Comment - Spirits - When Innovation Goes Crazy

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Innovation in the spirits industry is 'a good thing'. But, Richard Woodard is worried that, of occasion, some spirits companies run the risk of disappearing up their own still pipes when they over-innovate.

I’ve always been a bit dubious about the supposed charm of spa hotels. For me, beyond the spare functionality of a pillow on which to rest your head, expensive hotels are hopefully hedonistic places in which to indulge all the senses. 

A fine hotel should be an escape, if you will, from the workaday drudgery of modern life. Not somewhere you go to chew celery, drink essence of lemongrass and have half your skin rubbed off by some nightmarish botanical concoction. 

Spa hotels reached their nadir, for me, at one particular hellhole in Portugal (I’ll spare you the fine detail) where the toilet cubicle had translucent frosted glass walls, creating one silhouette you’re unlikely to forget in a hurry. 

There was also a sci-fi-esque bank of switches, none labelled, which would have defeated the brightest of NASA sparks and which required a 10-minute intensive course from the hotel staff on their correct usage. Even then, I was never sure whether I was about to switch on the lights, open the blinds or order a three-course meal on room service. 

My point is: whoever developed the place was silly enough to let the designer go just a little bit nuts, when what they needed was a real person to keep tapping them on the shoulder and pulling them up short when their fantasies tripped over into the ludicrous. 

It’s much the same with a few of our leading spirits brands at the moment. Except that this time, it’s not the designers that have been let loose, it’s the marketing boys – and their chosen indulgence is the Special Edition. 

Time was when these were simple affairs: a Madeira finish whisky, if you’re feeling especially risqué, or, ooh, a high-strength vodka. Now we have blue-sky-inspired tie-ins with fashion designers and graphic artists, usually accompanied by meaningless drivel descriptors like “truly unique” and “the epitome of luxury”. 

Take the past few weeks as an example, during which we’ve heard tell of the launch of, for one, Absolut Gustafson. Eh? Obviously it’s a collaboration with Swedish-born and US-based illustrator and artist Mats Gustafson, and it’s a vodka flavoured with cherries, strawberries, cardamom and chai (which, I think, is a posh word for tea). Hmmm.

And if that doesn’t take your fancy, then how about Absolut Crystal Pinstripe? This homage to the “classic pinstripe fabric” is basically vodka in a fancy bottle with a couple of glasses thrown in. And, it’s US$1,500 a pop, unless you want a black version, in which case it’s $10,000. No, really. 

Then there’s Highland Park. This grieves me personally because HP is, even amid my ever-changing moods, my Official Favourite Single Malt. For years, it was criminally under-exploited by Edrington. Then, they carried out a rebranding masterclass by changing the bottles, labels, iconography – well, everything to do with the packaging, really. And lo, its long-held potential was realised. 

But recently I’ve had the idea that things are getting ever so slightly, well, silly. Vintages and special releases have been coming out with the frequency of celebrity-based reality TV shows, and they’ve now reached their (il)logical conclusion with the impending release of Drakkar (which I seem to remember was the poor man’s Old Spice) and “the new collectable series based on the legendary Norse gods”. I. Can’t. Wait. 

It’s not that I necessarily think that these are inherently inferior products. In most cases, I haven’t tasted them, but I’m sure the HP specials are top Scotch and that the Absolut releases are, er, Swedish vodka (however much chai they may or may not contain).

But how did Absolut become great? Simplicity. A classic US advertising campaign which used the distinctly unshowy bottle, an eye-catching font and a bit of wit to transform a workaday Scandi spirit into a modern design classic. 

Similarly, Highland Park was given a brand makeover that was worthy of its inherent quality, but used cues of culture and history to bring its consumer communication up to the mark of its fabulous spirit. At its core, it was all about conventional age statements because HP’s quality was such that it didn’t need to use anything more tricksy than that. 

I understand the temptation to reinterprete a classic when you have a relatively mature product selling well in established markets. How else is one to say something new to prompt a higher regularity of purchase, or to attract the attention of fresh consumers?

But, the more you fanny around with your brand, the greater the danger that you dilute the core strengths that made it great in the first place, and confuse the consumer in the process. Slippery slope. That’s the lesson learned at Glenmorangie, where a ridiculously flabby range of finishes has been toned into an altogether tighter portfolio that makes a virtue of cask variety. 

That spa hotel in Portugal had at its heart a wine tasting room which was ensconced in Stygian gloom, with not a glimmer of natural light to be found. And, however tempting the lure of the line extension may be, I fear that these products are all too often just as useful to the end consumer. Sometimes the urge to say something new should be resisted, for the good of all.

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