Over the years I’ve had reason to refer to Édouard Manet’s painting ‘A Bar at the Folies-Bergère’. The painting was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1882. It features bottles of Bass Beer in both its bottom left and right hand corners, both with their distinctive red triangles showing. Six years before the painting’s exhibition, on 1st January 1876, Bass & Co’s red triangle (which by then had been in existence for 20 years) became the first registered trademark of the newly formed UK Department of Registration of Trademarks.
The reason I’ve referred to the painting on a number of occasions is that it’s still a very good example of the power of a unique visual asset to give a brand stand-out - on a bar (whether front or more typically back bar) or in-store. Further testament to its value is the fact that Bass Beer still displays the red triangle over 160 years later, and the current owners of the brand AB-InBev use it in the same single-minded way.
I was reminded of the significance of stand-out most recently when undertaking on and off-trade research for another project. To my mind Hendrick’s Gin’s diamond on a black bottle has the same stand-out and distinctiveness and the same single-mindedness as Bass. Clients and agencies alike, often use it as an example of a brand that differentiated itself in the market when it launched with its unique packaging; almost simplistic in its approach but no less powerful. Indeed, such is its distinctiveness that one’s eye is drawn to it from quite a distance, even in poor lighting and unprepossessing display positions, such as lower shelving.
The requirement to stand out in both the on and off-trade grows ever more challenging with the proliferation of brands and the escalating pace of new product development. The Drinks Business’ Trend Spotting: 10 Alcohol Trends in UK Retail to Watch in 2018/19 cites a statistic from William Grant & Sons that 82 new gin labels entered the UK market in 2017 alone. Clearly many of the new gins are small scale and regional (such as Brighton Gin and Durham Gin) and have yet to achieve wide-scale distribution, so the extraordinary range of choice isn’t replicated in most stores and bars but there’s still considerable choice in both of these environments. During a recent store visit to a Waitrose supermarket I found the gin display included over 30 brands.
The Spirits Business recently quoted from research carried out for the Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA) by CGA Strategy. It stated that, on average, four new spirit brands have been added to the back bar since 2013, meaning that there is now an average of 36 spirit brands available in pubs. This figure is undoubtedly higher in bars without a draught beer offering. New brands vying for attention and existing brands keen to maintain their market profile therefore face competition within a category and from other categories, especially those experiencing new interest such as rum.
Clearly many brands employ a rich media mix to create a profile and garner consumer consideration, with elements like advertising, social and experiential media, and sales promotion and merchandising all playing their parts. Equally adoption and endorsement by the on-trade, and appraisal and recommendation by the specialist and generalist press alike, also play their parts. Some of these things undoubtedly prime the pump but at the point of purchase - whether it be the on or off-trade - if a brand isn’t visible or has become a bar shout it’s straightaway on the back foot (to mix metaphors).
The drinks sector is now a world comprised of long-established brands and newcomers where different approaches to packaging design proliferate. What often characterises long-established brands is a predominant core asset - such as bottle shape, colour, brandmarque - that acts as a powerful shout in the on and off-trades; think Bacardi, Captain Morgan, Famous Grouse, Glenfiddich, Gordon’s and Smirnoff. More recently brands like Absolut, Bombay Sapphire, Haig Club, The Kraken and Whitley Neill have sought to achieve similar prominence.
As many people know Jack Daniel’s iconic square bottle was initially adopted in the 1890s by Jasper Newton ‘Jack’ Daniel to stop his bottles rolling around during transportation and to make his whiskey stand out. Some 120 years later we’re still trying to achieve the same brand prominence and visibility…but perhaps today with even more reason to do so.