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How Do Drinks Brands Stay Relevant?

by Margaret Nolan on 07/27/2022 | 5 Minute Read

As a designer, I’ve worked on drinks packaging for nearly three decades. During that time, it’s been fascinating to see the waxing and waning of drinks brands that have withstood the test of time. 

What is it that gives a drink longevity? How is it that a brand that is a powerhouse one decade is virtually unknown the next? A lot of focus gets placed on the packaging, but there is so much more to it than just that.  

Take, for example, the great champagne houses, Veuve Clicquot, Perrier Jouët, and Dom Perignon. Veuve’s distinctive yellow label is 145 years old, and although it has been “tweaked and tidied,” it has remained the same. Dom Perignon was launched in 1921 and has the identical label a century later. Perrier Jouët’s stunning Belle Époque bottle was designed by Émile Gallé in 1902—it only came into production in 1964—making it a relative youngster at 58 years old. In Australia, Penfolds Wines, established in 1844, has worn a relatively uniform look of red and white since their first production of Grange in 1953.

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How have these venerable brands stayed relevant without changing their packaging? The quality of the product remains the most significant factor, as people are loyal to brands that offer unswerving craftsmanship and excellence. But innovation is critical as well. The great Champagne houses are masters of consistency with their wines, but they constantly push boundaries off-pack. Utilizing limited editions (Dom Perignon’s glow-in-the-dark label) and gifting (Veuve’s always clever playfulness) express the brand’s identity in innovative and exciting ways. Penfolds is constantly innovating; from a blend of three Grange vintages (G3) to a California/ Australian collaboration with Quantum or a collector’s showpiece at $200,000 (Ampoule), they are testing the limits of what appeals to wine lovers. With these new releases, packaging has a vital role in communicating the unique nature of the wines, but it is the product idea that leads.

So how does a rockstar brand lose its mojo?

Well, I think comparing brands to rockstars is an appropriate analogy. How can some rockstars age and still constantly attract new generations of fans and others seem old and outdated or worse, try too hard? It’s because real rockstars like David Bowie and Beyonce must continually re-invent themselves, but they remain true to themselves so they feel genuine. There’s nothing more depressing than a once megastar playing old hits at the local club—how they have come down in the world!

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With brands, it’s the same. You can’t rely on the same song forever.

Mateus Rosé is a great example. In its heyday in the early 80s, it accounted for almost 40% of Portugal’s total export of table wine. Worldwide sales were 3.25 million cases per year, a sizable amount for a European brand back then. Mateus was about the romance of Europe, and its soft rosé wine style and distinctive bottle were a hit with consumers. The brand was so prevalent it featured in Elton John lyrics and cult films such as Animal House. Sadly, over the years, consumers got more sophisticated with their drinking choices, the sauvignon blanc revolution also took over, and Mateus—and rosé—suffered from seeming old-fashioned “what my Nanna drinks”. 

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In its heyday, the brand was successful because of two key things—an lovely bottle and wine, but it needed to evolve with the times to keep appealing to a newer audience. That is always very hard for successful brands to do. They have rusted-on fans, and it takes a brave marketing decision to change dramatically. Interestingly, with the popularity of dry French rosés, it could have been the opportunity for Mateus to make a big comeback, but that didn't happen. Their wine was perhaps too sweet for consumers who loved the drier Provençal rosé style. More sadly, the once revolutionary and attractive bottle now feels dated in the line-up of French rosés such as Whispering Angel and their elegant bottles.

The moral to the Mateus story? You have to keep one step ahead of consumer trends. Ensure you are prepared to adapt and develop your offering to address constantly changing consumer needs and desires with your product, not just your packaging. You must keep an eye on what’s happening with consumers and ensure it’s what they want to buy. If lower or no alcohol is the strong trend with Gen Z, and you are making high alcohol wines, you will have limited market appeal down the track with that product. 

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The trick is to keep both camps happy. Keep your over-the-top 15% red but create another wine to tap into the emerging market looking for something less alcoholic. There used to be a bit of marketing wisdom that said you had to upgrade your labels every four years, but I disagree—if you have a great label, it can last for decades. There are many other ways brands can communicate to consumers. Social media plays a huge role and is an easy method for brands to stay relevant with a great campaign. It’s far easier to tailor your messaging with direct marketing and social than change your packaging. 

Changing packaging to appeal to a new generation is an art—packs are like people. Just like the rock star example, consumers can spot the try-hards and the phonies trying to appeal to younger consumers. The key is assuring that everything you do suits that particular brand’s personality. A funky craft beer brand can have an irreverent sub-brand name and radical graphics, but an established mainstream brand doing the same thing looks try-hard and reeks of a “marketing idea." But all brands are facing a massive change. The packaging landscape is fast evolving as sustainability becomes essential—it will revolutionize some packaging formats. Gone will be any superfluous drinks packaging prevalent in the Duty-Free sector. Packaging will need to be light, reusable, or compostable, and that means acquiring a revolutionary mindset, not just with clients and designers but also with consumers, especially in the luxury drinks space.

I’ve concluded that staying relevant is like yoga for brands. Constantly working and honing your brand means it will be flexible enough to stretch and be strong enough to remain relevant. As a designer, it’s a real juggle—but a fascinating one, and when you get it right, it’s so rewarding.


Images courtesy of Denomination.

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