Absolut Vodka’s director of packaging development confesses he is surprised by the lack of innovation in wine packaging, and insists company size is no barrier to innovation.
Speaking at the recent Wine Vision conference in London, Eric Näf from the Pernod Ricard-owned Absolut Company agreed with delegates that “wine is special” – in terms of a strong play on its traditions – but pointed to the success of ‘new’ packaging developments including bag-in-box wine.
“To me it’s a bit surprising to see that so little is going on in the wine business when it comes to experimenting. I’m not saying give up on glass bottles, but I haven’t even seen anything besides a green or a clear glass bottle, not to mention a square bottle,” Näf (on the podium, left, in the picture below) said.
“I think spirits companies are more daring in that respect, and more rooted in branding than wines – which are more about heritage, content, history,” he added.
“That packaging should be functional, and hold the liquid in place. All of that is a given to me – it’s what we expect from the package. But it’s also about the emotional connections, about occasions, about something else that goes beyond the actual physical package. It’s a conveyer of emotions and ideas,” Näf said.
‘We were doomed to fail in 1979’
Challenged over whether spirits firms weren’t more successful in this respect due to greater industry consolidation and thus larger marketing budgets, he replied: “I don’t think that creativity has that much to do with market share or size – it’s not the big that will lead the small, it’s the fast that will lead the slow in future.”
“There is an opportunity for everyone, regardless of size today, to bring out more or less anything you want. There are opportunities there – both from a packaging and communications perspective.”
Discussing Skåne-based Absolut Vodka’s success since its launch in 1979, Näf “took a glance in the rear view mirror”, and showed a slide showing the Absolut bottle when it first launched alongside the then leading (mainly Russian) vodka brands.
“Vodka definitely did not come from Sweden, and definitely did not come in a strange looking bottle, with no label, no gold or no crest,” he said. “We were doomed to fail, basically.
“But what happened is that the whole industry changed over time. And it changed into something where everything was differentiated, upscale, took on a completely different route,” Näf added.
Absolut played a key role in this category transformation by acting in a totally non-traditional way, and Näf said the brand had released hundreds of limited edition variants since 1979.
Although the quality of the liquid was vital, Näf explained, Absolut realized the constant need to change the “content and perception” of its premium nature, via collaborations with artists, painters, sculptors, fashion designers, etc. all of whom interpret the brand individually and redefine its identity.
Absolut Disco, Bling, Unique…
Confidence in the offer, its market position and intentions had to be conveyed at every single channel and platform where consumers were, he said.
“Which takes us into packaging, which is one small piece of that cake,” Näf said. “Yes, we call ourself an iconic brand with an iconic package – there are not many packages out there that are iconic.”
“But I’d also say that none of these are ‘static brands’ – they are constantly changing, in so many ways but not changing their fundamentals. They will still be recommended for their values and some particular parts of their identity, in their visuals and their graphics.”
Across myriad special editions that play on this core identity – Absolut Disco, Absolut Bling and this year’s Absolut Unique are striking examples – Näf said the brand’s attention to detail even extends to shipment cases, usually simply seen as a cost driver and made as cheaply as possible.
“We make them as beautiful as possible because they are an important touch point with consumers, and every single limited edition gets its own box,” he said, which is still printed in a cost-efficient way.
“It’s doing its work throughout the logistics chain – the warehouse staff see it, retail staff see it, a lot of them end up in displays on the floor – we want them to make an impact, and they will if they are well thought through,” Näf explained.