Every year, BRANDPACKAGING awards several creative thinkers and doers in the packaging and branding industry with the title of Brand Innovator. These cream-of-the-crop men and women inspire and educate us all with their stories, and we delight in helping you get to know your peers on a more personal level as we honor them and their work. Please join us in congratulating 2014’s leaders for changing not only their own brands but also our market as a whole.
ANNA KAMJOU & JONAS TÅHLIN The Absolut Company
BRANDPACKAGING (BP): Anna and Jonas, what are your titles/current positions?
Anna Kamjou (AK): I am Senior Advisor Global Design to The Absolut Company on a consultancy basis. Previously, I was Global Design Director for Absolut, then also Malibu and Kahlúa. I led the innovative design direction for Absolut Elyx, the flavor redesigns, and the brand design strategy underpinning Originality and Unique, among other projects. I am also pursuing some independent creative projects.
Jonas Tåhlin (JT): Vice President Global Marketing, leading the global marketing department for The Absolut Company.
BP: Please tell us about your backgrounds.
AK: I have a broad global creative background, with almost 20 years in branding, design and innovation in Stockholm, London and Hong Kong. I trained as an opera singer as a child, and that gave me the multidisciplinary artistic experience, strong belief in creative teamwork, and the rigorous discipline required in creative and design innovation for a global creative brand like Absolut. Working with a wide range of global clients agency-side, I was fascinated by the power of design to transform both businesses and brands. I was recruited to Absolut five years ago to lead design vision and design innovation for the brand, particularly in packaging design and brand identity.
JT: After almost 10 years with Procter & Gamble, I was recruited to Absolut as the head of Europe in 2006. Having lived and worked in Stockholm, Chicago, Geneva, Rio de Janeiro, Caracas and Zurich, Absolut was a continuous source of national pride and inspiration. I was honored to join the team, particularly since nightlife was always close to my heart.
BP: Describe the Absolut brand.
JT: The Absolut brand, in its very first incarnation, was born in 1879, when we started making vodka in the small southern Swedish community of Åhus. However, it wasn’t launched to a global audience until 100 years later. The brand and bottle design that was created for the U.S. launch in 1979 embodied all that was different about Absolut: Swedish, not Russian, vodka; an understated, apothecary-inspired bottle design, not an embellished, traditional vodka design. Form followed function in the printing directly on the glass, instead of using elaborate paper labels to cover a standard glass bottle.
As a brand, the creative personality became more prominent in the 1980s as we collaborated with then contemporary and daring artists, such as Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and Ed Ruscha, and it burst onto the socially dynamic and culturally rebellious nightlife scene in New York.
BP: The glass bottle is a true brand equity. Tell us more about it.
AK: The Absolut bottle is one of the world’s most well-recognized and admired bottle designs, a classic Swedish product design. Our now legendary advertising campaign with the transforming bottle has become part of popular culture and taken on a meaning beyond packaging design. Immortalized by Warhol and inspiring over 800 works of art which make up the Absolut Art Collection, the bottle was designed by a small team in Sweden in 1979. Their inspiration was the simplicity, boldness and clarity of an 18th-century Swedish apothecary bottle crossed with a modern, pop art-inspired typography. The brand’s courage to remain true to its own vision and DNA is what has turned the bottle, initially considered too unusual and even ugly for a vodka bottle, into such an icon for the brand.
BP: Despite the bottle’s structural consistency, the brand takes liberties with what it wears. How do you use packaging to reinforce the brand at shelf?
AK: As the structural design of the glass bottle is unique and unmistakably Absolut, we have a very strong canvas upon which to “paint” in order to make our packaging always contemporary and relevant at shelf. This gives us the confidence that allows us to take some liberties with how we dress the bottle, something which also seems intuitively right for a creative brand. We’re not after a traditional matching-luggage effect but something more transformative, artistically freer and more contemporary — even though our brand identity is, of course, anchored in certain consistent elements as well. There is a pop-art sensibility in the idea of not being too precious about our core asset, and in the very DNA of Absolut is the idea of the shape-shifter, the slightly irreverent trickster, which means we as a brand don’t take ourselves too seriously. We take our vodka dead seriously, but with such a quality product and such an iconic bottle structure, we can afford to be playful and imaginative with our packaging’s graphic design. Reinforcing the brand’s message at shelf is done by making sure that our new designs always catch people’s eye, are instantly recognizable as Absolut, and emotionally express the ethos of the brand through visual storytelling, often using artistic and graphic styles that add new meaning and a level of innovation to every new piece of packaging.
BP: Tell us about Absolut Unique.
JT: Absolut Unique is the only bottle design that any spirits brand has created where every single one of the millions of bottles is individually unique. This time, it was the brand that was the artist, or in practice, the machines on our decoration and bottling line, that created the differing design elements. The brand is all about creativity and personal, artistic expression as a way of transforming oneself as well as one’s world. This is an idea that we have long brought to life in our limited editions.
BP: Producing nearly 4 million limited-edition bottles is a big undertaking. How does the team create new ideas and bring the rest of the brand on board?
AK: Creating new ideas is the least difficult part! With a number of creative, design and technical experts at Absolut, all passionate craftspeople with the ambition to push every idea as far as we can in realization, there is always a flow of more or less visionary or impossible ideas floating around. It is really a huge team effort getting everyone on board with ideas and inspired to go to extreme lengths to bring them to realization, both technically and commercially.
BP: Spirits packaging is often surrounded by a premium culture. How do the Elyx bottles convey luxury?
JT: The Absolut Elyx bottles are unlike anything else in the luxury spirits category. This is a whole new take on luxury design, a very visionary and pure design that at once is completely new while being an imaginative shape-shift of the authentic Absolut design DNA, in terms of bottle proportions. The quality and silky texture of this single estate handcrafted vodka was the inspiration for the bottle design. Luxury today is not about excess and big logos. As a modern luxury brand, Absolut Elyx is all about integrity. The copper prominent in the bottle is authentically used in the manual distillation of this vodka. Every single detail on the bottle is there for a reason.
BP: What have some of your favorite projects been?
AK and JT: One of our recent favorites has to be our big flavor range redesign. This is one of the most dramatic changes we’ve ever made. Our goal was to give our customers distinctive designs that are unlike anything one has ever seen. Vibrant, captivating bottles bring energy to any occasion and celebrate the fact that every flavor in the range is something extraordinary. The standard thinking says a fruit-flavored vodka requires a picture of the fruit on the bottle. We wanted to break that convention. We asked our design team to reach into the symbolism and myths tied to the ingredients to find each flavor’s core essence — and then amplify that essence through art.
Absolut Elyx is also a huge favorite project and design. To create a truly innovative piece of packaging for the world’s first raw luxe vodka is both a creatively stimulating and technically challenging thing to do.
BP: What excites and challenges you both most about your work, now and in the future?
AK: In hyper-competitive and innovation-driven markets — which perfectly describes the spirits industry — where most people chose brands for primarily emotional reasons, I find there is still a lot of untapped potential for design of brands, packaging and consumer experience to create new value and more meaning. Another exciting challenge is the greater need to make all branding, design and packaging even more sustainable — economically as well as ecologically.
JT: In an increasingly competitive retail landscape and with proliferation of media, design becomes increasingly important to build value for brands. That’s exciting for me because we are truly very good at it in Sweden, and we have a lot of design talent on our brands.