Duff Said: Why packaging can help brands

It’s time drinks producers woke up to the benefits of good packaging design, says Philip Duff

Of all the stupid sayings our world abounds in, “Never judge a book by its cover” maxes out what we in America term the Trump-O-Meter of dim-wittedness. The covers of books are expressly designed to help you judge their contents. It’s like saying: “Don’t get in a car, it might go faster than a horse.” Even if we wanted to, we cannot help but judge by outward appearances. We are genetically hardwired for it. Evolutionarily, we find people attractive who are slim, tall, with good hair, clear skin, symmetrical features, and no visible warts, because collectively those attributes convey health and good genes, so we want to breed with them. Less healthy-looking cavepeople don’t get a look-in, so they procreate among themselves and their resulting offspring resemble Gollum. We like attractive people, because we like attractive packages of all kinds.

I have just returned from three days of seclusion, sequestered in a nice hotel so we could taste and judge 60 or so craft spirits per day. Some were good, some were excellent, and a lot were so-so. What all us judges looked forward to, though, was when they opened the storeroom on the last day, so we could go in and see the bottles we had previously only known as code numbers on tasting glasses. Well, my word. The majority of packages – bottle + label + closure – were horrific, if you ask me. It was a masterclass in how not to do it. Labels with text so small it would make an eagle squint; labels you can’t read from a foot away. Off-putting names. It is hellish when a decent spirit is unfairly detained in a mediocre package. We tend to ascribe god-like wisdom to those mega-brands that have ‘made it’, but the truth is that a lot of those brands have simple, uncontroversial packaging with no obvious mistakes, and that in itself helped them grow.

Some labels are bad because the brand owner is trying too hard, but others suck because they aren’t trying hard enough. The liquid can’t speak for itself, not in a world where experts in a true blind tasting can’t tell the difference between rotgut and single malt, where industry legends pick Smirnoff as the best-tasting vodka above all the ultra-luxury single-origin alternatives (yes, this happened). When creating a brand, you need a designer who will cheerfully tell you to f*** off when your demands are too silly or your brief too woolly – the same way you need a distiller who’d do the same.

Beware the designer who agrees with everything you say. No one really cares if your bottle is unique or whether your closure costs 17p or £1.70. Your package must look good, be on the same level of quality as the contents of the bottle and (just like the contents of the bottle) contribute towards a financial model whereby the brand can be sold for an attractive price that makes sense for the brand owner, the supply chain, the bar, and the customer. Its much easier to judge a book by its cover, you see – all the more so when the cover is an accurate guide.