Liquid Thinking

Does good design matter?

31st May 2023

That may sound like a trick question. But an increasing number of launches are opting for the less is more approach, or to put it more discerningly, they haven’t bothered with flamboyance. Or to put it more crudely, they actively fly in the face of good design. Call it hipster chic, call it industrial minimalism, but the recent launches by Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson and James May have us questioning, if you have other marketing ploys on your side, does design actually matter?  

What sells a product? Is it the liquid itself? Is it the branding? Is it the hype surrounding it? Provenance maybe? Shelf appeal is something we obviously think a lot about; what is it that stops someone in their tracks and that’s so compelling it cuts through the noise of a thousand other products on the shelf? Sometimes it’s boldness. And sometimes, well sometimes it’s about doing absolutely nothing at all. 

The usual culprits

Step forward if you will, Mr James May. You may know May from his bumbling, always-being-picked-on, but never-quite-summoning-the-energy-to-care vibes from the Top Gear of yesteryear (aka, when it was good). And you may have seen that like every other celeb out there, he has his own booze brand. 

James Gin first launched in 2021 with Asian Parsnip, a product May initially released as a hand-signed limited edition, made with parsnip obviously, ginger, caraway seed, cubeb pepper, fenugreek, sweet orange and more. However, newer batches of the liquid “aren’t signed and numbered because I can’t be arsed. As a result, it's slightly cheaper. So, in essence, a more presentable bottle not defaced with the scrawl of an infant, at a better price”.

Since then, he’s added a navy strength and more unusually an American Mustard gin, which uses yellow mustard seeds, alongside gherkin and dried tomato for that burger topping feel. Which to be fair, does sound pretty interesting. 

Bottled notoriety

And May isn’t the only Top Gear star at it. Jeremy Clarkson, everyone’s favourite objective and balanced columnist, has been having a punt at the drinks industry too. His realm however is beer. Made in partnership with Cotswold Brew Co, Hawkstone Lager is named after a Neolithic standing stone located close to his now infamous farm, Diddly Squat, in Gloucestershire and uses barley grown there too. In the past week, he’s also launched an alcohol-free beer as a standalone brand, called Diddly Fresh.

Now, why are we drawing your attention to the work of these fine fellows? Well, because when it comes to design, these two seemingly haven’t bothered. No, we’re not being rude. They have truly taken the minimalist path. But not in that clean, hyper under-designed way. Oh no. With stock fonts and plain labels, let’s look at Hawkstone for example. 

Less is more?

Clarkson’s branding consists merely of brown paper, black font – bish bash bosh – for the outer packaging. And for the bottles themselves, the designs are inverted. It doesn’t shout, it whispers. And gives us flashbacks of other brands such as the Kernel Brewery. Meanwhile May has gone for something that looks distinctly like the periodic table. Or is it a Mondrian? 

While he himself projects a character of bumbling humour and the liquid of James Gin itself is standout unusual and creative, his bottles look positively scientific, or dare we say, pharmaceutical. They’re no-nonsense, straight to the point and though deeply functional, couldn’t be accused of being an example of great design. 

A disconnect between branding and product

With both products, there’s not only a disconnect between the brand and the branding – neither reflect anything of the liquid inside, nor the men behind them – but neither do they stand out. Even so, that doesn’t seem to have got in the way of their success. May’s first batch sold out quickly, prompting not only a rebottling, but several more liquids and has won acclaim and medals from the World Gin Awards, London Spirits Competition and the IWSC among others.

All of which leads us to question, does their branding and design even matter? Both were launched to captive fan bases through YouTube videos, tapping into their well-trodden and mostly well received, brand of humour. You could argue it was here, rather than through their packaging, that it had to land. The brands are intended to be recognisable to fans because of their proliferation across social media, rather than inviting in those merely browsing the shelves. 

One dimensional appeal

The pathways to consumer decision making and ultimately purchase, are often complex and diverse. But both May and Clarkson are banking on established familiarity to communicate the virtues of their products, rather than leaning on or utilising their packaging to do it for them. Here, good design does not matter. 

Yet it seems by taking this route, that opportunities have been missed by them both, because of course, great design could have elevated both concepts. Good design obviously matters and rather than relying on and leaning on their celebrity, both could have used their branding to convey more about their liquids. This seems especially true for May whose liquid seems independently credible when it comes to both quality and originality. And when it comes to conveying their personalities and personal brands, neither manage it successfully. 

Lack of outreach

When you have a marketing tool – the power of personality in the case of these two – that is so accurately able to cut through the noise, good branding is an afterthought. But it shouldn’t be. The men, rather than their products, are the brands here. And that’s something that will ultimately limit future growth, with their branding’s lack of outreach beyond those already aware of the products, will become an obstacle to future growth. Because currently, looking like that, without already buying into the men themselves, it’s hard to for anyone to buy into their brands.


Interested in finding out more about what this might mean for you and your business?

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