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Shaking it up with disruptive branding

Published:  30 June, 2023

Rowena Curlewis, head of design agency Denomination, extols the virtues of disruptive branding in a crowded wine and spirits world.

The drinks category grows ever more crowded and fragmented by the day. In the past 18 months in the UK alone, there were 900 new gin brands. How many of them will succeed long term? The answer, unfortunately, is not many. In a sea of countless options, a brand must be disruptive to stand out and capture the attention of consumers. This doesn’t just apply to gin: it’s the same for whisky, vodka, beer and wine.

Disruptive branding goes beyond simply catching the eye; it allows a brand to challenge consumer assumptions about different types and categories of drinks. Mastering the art of disruptive branding is a massive advantage for any drinks company in today's competitive market.

The essence of disruption

A disruptive brand is one that's truly differentiated from competitors, in both positioning and execution. It must capture the consumer's attention and create a lasting impression. According to an Ehrenberg-Bass Institute of Marketing Science 2018 report, the average consumer spends 13 seconds choosing which brand to purchase in-store. So, a brand needs real magnetism to get that customer to look closer and pick up the bottle. Once they've got it in their hands, the chances of a purchase skyrocket – but first, you've got to create that connection.

    • Read more: Harpers Design Awards 2023 open for entries

A common mistake is thinking that loud and crass is required to be disruptive. Take Uovo wine (pictured): all it has on the front is the shape of an egg. It’s completely different, but still simple and elegant. Tread Softly is another example: its packaging is restrained but beautiful and the tiny branding makes consumers lean in to read it. That act of leaning in creates a closer connection and increases the likelihood of picking up the bottle. Tread Softly shows that you don't need a massive logo that can be read from three meters away: what you need is something magnetic and memorable.

When it comes to disruptive branding, Hendrix is another prime example. A black bottle for clear liquid breaks the norms but catches consumer attention and introducing gin with cucumber as a signature serve brought English wit and quirkiness to the forefront. This was ten years ago, and still breaks traditional perceptions of how gin should be packaged.

A strategic approach

For Denomination, creating a disruptive brand starts with a Venn diagram that analyses culture, context, and the consumer. For culture, understanding both micro and macro trends is essential. You need to know where your brand fits in. Then, consider the context – where will your brand live? What does the competitive landscape look like? Then dive deep into consumer behaviour and motivations. What are they looking for in a brand? What would make your brand stand out and appeal to them?

Once you've got those answers, you can find the sweet spot where your brand can truly shine and position itself differently from competitors, while staying in tune with current trends and customer desires. It's all about that strategic brand positioning.

Existing brands, in particular, should consider where they currently stand and where they have the potential to stretch. This means taking a good look at the cultural and consumer context and asking ‘are there opportunities to bring in new consumers or change perceptions?’ It's all about finding that whitespace and seizing it.

A fine balance

There’s always a balance between knowing what category codes to keep and which ones to break. Going completely radical can confuse or scare off a lot of consumers. They're open to a little adventure, but it takes time to completely shift their behaviours. So, it’s important to keep some reassuring cues or category rules, while still breaking the mould.

Brands like Little Giant, with its unique bottle shape, and Bruichladdich are prime examples of this. Bruichladdich uses the light aqua colour to make the bottle stand out on the shelf amid the sea of dark hues of traditional whisky bottles, but it reassures customers with the expected credentials and information about age.

A big question is whether you want to change how consumers view your brand, or do you want to challenge their perception of the entire drinks category? If it's the latter, you've got to tackle the barriers to engagement. Drinks are complex: they carry social currency and reflect who we are as individuals. When we choose a bottle, it's a deliberate decision that comes with pressure. The sophistication, the serving rituals, the intimidation – they're all factors that can discourage people, but a disruptive brand can change that. Just look at Greasy Fingers wine. It challenges the notion that wine is complicated by offering a simple, approachable concept: drinking wine with a burger. It's a great way to add some freshness to a complex category.

For established brands that need a shake up, disruptive design can work wonders in reshaping perceptions. Take Cockburn's ‘Tales of the Unexpected’. This concept reimagined Port as something urban and cool, breaking away from its traditional image as a drink for grandpas by the fireplace.

In the increasingly crowded and fragmented world of wine and spirits, disruptive branding is a powerful tool. The safe route may seem appealing, but blending in won’t equal success. Brands must be willing to take calculated risks: do research, identify the gaps in the market, and create something that truly meets consumer needs or creates new ones. Yes, there might be failures along the way, but the rewards of being disruptive far outweigh the safe and mundane path.