Spirits, wines and beers, much like their taste, will have distinctive looks and feels. Specialty bottles, weighty glass and textures – in both glass and labels – are all pivotal in spirits packaging.
“Spirits brands separate themselves from wine and beer in how they decorate their bottles,” explains Jim Sheibley, executive VP of sales and marketing, Wausau Coated Products. “Many bottles have ‘tax stamp’ labels over the cap/cork and may have as many as four labels on the bottle.”
Color, as well as various graphic elements, also differentiate spirits from wine. Whether naturally or artificially colored, spirits labels will opt for designs that enhance these color elements. In terms of price, a spirits label would often cost more than a wine label. Both spirits and wines tend to favor the use of premium paper stocks.
Even if a spirits brand is not perceived as top of the line or premium, the brand still needs to emphasize that look through its label and packaging. It is also important to note, says Alex Kidd, creative design manager at Avery Dennison, that the label must be able to adhere to the bottle for some time. A wine will typically be finished much more quickly than a spirits bottle, which could sit behind the bar indefinitely.
The brand is one of the top differentiators in spirits labeling. “A successful spirit label’s brand narrative is one that accurately hones in on how the product reflects and complements the consumer’s lifestyle, status and personality,” says Julie Hance, marketing specialist at AWT Packaging. “When picking their spirits at the liquor store or the bar, the consumer will scan the rows for something they intuitively relate to. For example, 20-somethings might favor a look that is more fun and playful.”
The shape of the bottle also differentiates the spirits marketplace. Brands will often choose uniquely-shaped labels that fit the contour of the bottle. Like wine, spirits labels will feature comparable embossing, foiling and diecutting. Special varnish techniques are also utilized, and customization with the glass is quite common.
“The type of spirit relates to the audience the brands are going after,” adds Kidd. “For instance, with vodka you often see a taller, skinnier bottle with brighter labels and flavors designed for a female audience. Bourbon has a rich and rustic, textured appeal and is often found in a shorter bottle that resembles the aging process that is so important to how the spirit is made. As a lot of the brands are starting to go after millennials, they are offering more exclusive bottles.”
According to Sheibley, designers and printers are tasked with conveying a brand story through packaging, which often means unique materials. “Finding unique label materials and being creative with varnishes, foils, embossing and debossing can bring a brand’s packaging to life on the shelf for the consumer,” he says. “If it is a Western-themed bourbon, a leather material with enhancements to accent an Old West theme tells a story to the consumer and connects emotionally to them. This leads to the product being handled and the leather texture, smell, artwork and embellishments can convey its authenticity and hopefully lead to a purchase.”
“Consumers are becoming more interested in the story behind brands and hearing what makes their brand or their product unique,” explains Kim Young, marketing communications specialist, Inland. “They are looking for brands that provide value, share the same values, and put their consumers first. Labels and packaging are the perfect billboards to tell those stories and build rapport with consumers, thus creating loyalty and a feeling of trust to a product.”
“Consumers buy the spirit because it connects with their lifestyle,” says Kidd. “A good label helps deliver the brand essence.”
The spirits marketplace has also seen a tremendous influx of metallics adorning the labels. “One of the most common enhancements that we see on spirits labels involves a metallic effect,” says Young. “Metallic effects can be achieved by utilizing a few different methods – metalized substrates, metallic inks, or foil stamping. The reason the metallic look is most effective with spirits is because of the reflection that bounces off of the foil or metalized look of the bottle, drawing a consumer’s eye while on the shelf and ultimately getting them to buy the product.”
The use of cold and hot foil effects is a recent trend, and specialty inks and coatings have enabled the rise of holographics and color shifting effects. In addition, specialty coatings have promoted a move toward scratch ‘n’ sniff and black light varnishes. Shrink sleeving is also rising in prevalence.
“The effectiveness of enhancements can vary based on the demographics of the target market group,” explains D.J. Huberty, sales account executive at AWT Packaging. “For example, 21-30-somethings are inclined to like bright, flashy, shiny labels, so holographic, glitter, cold foil, color shift, black light etc. are a big hit. The 30-somethings and beyond consumers tend to have a bit more money to spend on spirits than their younger counterparts, so in purchasing upscale brands, they also tend to lean toward more sophisticated design such as spot varnishes on specialty papers, foils.”
Several popular spirits brands employ glossy papers for their labels. According to Wausau Coated’s Sheibley, rising prices and product positioning cause materials to merge with the textured and warm haptic substrates used by fine wine bottlers. AWT Packaging often uses specialty pressure sensitive (PS) paper materials, plus shrink sleeve and PS film materials.
For Inland, Young says white, metalized or craft paper cut and stack labels are quite popular, as well as pressure sensitive labels in white or craft paper. Inland also commonly utilizes white, clear or metalized films for pressure sensitive spirits labels.
The nature of the brand will also dictate material choice. Luxurious materials will be the choice for top brands, necessitating “nameplate” metal foils with deep debossing, wood veneer, cloth and various other enhancement techniques. Sheibley adds that this is common for brands with a price tag of $50 and up, and boxes are often included as part of the packaging, as well.
Spirits labels are trending toward their wine counterparts. “We’ve been seeing that the spirits business is following wine with thicker, more textured materials,” explains Avery Dennison’s Kidd. “Often times they are looking for storytelling materials that will help them stand out on the shelf. We continue to see the trend of premiumization continue to influence the category too. Many brands are getting creative with label size, information portrayed and how they go after certain audiences.”
Avery Dennison promotes its thicker, more textured paper stocks such as 80# cotton for spirits. “We offer a full range of paper and film materials in our wine and spirits portfolio,” adds Kidd. “We also just launched a new collection of sensorial materials that are perfect for the spirits industry.”
Spirit type will matter, too. Some consumers might desire refrigeration or freezing with their bottles, which subsequently affects substrate choice. Wausau Coated Products, for example, offers its Aged Agave paper in the tequila category. Aged Agave is produced with fibers of the Agave Sisalana cactus plant, giving the paper a distinctive look. It also promotes sustainability with the re-use of plant fibers. Gins and vodkas, however, might be chilled or frozen, and Sheibley notes that the labels should adhere and keep a quality look under those circumstances, similar to a white or sparkling wine. The Ever Opaque XL line is a popular choice in this space.
Kidd adds that a number of smaller brands are starting to penetrate the marketplace, often using new materials to capture and build an audience. More non-traditional spirits brands have made their foray into the market, as well.
A digital touch
With digital printers and presses, as well as hybrid alternatives, making their mark in the labels and packaging space, “almost anything is possible,” says Wausau Coated’s Sheibley. Quality spirits labels are no longer limited to the big players. Smaller craft distillers can utilize digital printing to create eye-popping labels, even in small batches. This creativity promotes competition on the shelf.
“Digital printing has allowed all the creativity, as well as the fragmentation of the spirits industry, to thrive,” says Sheibley. “With special inks, build-up processes, and short runs at decent prices per bottle, almost anything is possible. Beyond the printing, new converting and embellishment equipment add shape and texture that would be hard to find in years past.”
Inland’s Young says there are “endless benefits to digital print” in the spirits market, with the largest being speed to market. “The fact that there is no tooling required or specialized inks/coatings ultimately cuts down on the lead time and costs associated with print,” says Young. “Digital print is the most efficient and economical print technology to use when looking for small to medium production runs. This allows spirits brand owners the versatility to try new things, test new products or label graphics, without overcommitting to large order quantities.”
Inland believes that personalized labels and digital watermarks can emerge as a key trend. A digital watermark can send consumers to an app complete with coupons or cocktail recipes. “Digital print really opens the doors to brand owners to think outside the box and try something new to set themselves apart on the shelves,” she adds.
Digital printing also allows for distilleries to promote specialized bottles and brands. “Digital is a great option for smaller distilleries and brands, as well as for seasonal or specialized promotions,” says AWT Packaging’s Huberty. “Digital allows the opportunity to produce visually complex labels in lower print runs while still maintaining affordable pricing.”
“Experts in what if…”
The advancements in technology – from substrates to inks to printing presses – have allowed brands and converters to dream big when printing attractive spirits labels. Whether printing small batches with a digital press or converting millions of labels for a major brand, creativity and panache are king.
Wausau Coated Products has made this reality its mantra. “We welcome the most creative ideas under our ‘Experts in what if….’ tag line,” says Wausau Coated’s Sheibley. “Labeling can help you position a spirit in just the sector and price range you like. The trend we expect to grow is to engage the sense of touch in bottle enhancements and labels. That has brought deeper textures and non-paper products into the highest end of the sprits market. Those will make their way deeper into the segment in the coming years.”
Another trend worth watching involves micro-distilleries. Microbreweries have altered the beer label landscape, and the same could be true for spirits if more distilleries continue popping up throughout North America. Shiebley adds that the proliferation of craft distilleries could necessitate more “variety, shape, feel and brands” for the marketplace.
Brands understand their audience, too. Many of the upcoming trends are designed to fit into the millennial lifestyle. “More non-traditional spirits are breaking into the category to match the overall wellness trend,” explains Avery Dennison’s Kidd. “You can also expect to continue to see premiumization and materials that match it such as organic and sustainable materials to match the brands.”
In the future, AWT Packaging’s Huberty expects to see more usage of shrink sleeving in spirits, as well as electronically enhanced labels with LED display technology. Flexible packaging, with pour spouts and dispensers, could make their mark, too.
Smart labeling has already started to infiltrate spirits labeling. In 2015, Thinfilm partnered with Diageo to create the Johnnie Walker Blue Label smart bottle. For premium brands, the higher expense of the label is mitigated by the cost of the spirit, so smart labeling should continue to see a growing presence in this market.