Wine packaged with matching tote bags, whiskey sold with matching branded glassware, tequila bottled in flashy, limited-edition packaging … Every year around the holidays, wine and spirits brands pull out all the stops with gift sets to try to catch the attention of consumers at retail. This year, for instance, liquor store shoppers might stroll past bottles of Absolut Elyx Vodka packaged inside a special copper tin that’s actually a music box that plays “La Vie en Rose,” Grey Goose Vodka sold along with silver, goose-crested olive picks, a limited-edition packaging of Disaronno with matching rocks glasses designed by the Italian fashion house Missoni, and Tito’s Vodka outfitted with a tiny sweater, to name a few, en route to the cash register.
These prepackaged gift sets (called value-added packs, or VAPs) offer wine and spirits brands yet another way to get in front of consumers during the holiday season, a time of year that brings a spike in off-premise alcohol sales: According to Nielsen, Americans spent more than $4.8 billion on wine alone over the 2016 holiday season. The three biggest alcohol sales days of the entire year occur within less than six weeks of each other during the holiday shopping season—in 2016, on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve, Americans spent a combined $3.5 billion on wine and spirits purchases at off-premise outlets. As brands angle to get a slice of the Christmas cash cow, these holiday gift sets, from the inexpensive and cheesy to the high end, have become a key part of merchandising strategy.
Three Brands, Three Approaches
Chandon has developed and released limited-edition holiday packaging for five consecutive seasons; planning for each release begins 18 months in advance, according to Korinne Munson, Moët Hennessy’s New York-based director of communications. Munson says that Chandon has historically partnered with ButterflyCannon, a boutique design agency based in London, for bottle design and production. Last year, however, Chandon chose to collaborate with another high-profile brand—fashion designer Rebecca Minkoff, who designed a limited-edition bottle with gold studs, a motif frequently deployed in the fashion line’s edgy accessories and footwear. For 2017, Chandon is offering its Winter Collection, with sparkling rosé and California brut in limited-edition, Minkoff-designed geometric packaging with holographic foil, at a suggested retail price of $24 per bottle. (The fashion line also designed a limited-edition, $95 clutch printed with the legend “I’d Rather Be in Napa” for the partnership, but it’s already sold out.)
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Holiday planning for Cava brand Anna de Codorníu begins a year in advance, says Oriol Gabarro, the director of marketing at Sonoma-based Aveníu Brands. The yearlong process begins by assessing the performance of the most recent holiday merchandising, surveying the market, soliciting feedback from consumers and retailers, and brainstorming with Aveníu’s marketing teams. “After that, we explore the options that we like the most and that we feel will be more successful,” Gabarro says. Development typically wraps up in June or July, and production begins shortly thereafter—Gabarro says that the brand will sometimes work with design agencies that have expertise in specialty packaging, but that sometimes everything is handled internally, depending on how complex the gift is. This year’s offerings include sparkling wine packaged in a branded neoprene sleeve with a tote handle, and two bottles of blanc de blanc sold alongside a branded ice bucket (suggested retail price: $28.99). While the brand produces limited quantities (3,000 units, in the case of the ice bucket pack) and allocates them to different markets and accounts, their VAPs are a dependable success. Says Gabarro, “We sell every single gift pack that we produce.”
Leaf Vodka, an organic vodka brand distributed by Global Spirits USA, produced a gift box for this year’s holiday season with two vodka offerings: a 750-milliliter bottle and a 200-milliliter sample, each made with a different water source (Alaskan Glacial and Rocky Mountain Mineral). The duo—you can pick a 750-ml bottle of either vodka and get a sample of the other—is packaged in a branded box with a plastic tote handle and retails for $21.99. Jim Amstutz, the Atlanta-based national sales manager for Global Spirits, says the brand normally tries to handle everything in-house but this year partnered with Claessens International, a design firm that specializes in packaging for beverage manufacturers. Amstutz says that collaborating with a third party brought a fresh perspective to the products.
Planning for Leaf’s holiday gift set begins about six months before “OND” (shorthand for the shopping season: October, November, and December). “Planning and initial development starts in the early spring by expanding and improving upon existing ideas and products,” says Amstutz. That planning takes shape initially with market research, competitive analysis, and a sales-team meeting composed of team members who have consulted with distributors before the discussion so as to have a sense of their specific markets’ demands. “At this point [in the process], we are ready for creative brainstorming, always keeping in mind production issues and cost,” Amstutz explains. From there, concepts are mocked up and presented to consumers for feedback, which ultimately determines the version that makes it to market. Amstutz adds that the brand’s overall objective is to offer consumers unexpected combinations, and to capitalize on the potential for cross sales by introducing them to products with which they’re unfamiliar. “The main idea behind gift sets,” he says, “is to introduce consumers to products they wouldn’t typically buy.”
Benefits Beyond Sales
VAPs require months of advance planning, quite a bit of market research, and often, at least one third-party partnership. Are they worth all that time, effort, and cost?
While none of the brands we spoke with provided sales data or hard ROI figures, all of them confirmed that the benefits seem to largely outweigh the cost—not just in terms of revenue but also for brand awareness and engagement. The value proposition is a simple win for consumers, says Amstutz. “It’s just another way to entertain customers,” he says, “and attract their attention to the product.” Gabarro echoes this, adding that Aveníu finds that holiday gift sets pull double duty for brands like Anna de Codorníu. “They drive sales,” he says, “and at the same time, they allow you to build your brand.”
Chandon’s limited-edition packaging “does cost more to produce,” says Munson, “but it gets us fantastic additional display visibility on-floor at wine retailers and grocery–specialty stores.” She adds that the special packaging drives PR buzz not only in the press but also on Instagram, where consumers love to share photos of their bottles. “We feel the ROI—in terms of additional points of distribution, more visibility on-shelf, and all the organic social media it creates—is well worth it, and we grow the program slowly but steadily each year.”
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Gray Chapman is an Atlanta-based journalist who writes about spirits, beauty, and culture; she was formerly the managing editor of Tales of the Cocktail. Follow her on Twitter.