Defending the top shelf
This work was carried out by Essential Design, part of PA Consulting
Brown-Forman, the leading global spirits company, has a portfolio of over 25 brands, including bourbon brand Woodford Reserve. As brands began to copy the bourbon’s visual design language, Brown-Forman did what leaders do, it commissioned a project to reclaim the visual franchise of the original by affirming its expressive power and extending it to new Woodford Reserve offers. We refined and modernised the core Woodford Reserve visual elements and then developed a design language whose principles and design details became the canvas for trade dress and future offers in the portfolio.
Challenge: Reinforce the market leadership of a modern classic bourbon.
Brown-Forman is an American-owned spirits company that now ranks among the top 10 spirits companies in the world. Its portfolio of over 25 brands features Woodford Reserve, a super-premium, small-batch bourbon produced at the Woodford Reserve Distillery outside Lexington, Kentucky. When it launched in 1996, it defied the category conventions by choosing to build a modern classic brand from scratch rather than draw on nostalgia-based authenticity.
Its neo-classic bourbon formulation and packaging found a huge audience in a category still experiencing sustained growth. Bourbon is a product typically presented backlit in dark rooms on glass shelves, where a bottle silhouette becomes part of the storytelling. And the iconic shape of the Woodford Reserve bottle helped build brand loyalty. Too beautiful to throw away, loyalists said in research, its design marked it for competitive threats. As brands began to copy its visual design language, Brown-Forman did what leaders do, it commissioned a project to reclaim the visual franchise of the original by affirming its expressive power and extending it to new Woodford Reserve offers.
Approach: Distil the essence of the original design language. Then bottle it.
The original Woodford Reserve product, called Distiller’s Select, began with a thin, flat and tall flask-like shape, sometimes called a cowboy-style bottle, then exaggerated its proportions. Its extended neck, widened and rounded shoulders, and straightened sides came to define its modern character. Research confirmed that users considered these physical elements to be signature to the brand.
Essential refined and modernised these core Woodford Reserve visual elements and then developed a design language whose principles and design details became the canvas for trade dress and future offers in the portfolio. With these tools in place, the team moved on to develop a family of closely related Woodford Reserve products. The new bottle designs brought added rigor to the growth strategy for the franchise, while also strengthening protections for the language as a proprietary asset.
Solution: Celebrate a signature design theme with compelling variations.
Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select, the much beloved original product expression, was the first opportunity to apply the language. Its refined design showcases foundational elements of the original, modernising them to a point beyond current category trends, and affirming the brand’s role as the leader of the super-premium bourbon category.
The second expression, designed to emphasise the brand’s craftsmanship, was more challenging. Called Woodford Reserve Double-Oaked, for its extended oak barrel aging process, the Essential design echoed the straight sides of the original but altered their proportions. Shortening the bottle’s height, adding a solid glass base, and increasing its depth set it apart from the original and from other offers in the bourbon category. The shape also created a deeper view through the liquor, reinforcing the richer amber colour imparted by its artisanal aging process.
The third offer was a luxury pillar expression called the Woodford Reserve Baccarat Edition. Created for the super-premium bourbon category, the bottle accentuates the signature elements of the original bottle design by embodying them in highly refined materials and finishes including a bottle made from Baccarat crystal. With limited distribution and a $1,500 price point, it is positioned primarily for collectors and the global travel retail channel where Woodford Reserve is the reigning super-premium category leader.
Impact: The anchor brand in the global portfolio pulls its weight.
Brown-Forman is a great American success story that will celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2020. Over the past five years, it has enjoyed a 10 per cent compound annual growth rate among its premium and super-premium Whiskey and Tequila brands. This includes a banner year for Woodford Reserve in 2017, when the first bottle designs based on the new language debuted, and when the brand crossed the half-million case mark in US sales for the first time. “The ramp for the Woodford Reserve brand is huge”, according to new CEO Lawson Whiting. “It’s the next step in taking American whiskey to a global stage.”
This client story was originally published on Essential’s website, our Boston-based innovation research, strategy and product design business.
When Woodford Reserve first launched 20 years ago, we redefined the category with our complex yet balanced bourbon in a disruptive package. Through this redesign, Woodford Reserve continues to demonstrate its commitment to innovation in design evolution and overall leadership within the super-premium spirits category.