An age-old category, spirits is an industry in which design can make all the difference. Historically, it is also a category that employs strict design rules for each spirit within it. However, as more brands challenge the status quo and embrace disruptive design, spirits brands have increasingly begun to try and break free of the rules of their category. But with everyone challenging, who stands out?

Let’s talk vodka. Of all spirits, vodkas vary the least in terms of actual product and the design rules for vodka have always been clear: vodka is about purity, clarity, and smoothness. All vodkas are the same color, have the same general distillation process and yet consumers perceive an enormous range in the category as a result of packaging. Brands like Effen, Ciroc, Svedka, Skyy, and Absolut certainly understand the cues of premiumization. Brands like Smirnoff or Stolichnaya use their packaging to convey mass-market appeal.

Whiskey has always been about age, craft, and heritage. Recently though, rums have stepped out of the box and taken cues from whiskey. Similarly, many gin brands have stepped up their attitude and begun to take cues from the beer industry. At the value level, we are seeing brands begin to play-off the food industry and create entire sub-ranges of spirits entirely based around flavor. Though this type of rule breaking can be extremely successful if done right, many brands have injured themselves by taking cues from other categories when they should be creating new rules and distinct new visual languages. For example, a gin taking cues from the vodka category just leaves us with another clear liquid that looks like vodka but tastes like gin. So when it comes to spirits, is it all about breaking the rules of your category, or is it about sticking to them? The answer is a little bit of both.

Overall, no matter what the category, it’s important to have a clear brand purpose and vision. Additionally, spirits must always mind their P’s: Product, Process, Personality and Provenance. From there, it’s about defining what sets you apart; for spirits that’s about both the story of your spirit and literally what lies within your bottle. If you break the rules just to break the rules, you can end up breaking your brand along the way. By making your vodka look like gin, you’ve doubled your range of competitors. Now your product has to compete with vodka and other gins.

This doesn’t mean you can’t break the rules. Industry City Distillery Vodka is a great newcomer to the market, challenging the perception that vodka cannot be enjoyed straight up like whiskey or rye. From start to finish, Industry City has analyzed the vodka category and taken steps to set themselves apart. From building a distillery from scratch, to developing a unique fermentation process and a distillation process (usually only seen in a lab,) to labels produced from its own antique printing press, everything is unique and integrated, providing the brand with a real point of difference that feels valuable to the consumer.

Cutty Sark is a great example of tremendously successful iconic rule breaker. Pearlfisher worked on the redesign for Cutty Sark and focused specifically on the key points of difference in order to create outstanding design for the brand. The Clipper, the color yellow and the Cutty Sark typestyle all became design elements that enhanced the brand’s point of difference while the green bottle, structure shape, and focus on provenance ensured that the brand still sits comfortably within the whiskey category.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a new brand or an existing icon, the rules are there for a reason.  Learn the rules, see how they apply to you, and then – and only then – can you start throwing them out the window. Only once you’ve established a vision and a point of difference can you begin to break the conventions around you and set yourself apart from the crowd. Otherwise, you’re just throwing the baby out with the bathtub(gin).

Originally published on The Dieline