Which Vodka Brand Has The Best Bottle?

A marketing firm discovers the biggest winners and losers in vodka packaging. You might be surprised how well Svedka stacks up against Absolut.

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.

See how Absolut's brand baseline (in blue) drops dramatically in several categories when people actually see the bottle rather than simply read the Absolut name?

"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 had much lower brand equity than Absolut (blue line), but when customers actually saw the bottle, feelings about the brand jumped across categories (purple line).

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!)

Request the report here.

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  • Mannie Moganadass

    I was told that the tree on the bottle, bears leaves when chilled! Is this true

  • Leigh Hunt

    There is a new Vodka brand coming out called VODKEY. Sounds interesting.

  • Rhys Thomas Fowler

    Thanks for flagging up this research. We regularly research spirit brands so were keen to see what Affinova found out.  Unfortunately though, I came away quite disappointed as rather than understanding the importance of differentiation in what is a really competitive category, the methodology declares the winner as the one which scores highly on all of the personality traits.

    Just in case of interest, here's a little blog post we wrote in response:

  • Raphael_Menotti

    L'CHAIM Vodka Bottle is better design and it has a concept a celebration "to life" you guys have it wrong 

  • Harry Falber

    I'd like to see what an in-aisle eye-tracking heat map study shows about consumer interaction with the bottle and purchase decision - as to buying for self, buying for gift, buying to serve at party.. which leads into the need for a consumer decision hierarchy study before you go into a packaging review.

  • Holger Voss

    You forgot the one with definitely the beste bottle-look: THREE SIXTY VODKA!!!! 

  • ari9999

    Belvedere bottle graphics: is it the mansion, or the branches? For me, it's the graceful and dramatic treatment of tree branches that stands out and creates a positive impression. Did research address to this distinction?

  • Mark Wilson

    Research said it was the mansion, but I agree, the branches resonate with me.

  • George Bruce

    There is a distinctive clean, clear look to Absolut and Svedka but there is an air of reliable Russian authenticity when you say Stolichnaya and its retro Soviet bottle design makes it the complete package.

  • Fabian Galon

    I love the Absolut bottle, but maybe I can't be objective. I grew up with them, because the bottles are so well made they often get re-used. We always had home made cordial and juices in them and they're perfect for that. I don't know if this is a Swedish thing but I saw it all over the place here. I can't imagine a more powerful brand builder than continuing to invite it into your home even after the main product is spent.

  • tom_nonbeliever

    So, what are the conclusions of this piece of research from a design and marketing perspective? Make ugly bottles and no advertising so people can imagine whatever they want about your broad shouldered looking brand?

    The bottle that "hurts the brand in every way" is what made Absolut's campaigns iconic for 30 years, morons.

    What is there to conclude from comparing feelings towards unknown brands and famous ones based on packaging only (never happens in real life)? And since when a polarizing design (bottle shape, logo, font, script, colors) is a bad thing? Do you think the guys at Absolut would have come up with this if they were looking for a consensual design at the time?

    The article reminds us that Absolut has the best brand equity and is the 2nd best sale in the US. So, really, how is this research supposed to help designers and marketers? How relevant can it be?

  • fred hart

    Great article, sheds light and perspective on Absolut's latest redesign which incorporates much more emotional flavor descriptors/artwork.