Ethical indulgence

18 June 2019

Luxury is never out of fashion – unless it seems out of touch with the current mood. So how to get the right balance between responsibility and luxury when it comes to packaging? More and more brands are realising that tapping into the lucrative luxury market needs to be carefully approached to avoid looking wasteful. Emma-Jane Batey speaks to brand owners and packaging manufacturers to learn how luxury looks now.

Consumers are increasingly turning away from 'fast fashion' – whether that is clothing, accessories or indulgent purchases – but people still want to treat themselves without feeling like they are costing the earth. The idea of buying a large amount of something cheap – or one of something lovely contained in wasteful packaging – is not sitting well with today's consumer. We want beautiful things, delicious things, for giving to ourselves and to others, but we know that even the most artisan gin or best handcrafted sweets will grate if it is in too much packaging, layers of unrecyclable plastic or is badly-designed.

The notion of 'buy less, but better' is a good idea, but all too often it comes from the companies that make really expensive stuff (leather handbags, fancy jewellery) and they want consumers to buy into that ethos so they spend more than they normally would. But what about everyday luxury? The treats we all love on paydays and birthdays. Everyday luxury is booming; while consumers may not splash out on a new car or an expensive holiday when they are trying to cut back, they are happy to treat themselves or their loved ones with a better version of what they need.

For The Marshmallowist, the UK's first luxury marshmallow brand, its roster of stockists and media credits highlight its high-end credentials. From Vogue and The Times to Harvey Nicholls and Harrods, The Marshmallowist has always aimed high, and its founder Oonagh Simms is happy to share how her contemporary, quirky brand has excelled, using clever packaging to boost its luxuriousness.

“I originally trained in chocolaterie and patisserie,” she explains. “In Paris, fruit marshmallows were a popular sweet treat in the patisseries and luxury food stores, but not in the UK. When I came back to London, I started experimenting with different flavours, inspired by cocktails, unusual desserts, pairing herbs and spices with seasonal fruits.”

Simms sold her marshmallows on a weekend pitch at Portobello Market, wrapped like a patisserie item, but she knew that scaleability depended on packaging.

“Packaging is something we spend a lot of time on; it's totally integral to the brand,” she says. “It was a long time before I was ready to put my marshmallows in packaging as they are so perfectly shaped and beautifully cut. But in order to grow the brand we had to find a way of transporting and presenting them that still kept that very strong sense of brand and product; we are currently on our second iteration of our packaging.”


Better by design


Simms and her team worked closely with James Williams, MD of Curtis Packaging in Redhill, Surrey, to produce the packaging conceived by her “incredible freelance designer Veronica Lethorn, who understood the brand and brought out the strong clean lines of the marshmallow blocks and worked that theme throughout but in a more abstract way”. The packaging cleverly reflects the unique flavours used – including basil, gin, CBD and unusual bitters – and achieves Simms' goal of not looking like anything else on the confectionery market.

“Our range blends playful flavours that taste delicious but are certainly unexpected combinations,” Simms says. “We wanted to get more of our story and product info across to new customers; our first packaging was very bold but had very little copy on it. We wanted to retain our unique shelf appeal and play to the premium; we have a strong brand and a strong aesthetic.

“In practical terms, it also had to be easy to assemble as we still make and package everything by hand. We don't use any machinery so it has to be quick but still with the wow factor. I like that our products sit at the playful end of the premium market.”

James Williams from Curtis Packaging explains how Simms came to him with the final packaging design, needing advice on how to turn the design into the finished article.

“We don't see what we do as just produce boxes; we are adding value to our customers' brands,” he says. “The Marshmallowist approached us with their beautiful designs and needed to know how the foil lines could be produced in an efficient, effective way. It was exciting and challenging; they wanted natural uncoated board with the foil blocking in very thin lines, which is tricky on uncoated board. We spent lots of time working on how we could tool it and we hit on a solution. We're delighted with it and so is The Marshmallowist – and we won a Print Week Award for it too.”


Second-life packaging


With UK gin sales reaching £1.5 billion in 2018, this category looks set to thrive, with market research company IWSR predicting a further 37.2% growth by 2021. Gin sales are bouyant; it appeals across genders, occasions and seasons, and presents itself as the ideal luxury alternative to champagne.

Packaging has a major role to play in the shelf difference, alongside unusual flavour profiles and storytelling, with gin brands cleverly capturing the 'second-life' potential of their packaging.

Espensen Spirit is a range of naturally-infused spirits made in Bristol by Sam Espensen and her team. The beauty of the packaging is just one of its USPs; Sam's creative background includes film, events and branding, and her spirits brand – which includes gins, vodkas and whiskies – manages to capture every aspect of the arts.

“We describe our look as post-punk pop art – or silly but stylish,” says Espensen. “A designer once said it was 'dirty pretty', which is pretentious but spot on – but it is friendly and inclusive too. My brand manager and designer is Charlotte Cripps; we have known each other for nearly two decades and we have a shorthand in terms of understanding each other.”

Cripps explains how the unique style of the Espensen Spirits packaging captures that creative energy.

“We wanted to adopt a different look and feel to traditional fruity or infused spirits labels as we didn't want to conform to the norm of delicate fruit or intricate Victoriana illustrations,” she says. “I worked with Richard Fry's quirky illustrations to create a simpler, bolder, more fun look for the brand, which reflected their story and stood out in the market.”

Espensen goes on to say that the luxurious aspect of the product and its packaging comes from the special marriage of the unique flavours, the unusual style of the labels and the elegant glass bottles with cork stoppers.

“It is very important to me that the packaging is something that people want to keep; we are as sustainable as possible and everything connected to our drinks must have a second purpose – for example, our glass bottles were chosen so people don't want to throw them away,” she says. “Our serving suggestions are also bookmarks and our marketing flyer is also a postcard; people are delighted that they are free. And I am delighted when I see them stuck on people's fridges; it proves that if you make your packaging relevant to people's interests they will happily include your brand in their everyday life.”

To boost the luxuriousness and giftability of Espensen Spirits, the tall, slim glass bottles (available in a range of sizes and flavours including Blueberry Gin and Rhubarb & Custard Vodka) come in beautiful gift boxes.

Espensen adds, “Our gift boxes really are gorgeous. As with our whole range of packaging, I wanted them to be something people keep – and they are. I have seen them used as pencil cases, for make-up, jewellery... we use recycled posting and packaging boxes, and Air Safe bags to protect the bottles.”


Packaging with provenance


A food category that is also enjoying a huge growth boom is authentic Jamaican food – and premium-quality Jamaican food brand Marshall & Brown is cornering the luxury market. Founder Dr Carlton Brown saw the potential for an authentic brand that delivered on taste and kept the quality high and, as a first-generation British-Jamaican with a love of Carribean food, he called on the skills of his mother and mother-in-law, as well as the experience of his grandfather who was an early retailer in Jamaica.

“Growing up my mother was always cooking or baking; she was an entrepreneur herself and had a micro-catering business cooking foods like Jamaican patties,” he recalls. “Mum was always going to the local markets to source the freshest spices and seasonings. Later I met my wife Marvely, who shares my passion for food, and then her mother Eugenia Marshall, who loved to cook and bake. I loved going to her house.”

Brown explains how, with Jamaica one of the world's most popular tourist destinations, its cuisine is becoming more popular too.

“I offer people the best of Jamaica with our authentic premium products,” he says. “There are other Jamaican foods on the market, such as jerk sauces, but my aim for Marshall & Brown is to be perceived as the luxury, premium Jamaican brand. The sauces are designed for everyday use and other products, such as our premium cakes, make ideal gifts as they are particularly beautifully packaged. We have some interesting distribution partners in place and some of our products are available on Amazon. We also plan to have our products available in some airport sales outlets.”

Dr Brown and his team worked with designers to create packaging that would promote its luxury positioning, and reflect its high-quality ingredients and gifting potential.

“We worked with Design Difference to create our beautiful packaging,” he says. “Packaging is a key part of our marketing plan as we recognised that packaging makes and sells a brand – we have to stand out in a noisy marketplace.”

The luxury aspect of packaging clearly has to be continued through into the packaging itself. While consumers may buy a product once because it is beautiful, they will only buy it again if it meets expectations.


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