Message on a bottle: role of packaging in brand premiumisation

7 September 2018

Held in the archaic and classical Greek gallery at the Getty Villa in Malibu is a slim, elegant vessel, 23cm tall, with its top half carved in the shape of a woman’s torso: an alabastron. Delicately sculpted – the woman wears a veil and a pendant necklace – and made from the precious material alabaster, this premium perfume bottle is around 2,500 years old.

Trends fluctuate: we no longer use alabaster as a high-end packaging material, although the female form as inspiration for a perfume bottle has modern echoes in Schiaparelli’s 1937 Shocking, Jean-Paul Gaultier’s instantly recognisable Classique and, most recently, Kim Kardashian West’s KKW Body. The skilled use of packaging to further augment a high-end item, however, remains constant.

“The consumer experience is enhanced by all the quality and sensoriality of the product,” explains Phillipe Thuvien, L’Oréal’s global head of packaging and development. “The packaging is therefore key in its design, its functionality, its ease of use and its ability to boost the performance of the formula.”

As packaging provides the first point of contact between a consumer and brand, it is vital for informing customers in new markets about a product’s premium value and reassuring those familiar with the brand of its continued status – a precise and multilayered endeavour.

“The perception of ‘premium’ lies in more than just packaging design,” says Eric Näf, director of packaging development at Absolut. “It is dependent on the materials we use, shapes, decoration, brand status, communication and consumption occasion.”

High-end feel

Premium packaging has the ability to create an attitude of individuality or exclusivity. Serge Lutens’ luxury perfume line offers scents in limited edition bottles, each numbered to heighten its rarity. Absolut also has a long history of creating unique packaging, with past designs playing on the bottle’s recognisable form to give space to artistic expression.

In 2014, a bottle replicating Andy Warhol’s Absolut artwork drew attention to the brand’s collaboration with artists, while the Absolut Facet featured a blue, gemstone-cut bottle, showing that packaging is becoming as important to consumers as a product’s contents. In both cases, the packaging played on the brand’s value as a premium vodka, linking it to fine art and precious stones.

Limited edition packaging also helps top brands target specific markets. The travel-exclusive sector, for instance, is traditionally focused on luxury goods with packaging to match. Givenchy’s Glamour on the Gold palette was designed by architect and designer Christophe Pillet, boasting a sleek gold and black case with a detailed clasp and three interior layers.

Creating effective premium packaging lies in identifying what consumers perceive to be high quality. This task encompasses a vast range of considerations, including market research and technological innovation, as Thuvien explains. “You have to know the market and its requirements when creating and designing a new product,” he says. “It is then necessary to imagine qualitative solutions, such as optimising the visible material thicknesses – which will bring an immediate perception of quality – and, of course, to test them to ensure that consumers perceive them well; it is an iterative process that is facilitated today by the digital simulation and 3D-printing technologies used for packaging prototyping.”

Thuvien points to the Armani Privé fragrance bottles as examples of a successful premium packaging strategy by L’Oréal. With echoes of the prized material of thealabastron, the bottles – which won a FiFi Award for packaging – play on using valuable materials to indicate the perfume’s premium quality. Carved resin forms bottle caps reminiscent of precious stones – an effect that is amplified by the heavy glass of the bottle.

Telling a story

Material specification is a key area for outlay in premium packaging, with glass remaining an obvious choice for a premium alcohol product like Absolut vodka. “As consumers continue to associate glass with quality, it remains a dominant material choice in the high-end drinks segment,” Näf affirms.

It’s not merely the use of glass, though, but the tangle of associations tied up with Absolut’s bottle that provide it with access to the holy grail in premiumisation: the concept of authenticity, a nebulous and shifting idea that nevertheless assures the consumer of a brand’s value by reinforcing its individuality, heritage and quality.

The distinctive glass bottle, created for Absolut by designers Gunnar Broman and Hans Brindfors in 1979, recalls traditional Swedish apothecary bottles. “It’s a brand symbol that has become iconic and, thus, one of the top priorities in packaging design is to ensure our brand is instantly recognised by people across the globe,” Näf stresses.

Hugely recognisable – which is unsurprising when it has been painted by Andy Warhol – the bottle signals the brand’s status, as well as its history and place of origin. Absolut’s founder Lars Olsson Smith is pictured on the bottle’s seal, while the original and present location of manufacture, Åhus, is referenced twice. It’s a point Absolut sought to emphasise with the ‘The vodka with nothing to hide’ marketing campaign that, like the bottles, lingers on the idea of terroir: the specific conditions and geography of the vodka’s production site that mould its premium characteristics.

A focus on geographical specificity and artisan values make up a significant part of indicating authenticity, showing a premium brand’s individuality and that it has not lost touch with its roots – even when marketing to a new, distant audience. The packaging of Akashi-Tai sake, for example, intends to appeal to Japanese and international markets using lettering that showcases traditional Japanese design. Japanese calligrapher Hirano Sogen created the kanji brand mark, while the bottle’s labels are made from artisan Japanese paper.

Elsewhere, having already redesigned Bacardi’s logo by taking inspiration from early 20th-century versions of the design, creative agency Here Design made use of the historic brand’s archives by creating packaging for its premium range of aged rums that emphasised heritage. The past is important in presenting a high-end product, as discovered by the Kadence International Luxury Index 2018, which found that brands with an established history created a stronger perception of luxury.

Sustainability counts

Premium packaging can also be used to draw attention to a product’s ingredients or characteristics. Giorgio Armani’s Acqua di Giò Absolu masculine fragrance features aquatic and woody notes that are accentuated by the packaging: clear glass, a shiny metal collar and a cap made from ash wood, which “brings warmth, sensuality and emotion”, according to Thuvien.

What’s more, the wood used for the bottle’s cap is sustainably sourced, an aspect that is highlighted on Armani’s website, illustrating the idea that authenticity becomes connected to corporate responsibility, while sustainability emerges as a premium value.

It’s an approach that is being taken with other L’Oréal products. The Lancôme Absolue L’Extrait elixir, an anti-ageing moisturiser that stands at the apex of luxury skincare, is available as a refill that can be inserted into the original jar; other shampoos used in hairdressing salons are also available as refills from the beauty giant. “L’Oréal is committed to improving, by 2020, the environmental or social profile of 100% of its new products,” Thuvien says. “The sustainable packaging strategy contributes to this, of course.”

This trend is extending throughout premium packaging. At Absolut, bottle weight has recently been reduced by 12% in a bid to improve sustainability, and the company intends to send zero waste to landfills by 2020 and make 50% of its bottles from recycled glass. “The Absolut Company has worked on reducing our environmental footprint for decades and, today, is one of the most energy-efficient distilleries in the world,” Näf states. “We believe that is premium and something that really matters when it comes to brand choice today and in the future.”

Increased sustainability is also made possible through technological advancements in the creation of premium packaging. “There is currently a lot of interest around intelligent and active packaging,” Näf adds. “We are certain that new technologies will help enhance the brand experience and provide information for consumers to make conscious product choices.”

Innovation in this area is constantly required, as tastes change and the priorities of consumers develop. “Tomorrow, premiumisation will probably require new materials and techniques that answer the new demands of consumers, including sustainable development,” Thuvien comments.

What is certain, however, is that the care and attention to detail that goes into making high-end packaging will remain constant. As Thuvien concludes, “Regardless of the market, premiumisation requires a perfect quality of execution.”

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