The packaging of any product is important, but in vodka, it may be most important of all. After all, vodka is clear, and it’s designed to be tasteless. The perfect sample is essentially an invisible product. So the bottle shape, labeling, and every other tiny packaging decision are what ultimately define and differentiate the product. (The same could be said for water, of course, but when is the last time a bottle of water went for $50/750ml?)
Recently, marketing firm Affinnova ran a "design audit" on 12 vodka brands we all know—Absolut, Belvedere, Ciroc, Grey Goose, Ketel One, New Amsterdam, Pinnacle, Skyy (limited-run bottle), Smirnoff, Stolichnaya, Svedka, and Tito's. And what they learned was fascinating: Absolut may have the best outright brand equity (and the second-highest U.S. sales behind Smirnoff), but its brand is actually bogged down by their packaging, in almost every emotional descriptor you could apply to a bottle of vodka) Meanwhile, upstarts like Svedka and Pinnacle are garnering attention through unconventional designs. And Belvedere—well, they win it all—when consumers see their bottle, the perception of the Belvedere brand improves in almost every way.
Affinnova ran its audit by setting up two grocery aisles. One was nothing but index cards with the brands written on them. The other was an actual shelf of the 12 vodka brands. This setup allowed Affinnova to compare what consumers thought about the brand in general and what consumers thought about the brand after seeing the bottle.
"Svedka and Pinnacle, the packaging was really helping their brands," explains Affinnova Product Manager Devon Kelly. "Older brands—they weren’t completely overlooked, but they weren’t performing as strongly."
Indeed, Svedka and Pinnacle, each poised in a broad-shouldered, amphora-shaped stance, each popping clear white type off a blue background, sucked the most overall eye time from consumers. Of course, what the consumer thought about when looking at these bottles was a more difficult thing to quantify. "Just because someone is looking at your pack isn’t necessarily a great thing," cautions Kelly. "It could be your pack has some aspect of it that’s eye-catching but not helping. It might be more of a surprise element that people are trying to digest, or it might be that people really like it."
Interestingly enough, Absolut was also a top scorer in terms of attention, but in its case, the bottle hurt the brand in almost every way. After actually seeing the bottle, consumers ranked Absolut as less sophisticated, celebratory, sexy, intelligent, fun, and modern than the control group who’d only been presented with Absolut written on an index card.
"Absolut had very strong brand equity. It’s very well established and did well. But on its pack design, it brought down their brand equity," Kelly explains. "The big names have more to lose with the bottle."
Indeed, Absolut has 30 years of one of the most iconic marketing campaigns behind it, which has no doubt constructed an impression in our mind’s eye that the bottle on the shelf simply can’t compete with. Can you remember the last time you saw an ad for Pinnacle? Even still, were Absolut to reconsider part of its bottle design, the best place to start might be its script type, which was extremely polarizing among respondents—about half liked it, and the other half didn’t. (Count me in with the haters. I think Absolut’s script looks like a trashy tattoo.)
Belvedere was the biggest overall winner when it came to packaging. Now the bottle didn’t stand out, but it held the attention of those who looked at it, and in a measurably positive way. Just as Absolut’s packaging hurt its brand in almost every adjective under the sun, Belvedere’s packaging helped its brand across the same categories (with special emphasis on intelligent, approachable, and modern).
"People resonated with the image of the mansion," says Kelly. "They thought the bottle design was cool."
All of this said, there’s one very important point left to consider: Not each of these vodkas is targeting the same demographic. And we may see that most of all in the difference between Absolut and Smirnoff. Smirnoff’s bottle was seen as more fun, friendly, and approachable by millennials, but the 35+ demographic preferred Absolut across these same criteria. (I blame Absolut’s trash tattoo script, but I’ll stop picking on that already.)
In other words, just because you don’t like a certain vodka bottle doesn’t necessarily matter. Because chances are, some demographic does. And besides, anyone with taste will opt for whiskey or tequila anyway. (I kid, I kid!)