Plymouth Gin is just the most recent of many liquor brands to undergo a facelift. Some of these spirit brands are responding to market trends and evolving brand identities but others seem to change merely because they think they ought to; those redesigns are inevitably less successful.
Plymouth is a whole category of gin unto itself, distinct from the London Dry style that most English gins like Tanqueray, Beefeater and Bombay fit into. Plymouth is, as the distillers describe it, is “more aromatic and fruity” than London Dry gin.
The earliest bottles of Plymouth Gin featured a monk, a reference to the name of the distillery—Black Friars. That design continued through the 1960s until the ship motif replaced it.
Plymouth announced a redesign of its bottle and label in 2006. At the time, the parent company’s marketing director Martin Price said the new, square, art deco-style design “allows us to communicate the heritage of the brand while still being relevant to gin drinkers today.” Which is much the same rhetoric used to announce the latest redesign, six years later.
This year, the parent company—now Pernod Ricard—opted for a more retro style. As Design Bridge, the firm hired to create the new bottle put it, “Pernod Ricard felt that Plymouth’s contemporary take on art deco styling was inappropriate.”
So they went to the archives:
“The Pilgrim Fathers spent their last night in England in what is now the Black Friar’s Distillery—the oldest working gin distillery in the country—so we reinstated the Mayflower as the Plymouth label’s hero. From the copper of the original 1793 still, in which the gin is still made, to the distillery and the jovial Black Friar himself, we rediscovered and reunited the brand’s key heritage elements, some of which were in danger of being forgotten. We have woven together every thread of Plymouth’s story and literally captured its spirit in an ‘uneven’ glass bottle that looks like it fell out of a 19th Century sailor’s back pocket.”
The result is dramatic. The size and shape (but not the volume) of the bottle has changed from tall and angular to shorter and rounder, and the glass is tinted and irregular. The label is fairly close to what was used before the 2006 redesign. And finally, the monk who graced the early bottles reappears on the glass below the label in the new one.
To me this is a successful redesign. The art deco bottle that was refreshing a few years ago now looked too sleek, corporate, and strangely impersonal for a brand with such history and personality. The new design restores most of that distinctiveness. I think Plymouth’s most ardent fans will respond better to a bottle and label that looks less like shiny premium vodka and more like the hand-made artisanal spirit that they think it is.
The Tennessee whiskey brand used the Minneapolis firm Design Cue Inc. to give its iconic bottle a subtle updating. The bottle is still square and the label uses the same black background with white script. But the updating gives the bottle what the designers call “distinctly chiseled, masculine features.” The label is a little bit cleaner, having deleted the words “Old Time” above the “Old No. 7 Brand” oval and “Quality” above the word “Tennessee.”
The typical Jack Daniels drinker may not actually notice the changes. Was it worth it? It might be more accurate to call it routine maintenance than a true renovation. I understand the clean-up. The label’s text was busy. Removing some unnecessary words without actually messing with the look and feel of the label was a good idea. But I don’t know that I would have bothered changing the shape of the bottle.
Chambord is a French cognac-based liqueur flavored with blackberries, black currants, raspberries, and vanilla. “According to legend, in 1685 King Louis XIV visited Château Chambord, where he enjoyed a marvelous liqueur made from wild raspberries,” the producer of Chambord says. Interestingly, it adds only that the current product was “inspired” by that legend, and no mention is made of just how long this liqueur has been produced.
The redesign of the famous gold-latticed Chambord bottle two years ago was called a flop by one critic, and I understand why. “I’ll admit that the old bottle was a bit cheesy with its crown and golden cage, but it was iconic, familiar and actually much loved,” wrote Daniel Priseman on Bitters & Twisted. “In what I can only assume was a money-saving exercise, the brand decided to ‘modernize’ the bottle.”
Part of what I think makes this redesign unsuccessful to many is that we’re all so fond of the original, and its updated version removed its familiar (and probably costly) embellishments. Without the previous bottle, which had become iconic, the new one wouldn’t look so bad.
“Changes to the Chambord Liqueur bottle are a reflection of those who enjoy Chambord—modern, fashionable and charismatic,” said brand manager Josh Hayes in 2010. It’s clear that the company was concerned about looking too stodgy. And what brand overhaul would be complete without introducing a flavored vodka? Chambord introduced a black raspberry flavored French vodka at the same time.
Despite my irritation with sleek updates, I don’t share Priseman’s hatred for the new Chambord bottle. I’d prefer more texture on the label—maybe stronger raised lettering would make it look less cheap—but overall I think the redesign was a logical update considering the brand’s mandate to appeal to a new generation of drinkers.
In about 2006, Brazil’s best-selling cachaça brand, Cachaça 51, unveiled one of the most careless and ham-fisted re-brandings I’ve ever seen. They took a beautiful label that invoked a 1950s glamour, maybe even a pre-Castro Cuban aesthetic, and dumbed it down with Microsoft Word-style typefaces. There were layers to the design, and fabulously fluid script on label that had a satisfying combination of muted yellow, black, red, and shiny gold.
The redesign removed the texture and layers, blew up the “51,” shrunk the word “Cachaça” and replaced the brush script-style font with what looks like a stiff Copperplate typeface. Even the gold accents have been changed to a less shiny bronze.
Even more bewildering is that this redesign came just at the beginning of the U.S. market’s fascination with heritage brands in all product areas. One need only to look at all the 19th century French liqueur posters people were buying from places like Pottery Barn to know that such a redesign was a mistake.
Why they did this, I don’t know. But within about a year, I stopped seeing the brand in New York liquor stores and saw in its place the rival brand Pitú and, later, the premium brand Leblon.