Many brands in the drinks industry rely on strong connections with their country of origin. James Boulton, creative and managing director of branding specialist Claessens International, discusses how brands can use their provenance to unlock the latent brand equity in their country of origin, and how this association can be kept fresh and relevant for the consumer.

Modern society is more multicultural than ever. People are more widely travelled, and even those who rarely leave the country are exposed to other cultures through the TV they watch, the food they eat and the cities they live in. This increased cultural awareness means that some brands have much to gain by making reference to their countries of origin, drawing upon the national branding equity built up by years - sometimes centuries - of history.

In today’s economic climate, people want to know that they are getting genuine quality. Knowing where a product comes from can be key to this. In the wine sector, for example, country of origin is often the first thing people look for. It makes for an easy reference point for quality and characteristics.

Provenance marketing done well can be a powerful marketing tool, capable of communicating difficult abstract concepts like attitude and authenticity. But, there is more to it than simply placing the national flag prominently on a label. Take Guinness: This is a brand so intrinsically linked to 250 years of Irish culture, that it's heritage has become an indelible part of its branding.

A mark of quality

Of course, there are times when it is appropriate to use a flag. Premium vodka brand Grey Goose carries a French flag on its bottle. There was nothing particularly French in character about the brand, but coming from France rather than, say, Russia gives it a unique positioning in the vodka market. In the US, it is well known that Cognac and Champagne comes from France, so French origin was something to celebrate as it carries with it an image of high quality.

Grey Goose isn't the only vodka to use its country of origin as a mark of quality. Svedka, sold in the US as an imported Swedish vodka, has been able to capitalise on the foundations already laid by Absolut, which had created the association in the mind of US consumers that Sweden is a top producer of vodka, linked intrinsically with purity. Svedka presents itself quite clearly as Swedish to take full advantage of that heritage.

But, provenance marketing isn't just for international and export markets. Domestic brands can often benefit from celebrating their roots as a way of dealing with imported competition. In Ukraine, we have recently worked on another vodka brand called Icthhha (Truth). This was developed for a local distiller, Olimp, that already produces another vodka called Prime.

Prime has a very technical brand image that relies on the science behind its creation. But, when there was a downturn in the market, Icthhha was developed to fulfill a certain price point, specifically for the Ukrainian market. To do this, it had to be seen to be Ukrainian through-and-through. In the end, the brand was so emotionally linked to the country that, in the first month, it sold 1m units, making it the fastest-growing domestic brand in the world at the time. Despite this success, there were no flags on the bottle, but the use of imagery and design to highlight the brand's national identity served to awaken the national pride in its consumers.

This isn’t something that can be reduced to a few simple tricks and algorithms. One has to really understand a brand’s heritage and its consumers’ emotional connection with it to fully exploit its heritage and provenance. When we worked on Diageo's Talisker Scotch whisky brand, for example, we stayed for three days on the Isle of Skye near the distillery, talking to the workers in the distillery, the people in the bars and experiencing the weather. The most important thing about the Talisker brand is its origin.

From Russia with wine

When a country has a particularly tumultuous history, it sometimes becomes necessary for brands to carefully select the aspects to which they choose to align themselves. When Russia opened up after the fall of communism, there was a strong local appetite for western brands. Local companies turned their backs on Russian provenance in favour of a more modern and western feel. It was several years before brand owners and consumers realised that Russia has an incredible history of culture, which could be used favourably when compared with international competitor brands, and that they could reclaim that feeling of national heritage.

Russian wine was highly regarded in the 19th century, for example. However, during the 20th century, the quality deteriorated and appetite for Russian wines waned. When Russia opened up in the 1990s, there was a huge demand for imported wines, however Chataeux Le Grand Vostock wanted to build a brand that harked back to the heyday of Russian wine. The owners brought in French vinologists, imported soil, the latest techniques – and crucially they also managed to instill a proudness of origin into the brand, building Russian heritage back in. Looking at the brand today, the text and typeface give away the origin of the brand, but thanks to the overall image, one isn't led to question the quality.

In cars, people talk about German engineering, regardless of the brands individually. People also talk about Italian shoes. Marks & Spencers sell suits in the Italian Collection at a higher price point because they've made the association with the idea of Italian tailoring. In many sectors, including fashion, “made in the UK” is still seen as a powerful asset.

There is a lot to be gained from building heritage into a brand, but how one does that depends on the product and the consumer – get the balance wrong and you will be doing your brand more harm than good.

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