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Gabrielle Vizzavona
/ 15 Nov, 2021
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[Rendez-vous with…] Audrey Fort "Tell brand stories through the packaging

With her partner Julien Fort, Audrey Fort created ‘The Rooster Factory’ agency six years ago. Based in California, she helps her clients create and design brands and execute their route-to-market strategies in the drinks industry, primarily spirits. We caught up with her to find out more.

Gabrielle Vizzavona: Which trends have emerged in the spirits world over the past few years?
Audrey Fort: Things have changed dramatically. They are moving much faster than in the wine world, though you have to differentiate between several spirits categories. Spirits with a strong tradition, with an ageing component, such as whisky, are moving much more slowly than others such as gin, which is very innovative and dynamic, and has completely reinvented itself over the last ten years. From a very traditional product, it has spun all over the place, exploring loads of fruits and base spirits. It’s really pushed the envelope and, as with all saturated categories, the cream rises to the top: only the strong brands remain and a balance is achieved. For brown spirits, innovation mainly stems from the maturation process and use of certain casks, such as Madeira, Port, Armagnac and wine. Even with Cognac or Armagnac, whose production is highly regulated, we are seeing some producers push the boundaries, sometimes exiting the appellation to use certain types of casks that are no longer included in specifications, such as chestnut wood for Cognac. Producers are looking for more and more esoteric casks. They want the flavour, but also the ability to tell a story.

GV: Which categories do you think will succeed in the coming years?
AF: Low or no alcohol spirits. Innovation is at the core of this market. You have to reinvent yourself, and successfully explain to a consumer that you are offering a non-alcoholic spirit. Production methods are fairly secret, so that the technology is not replicated by their competitors. But the spirit is produced normally, then the alcohol is removed. There are all levels of quality, but some are really well made, like Seedlip, which is why it has been so successful, and bought by Diageo. Another category that is skyrocketing in the United States, and is also arriving in Europe, is seltzers, fizzy alcoholic drinks with an ABV of 5 to 10% sold in cans. They leave a lot of room for freedom, because you can use a base of wine, spirits or even tea.

GV: What is currently working well on the mixology scene?
AF: The cocktail market is very mature in the US and consumers have a strong connection with their favourite bar. During Covid, there was a relaxation of legislation in some states to allow bars to continue operating despite the pandemic. They were able to sell takeaway cocktails. Bars are entering people's homes with pre-made cocktails. In two years, the boundaries have changed, and a lot of things will stay around. The same is true in Europe. There is also an interesting trend on the supply side, with many bartenders moving into production, creating their own brands or acting as consultants for others, to develop cocktails but also spirits, using their noses and palates. Some groups also create brands focusing on mixologists, leveraging their name and image.

GV: Are spirits still being drunk neat?
AF: In the United States, apart from whisky, few spirits are drunk neat. White spirits are drunk in cocktails, as is rum. Premiumisation is fuelling the trend. Entry-level brands drunk as shots are becoming quite marginal and only involve students. In France too, there has been a sea-change in alcohol consumption over the last 15 years, driven by the development of cocktail bars. People are looking for quality over quantity.  

GV: Are flavoured spirits still as popular?
AF: It all depends on the spirit. For vodka, the industry has really covered every possible flavour. When you can produce a vodka flavoured with whipped cream, you’ve really hit the bottom! The audience is more the mass market. Flavouring is also becoming more premium, with a return to natural extraction methods, which align with consumer expectations, and no longer artificial flavours.

GV: In terms of packaging, what are the latest trends?
AF: The very minimalist, silk-screen-printed packaging of ten years ago has been superseded by a current trend for "craft", with natural materials such as raw paper, straw, engravings and natural tones. It's all part of the same movement, the handmade, back-to-nature, authentic side. Brands are trying to tell a product’s story, its typicity, through illustrations on the packaging. This is quite common now, and it wasn’t the case 10 years ago.

GV: Is environmentally-friendly packaging entering the market?
AF: Many brands are trying to reduce their environmental impact by opting for lighter bottles, whereas high-end products always favoured relatively heavy bottles. Nevertheless, there is a discrepancy between the consumer's expectations and their perception of the product, which is lowered when the bottle is lighter. The same is true for bottles made from paper, seaweed or recyclable plastic, the consumer is not yet fully prepared. For the masses to take these products on board, big brands will need to grasp the nettle, supplying the bottles to a broad consumer base and creating a snowball effect, as Bacardi rum will soon do. For premium or super-premium products, it will be more challenging, because the perception is not the same. Also, this will mainly involve white spirits, because the containers do not allow the colour of the product to show through, which can detrimental for brown spirits.

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A CONVERSATION WITH AUDREY FORT, FROM THE ROOSTER FACTORY : “Through their packaging, brands are mainly aiming to tell a story”
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