Last week we came across a pack design audit of 12 popular vodka brands by Affinnova.  Having read a summary on the CoDesign blog, we then delved into the full report.  We came away disappointed.

As an agency that regularly works with major global spirit brands including Grey Goose, it’s a category we know well.  From the global research we’ve carried out, we know this to be a massively competitive marketplace with differentiation at its core.  Brands strive to break the mould and differentiate themselves with strikingly unique and individual bottles.  So we had high expectations for the study.

The research itself took 500 US vodka drinkers; half of whom were presented solely with vodka brand names, the other half with with the bottle designs.  Responses to personality questions were then compared in an attempt to gauge the distance between bottle designs and brand associations.

Whilst the market context was well-thought out and helped to frame the importance of design in this category, the methodology was problematic on several levels.  It encountered many of the pitfalls symptomatic of a non-specialist approach to design research.

The major flaw came with the ways in which the designs were treated – something we see all too often.  The ‘winning pack’ was one that scored highly on a wide range of seemingly random and sometimes contradictory personality traits.

Each bottle was uniformly assessed against 11 different personality traits.  To me, a bottle that does sophisticated, traditional, celebratory, sexy, intelligent, friendly, approachable, fun, trusted, modern and genuine is one that lacks brand definition.  It’s schizophrenic.  A bottle without a ‘clear’ sense of identity or differentiation.  But in this study it’s seen to be a ‘winner’.

Fundamentally, the research fails to recognise that the most successful global brands are those which establish a strong, strategic market position.  Good design research will help clients to understand the role of pack in delivering this position.

So, following up from this research, here are some tips for good practice evaluative design research.


Measure designs against the brief

You can only evaluate a design’s effectiveness if you know what it’s meant to do. For example, the success criteria for a romcom is very different to that of an action film.  If you went to the cinema and saw Richard Curtis’ latest film, you wouldn’t mark it down because it wasn’t tense enough, nor would you expect Arnie to indulge your softer, sentimental side.  In other words, the measure one brings to analysis needs to be contextualised.  The vodka brands on show here are aiming for distinct identities – to resonate differently with consumers.  Is modernity really a fair measure for Stolichnaya, and traditional for Ciroc?

Cîroc & Stolichnaya: very different vodka brands and very different bottles.


Understand the strategic role of pack as part of the wider marketing mix

Packaging is just one – albeit very important – part of a complex and painstakingly planned marketing mix.  The research needs to take account of marketing strategy, to understand what role the pack is expected to play at shelf.  Only then can you give it a fair test that will adequately articulate what it will do for the brand.



Avoid likes and dislikes

There’s little point asking questions like ‘what do you like about this pack?’ as this isn’t an accurate indicator of a design’s success.  Just because a consumer likes something, it doesn’t mean the design fits the brief, or will perform well on shelf.  Consumers need to be asked what a pack communicates and it’s then up to us as researchers together with the design agency and client to analyse how well the design delivers the marketing strategy.