From the iconic signature label of Veuve Clicquot Champagne to the unmistakable blue glass of Bombay Sapphire gin, there is no doubt that the packaging and presentation of alcoholic products has played a crucial role in helping them become some of the most internationally recognised brands. Drinks companies use a whole range of trade marks and designs to distinguish their brands – from logos and unusual bottle shapes to packaging colours and tag lines. It will come as no surprise to learn that each year more than £800 million is spent on the branding and advertising of alcoholic products in the UK alone, with the global estimate approximating $1 trillion. However, a recent report from the government advisory body Public Health England may signal the beginning of the end for alcoholic brands as we know them. Considering the Scottish Government’s stated objective of tackling problematic alcohol use, no doubt they too will be looking at this report with close interest. The ground-breaking legislation to impose the minimum pricing of alcohol in Scotland illustrates this well.

Published in December 2016, Public Health England’s report considers the key influencers of alcohol consumption and provides an overview of alcohol-related harm and how this could be reduced. With regards to alcohol labelling, the report suggests that an effective way of changing drinking behaviour could be to sell alcoholic products in plain packaged bottles which would also carry health warnings, in a similar way to the controls placed on tobacco. This would be a drastic change from the current rules which govern the labelling of alcoholic products. Alcohol information labels are the subject of a voluntary agreement between the industry and governments in the UK which places certain obligations on manufacturers, however there are currently no mandatory requirements for alcohol labelling.

Whilst the suggestion of introducing plain packaging has yet to be discussed in further detail, it is anticipated that any regulation of alcohol packaging would be akin to the controls placed on tobacco packaging. This would require the removal of all unique branding (colours, imagery, corporate logos and trade marks) and permit manufacturers to print only the brand name in a standardised size, font and position on a standard shaped bottle, not to mention additional health warnings and any other legally mandated information such as nutritional information.

This is known as the “regulatory cascade” where regulators gradually introduce restrictions on the freedoms enjoyed by brand owners of products deemed to be harmful to our health. First advertisements are restricted; product information is then compulsorily introduced; followed by increasingly prominent health warnings leading to the reduction of branding and, eventually, plain packaging.

If introduced, what impact would the plain packaging of alcoholic products be likely to have on the industry? Arguably, a grave one on the distinct high value brands which have invested in achieving prominence in the market. It would be a boon for lower value brands which would be able to unfairly compete. Branding, design and packaging are integral components of a manufacturer’s marketing mix and have a notable influence on their ability to effectively sell and promote an alcoholic product. Not only is product packaging critical in allowing us to distinguish brands which we enjoy and value, but it is also a key market stimulant, allowing brands to keep ahead of their competitors and readily establish their position in the market. Consumers can rely on the trade marks used by drinks companies as a badge of origin. If we were to find ourselves in a bar or shop faced with row upon row of identical looking alcoholic products, the attractive force of a recognisable brand would not be present and there is the danger that consumers will trade down in terms of quality. All historic investment in trade marks and brand may be rendered valueless. At best, drinks companies will enjoy a residual benefit from the status of their brand but, without continued investment, that will diminish over time.

The possibility that plain packaging will be implemented for alcoholic products will be particularly worrying for the growing Scottish industry of microbreweries and manufacturers of craft beer and gin products which rely on unique and distinctive packaging to build their reputation and brand. Packaging and brand is a big part of why consumers may decide to trade up to a new craft product which they have not tried before. Innes & Gunn and BrewDog use brand to position their beers as a premium product in the market. In this respect, plain packaging will only stifle the growth of emerging brands in what is now a highly creative industry.

It is easy to see why drinks companies are already concerned about the possible ramifications of the introduction of plain packaging in the alcohol industry. Of course, it may not stop here – many commentators believe that it is only a matter of time before plain packaging spreads to other industries. How far are we prepared to accept the application of plain packaging to products which we choose to enjoy but know are unhealthy? Will we be looking at plain packaging for fizzy juice and junk food before long? Only time will tell as to whether the regulation of alcohol packaging will follow in the same footsteps of tobacco but with this looking more and more likely, an industry once rife with creativity is at risk of being submerged in a sea of banality. That being said, perhaps you might want to grab a bottle of your favourite brand while you can still recognise it!