Compass Box and Stranger & Stranger: a successful duo for labels that stand out from the crowd
An exclusive interview with the creative team of Stranger & Stranger, a renowned branding and packaging company specializing in alcoholic beverages and recently the fifth-time winner of the ISC’s Design Agency of the Year award.
Among their most famous clients is Compass Box, which over twenty years ago broke all whisky conventions by shining the spotlight on the then-sneered at category of Blended Malts. In addition to placing great care in whisky selection, Compass Box is also famed for their extremely creative, impactful labels, carefully designed to reflect the unique character of each bottle. We've talked about it with the creators of this distinctive packaging.
The whisky labels have always been very traditional and sober. What was the most difficult thing in abandoning a classic style, thus keeping the premium product identity?
Compass Box is primarily driven by creativity in the whiskymaking and this is reflected in the approach to the labels, complexity, layering, richness and craft. In many ways Compass Box borrows more from new world wine labels rather than the traditional world of Scotch Whisky and this has helped the brand standout when juxtaposed into a scotch whisky setting.
Which is the most bizarre label you created for Compass Box? And which is the most beautiful according to you?
Many Compass Box projects are ambitious in their approach which results in sometimes very complex labels with layers of meaning to be discovered and interpreted by the observant CBX devotee. A couple of years ago we were asked to create a label for a new Limited Edition called The Rogues Banquet. This label featured a cameo cast of many characters from past Compass Box labels all partying together in an imaginary bacchanalian setting. There are many bizarre interactions and discoverable elements throughout that label.
We’ve been lucky to create a number of beautiful labels for Compass Box over the years. One would be Hedonism Muse created for international women’s day - it was loosely based on a religious icon paying homage to Mary Magdalene. Another label with a very different aesthetic The General, a powerful antique whisky with a crafted muscular typographic approach.
Many Compass Box labels are inspired by the organoleptic characteristics of whisky. Can you tell us more about the creative process? Do you receive a brief regarding the spirit and you are completely free from there, or do you work closely, step by step from the concept, with the blend creators?
All Compass Box projects start with a brief that has the liquid at the heart of the story. The brief is usually no more than 2 pages in length - the first page is the creative brief, the story and the inspiration. The second page is all the legal and mandatory information just to make sure we capture everything that has to be on the pack. We’ve been working with CBX for well over 10 years nows and in that time have developed a trust and a kind of shorthand when discussing creative proposals so we’re extremely lucky to be granted quite a lot of freedom to proposed creative directions. the projects feel very collaborative in nature. Fortunately we’re both striving to produce extraordinary results!
The Scotch Whisky Associaction has very strict rules regarding some data that have to be written on label, but also regarding the characters’ size. Have you ever had any problems in having your labels approved? What do you think about the SWA rules? Do you think that they are useful for clarity, or sometimes they are an obstacle for the creatives’ work?
John is no stranger to falling foul of SWA regulations - most famously for The Spice Tree which employed a winemaker’s technique of adding staves to the cask. The product had to be recalled!! For our part we’re very familiar with the rules the SWA has set down and tend to be able to negotiate the various parameters of hierarchy and type size and still end up with labels that break new ground. On occasions the rules can sometimes create opportunities for fun - for instance the regulation that age statements must reflect the youngest whisky contained in the blend - so John created a whisky that had some very old whisky and a dash of very young whisky and called it Three Year Old Deluxe!
The cost of paper has dramatically increased recently. Do you think they will be an impact on your work?
Like the glass and closure sectors the paper industry is seeing increased costs and this will inevitably trickle down to the overall cost of the packaging for a bottle of whisky. Fortunately Scotch whisky commands a price premium so the paper price has less of an impact in this sector than say it would on entry level wines where the pennies really count.
Environmental sustainability: can you tell us about the innovations in your sector in terms of materials to face the green revolution?
Environmental factors are now on the tip of everyone’s tongues for any new project. We routinely look at aspects to reduce materials, in terms of glass weight for any new bottle or light weighting old designs, using recycled glass where possible, removing plastic from supply chains and in many cases reducing or removing gift packaging altogether.