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Why Strong Art Direction Should Be At the Core of Drinks Brands

by The Dieline on 09/15/2023 | 5 Minute Read

By Carsten Glock

What made Guinness’ 1999 Surfer advert such a creative and commercial success? 

Was it the decision to use black and white film? The pulsating "tick follows tock" script? The photographic majesty of crashing waves and horses? Or was it how the surfer’s patient wait to catch the perfect wave spoke to Guinness’ brand essence—the particularity of waiting for the foam to settle on a pint of the dark stuff—because "good things come to those who wait?"

The answer is all of the above. In an increasingly competitive sector governed by global rules, robust art direction is the only way to achieve the alchemy of strategy and vision that connects drinks brands with their audiences.

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A Blending of Artistry and Promotion

At its simplest, art direction is the oversight and control of visual communications such as photography or moving images. But the actual remit is so much broader. You can art direct layouts, space, words, typography, and many other visual elements across all media. 

Art directing for brands is more complex. It’s not just putting nice visuals together to create something that looks good (though that’s important, too). What matters for any brand is consistently communicating the right message to the audience. 

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Art direction for global drinks is an even more particular challenge. Restrictions around the photography of alcohol vary from country to country and ultimately define creative. That makes the role of the art director—finding a visual and verbal communication that resonates across all markets—particularly complex. You have a playground within which to be inventive, but the playground’s rules are clearly set. 

Another potential risk is losing sight of the ultimate goal: to promote the brand. Even senior art directors have been known to waste a costly photoshoot by oversights as basic as failing to include the product in the final results. The objective isn’t just to convey a feeling. It has to communicate a clear benefit to the end consumer if they choose to eventually buy the product.

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In a Regulated Sector, Imagination is the Biggest Restriction

There’s no getting around it, but art directing for drink brands takes years of experience. Apart from anything else, the photography of glass and liquid is a skill that has to be mastered and refined. Carlsberg, Stella Artois, and Guinness all use sensational photography. 

That said, there are universal steps to creating visual communications that meet the dual challenge of speaking to the brand and the needs and desires of its audience:

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Define the brand essence.

Brand story, brand DNA, brand mantra. Call it what you will—every brand must find its unique differentiator and communicate this consistently through all visual communications. This brand essence is the connective tissue through which audiences will come to recognize you. 

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Understand it, and the brand DNA becomes the baseline for creating all visual assets. Take gin brand Oxley, a distinctly scientific, pioneering brand at the forefront of the cold distillation process. To communicate its story, zoomed-in photography shows the frozen moment when actual molecular changes occur (as a result of cold distillation), giving Oxley its unique taste.

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Build clear, consistent brand guidelines.

The creation of brand guidelines is critical for global brands that need to communicate in most countries around the world. These principles should be adaptable to different markets, each with its own cultural nuances, variations in messaging, and continually changing rules. Simplicity is king here, especially when you need to scale up with consistency. 

Positioning-wise, consumers everywhere should easily understand the messaging. Ideally, it can be distilled into a single sentence or idea. William Lawson’s promise of "No Rules, Great Scotch" has guided our work for the whisky brand across every market for the last seven years. Its beautiful simplicity helps it translate across cultures and time, open to interpretation in different territories and as culture shifts. 


Create a recognizable, ownable style.

Brands that don’t build a sense of familiarity with audiences risk getting lost in a sea of sameness. They avoid this by weaving red threads throughout their stylistic language. A clear brand DNA is an essential component in developing (and maintaining) a recognizable style. Stranger and Stranger’s work for De Kuyper is instantly unmistakable across its heritage liquor range.

Control the output.

Referring all visual assets back to pre-defined brand principles will ensure consistent communications. At GLOCK, we use a litmus test to check individual assets tie back to the brand’s defined pillars and messages. Paradoxically, a clear framework also allows for spontaneity and fun. Rules are there to be broken, but only when there's a good reason that speaks to market needs. To subvert the rules, you first have to know them inside out. 

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A Fine Balance 

For drinks brands to succeed, they need a solid differentiating story. Strong art tells and reinforces this story. It sets up rules and strategies that ensure people instantly recognize the brand in photography, copy, fonts, and all aspects (and in perfect harmony). 

Great art directors use expertise and solutions rooted in experience to bridge the gap between drinks brands and their audiences. They have the rigor and authority to break the rules—but only because they’re the ones who made the rules in the first place. 

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Carsten is the founder and chief creative officer of interdisciplinary creative agency GLOCK. Since starting the agency in 2006, Carsten has worked with some of the world’s leading brands, including Bombay Sapphire, Revlon, and Burt's Bees. 

Starting his career in his native Germany, Carsten has worked in a range of disciplines, from animation to photography and positioning to pack, and quickly realized the value of being surrounded by a team of experts and specialists. 

That became the catalyst for creating GLOCK, an agency of curious and conceptual strategic thinkers communicating through design.