Ray Rowlands of Drinksinfo Ltd looks at some of the pack designs being implemented for soft drinks and asks, is the industry in the business of selling beverages, or has it inappropriately diversified into the art world?

In this cut-throat age, where money is tight and brand loyalty is under constant threat, for a product to survive it needs that special something to make it stand out from the crowd and maintain consumer loyalty. To do this, the brand needs to be promoted.

Such promotions can take on diverse forms, ranging from price discounts and special offers, event sponsorships and media advertising. Then again, the actual pack itself is a promotion vehicle merely by reinforcing the brand name and logo. The product's imagery, however, can go much further than that.

With the flexibility of PET, for example, a bottle can be manipulated into a unique shape with extended neck, balloon base or ridged hand grip. (Despite these opportunities have you noticed how most PET bottled waters are still of a standard bland shape with blue plastic screw lid?) 

But, for some soft drink brands, bottles and cans are no longer just containers: They have entered the art world as collector items to be displayed alongside the works of Andy Warhol and David Hockney. Take the Evian water brand from Groupe Danone. Most Evian now comes in clear PET (introduced in 1995), but this more standard bottle is complimented by a range of collectable glassware. A limited edition bottle was introduced for the Olympic Games in 1992 and, since 2008, Evian has annually released unique glass bottles starting with two designs – 'Haute Couture' and 'Pret-a-Porter' - from French fashion designer Christian Lacroix. It is said that only around 100 of the former were made and apparently they were being auctioned at U$1,000 a piece.

Subsequent designers have included André Courrèges, Diane Von Furstenberg, Issey Miyake, Jean Paul Gautier, and Paul Smith. These are certainly big names but, personally, I find it all a bit pretentious.

We are not talking 50-year-old malt whisky or vintage Champagne here, but water: You know, the stuff that falls from the sky.

Designer bottles may look pretty sitting on a shelf but how much is this really helping to re-inforce the Evian brand in the mind of the average person in the street who, after all, forms the mainstay of its demand? Very little, I should think.

Of course, it is not just Evian that has turned to the ranks of fashion designers to supposedly sharpen its brand imagery. For the past decade, Coca-Cola has partnered with the likes of Diane Von Furstenberg and Karl Lagerfeld. Then, last year the company employed Jean Paul Gautier to create a collection of Coke bottles and cans for the European market. The first two designs were entitled ’Night' and ‘Day’ and made their debut in April. ‘Night’ features Gaultier’s iconic corset and cone bra design, while ‘Day’ has his Breton blue-and-white stripes signature. These were followed by the addition of 'Tattoo' in January of this year. This one was inspired by the French designer’s love of body art.

Again, I'm not sure what they have to do with soft drinks, but I'm sure they are very nice, if you like that sort of thing. And, there is obviously a collector market with the bottles and empty cans appearing on eBay.

Yet, what real purpose do the designs serve? Coca-Cola’s website blog says that they have “made the brand one of fashion’s ultimate accessories”. Sorry, but I thought you were supposed to drink Coke for its unique taste and refreshment value, not to carry it around as some sort of adornment. What has happened to the easily recognised red Coke can? What has happened to brand re-inforcement? Rival PepsiCo ran a “You Design a Can for Us” campaign, but at least this was for the participation of loyal followers.

Unfortunately, to my mind at least, the inappropriate use of designer labels is not just confined to the above. A couple of years ago Schweppes Australia released bottles with limited edition shrink sleeves depicting the theme of pin-up girls from the 1920’s. In 2011, Unilever employed the services of Mexican designer César Evangelista to illustrate Lipton Iced Tea cans and, last year, Miss Universe Jennifer Hawkins signed up as brand ambassador for Mount Franklin Lightly Sparkling water, one of Australia’s leading water brands owned by Coca-Cola Amatil. As part of this collaboration selected prints from her swimwear collection were incorporated into limited edition bottle packaging. It's all a bit of fun, maybe, but apart from indirect advertising for Ms Hawkins, I am not sure who really benefitted here. 

Let us not forget the actual designer fees. Unsurprisingly, the costs have not been published, but having accumulated an estimated net worth of over US$1bn, designers like the afore-mentioned Diane von Furstenberg are not going to come cheap. Moreover, these charges need to be taken into consideration at a time when rising commodity prices and energy costs, plus growing retailer strength, are already making it harder for brands compete.

Whilst I have nothing against any of these brands as soft drinks, please, let us not be encouraged to consider them as objets d’art. Maybe I am old school but, to me, a brand’s strength lies in it being the preferred option in the eyes of its target audience.

I do not see that the above mentioned ‘fashion statements’ in any way enhance brand equity or advance brand loyalty in the long-term.