 13% and 19% respectively. So consumers are buying more of these brands and are willing to spend slightly more for the pleasure.

It’s no coincidence that many standard scotches have been rebranded in line with this trend.

This might not be as noticeable  as with brands at the premium end as there are no fashion-designer  limited editions or cask strength  spin-off expressions. With standard  we are often talking tweaks rather  than overhauls.

Normally, an entry-level whisky has one expression but the message has to be communicated with utmost efficiency. Whereas premium spirits can have more complicated messages, standard scotch must say: tradition, quality, reassurance, and appeal to a mass market.

With slim margins, the marketing budget is often very small (though will likely get bigger), so packaging has to carry the weight of the message. In the past couple of years Scottish Leader, Passport, 100 Pipers, Clan Campbell and Something Special have all undergone redesigns.

So what are designers aiming to achieve with these bottles – how do you engage with such a diverse market?

Francis Claessens, CEO of Claessens International branding agency says in the spirits industry, packaging – no matter at what end of the market – must communicate a “non-verbal message in three seconds” as “that is the lifespan of a consumer’s browsing”. But there are differences between standard and premium packaging. “At the higher end you have more armour available to you,” he says. “At the lower end you have more competition so you have to get it spot on.”


So, if costs have to be low and the audience is wide-ranging, isn’t it harder to engage? “All deliver their own challenges,” says Claessens. “The difficulty of degree remains the same.” This is echoed by Jeremy Chard, managing director of London studio Denomination: “It takes just as much time and effort to create a successful brand for £5 as it does for £50.”

Chard says that while standard spirits packaging should have a “level of approachability” in the design, it must “still incorporate quality cues but not to the same extent or level” as premium and the information should be “simple, and non-intimidating”.

He warns that just because something is inexpensive it “doesn’t mean it needs to look cheap”. Indeed, while some consumers climbing down from premium spirits may have less money in their pockets, others may still be joining the category, moving up from local spirits. 


Let’s start with the bottle. In the standard segment bottles tend to be plainer and mostly clear or green. Brands such as Distell’s Scottish Leader have moved to a square bottle. Passport too is square, with rounded shoulders. White Horse is squatter and clear, while William Lawson and Black & White are what they call in the business the standard ‘long and thin’ green bottles.

The key with the bottle is it has to be easily and cheaply mass produced, logistically-compliant but still engage with the consumer. On a technical level, Chard says cheaper, lighter, smaller labels enable fast application, rather than wraparounds, which take longer to apply. He says the glass weight tends to be lower and that there are less expensive embellishments, such as embossing, multiple foiling and bottle numbers.

You can see advances from many of the new packaging designs – subtle and inexpensive, but all adding to the sense of quality. Chivas Bros has introduced embossing on the necks of 100 Pipers and Passport, while Passport’s label has heightened colours for more shelf standout.

For scotch bottles in particular, consumers need to know what they are buying. Traditional imagery is important to the less knowledgeable or more conservative consumer. Chivas’ Thorne says, while standard packaging is advancing: “We will not lead the next stage of packaging evolution. Our consumers are not ready for that.”

Indeed, as the standard brands are foisted further into the mainstream, there is a sense that they must look the part – too many have been repackaged in a short space of time to think there is not an element of dressing for the big occasion.

These old-timer brands have always existed and they will remain well into the future. But without doubt this is their renaissance – for how long probably only economists could tell.  For those consumers forced into this detour, spirits groups will hope the road signposted ‘premium’ will one day come back into view.