09 July, 2012

Tesco has moved one of its champagnes to lightweight bottles, but should other brands follow suit? James Boulton of Claessens International explores whether champagne producers can embrace sustainability without damaging their products’ premium status


TESCO'S RECENT PLEDGE to move to a lightweight bottle for its De Vallois Champagne is a bold move in the champagne sector, but with the backing of the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC) it could yet be one that similar producers follow. 

One of the key issues for the traditional champagne sector is cost. While many consumers still buy into the history and quality of the big champagne brands, a large percentage of the champagne-buying market has become far more open to sampling other sparkling wines from around the world – cava and prosseco are now much more accepted in this category as are some of the Australian and Californian sparkling wines. 

Probably more than any other drinks brand, champagne has a very real perceived value to consumers that has been cultivated over centuries. But even so, it’s become an increasingly tough ask for consumers to pay French champagne prices. Faced with this it has been essential for the champagne producers to maintain the perceived value of their brands with the consumer. 

A pressing issue

Every manufacturer is under pressure to show their sustainability credentials, and every PLC is under even more pressure. For the large, global drinks brands this is something they are increasingly taking seriously, and they have a key
role to play if sustainable practices are to be introduced across the industry. 

In the absence of any government directive, it’s these larger brands that need to take on the mantle of the forebears for sustainability. They need to be the ones setting the pace and only then will others across the drinks industry follow. But it’s something that needs to encompass the whole manufacturing process, and not just be about making your label from recycled paper. Once this becomes part of what people buy into about a brand, then consumers will turn away from the brands that aren’t doing this.

Undoubtedly lightweight glass can have a huge environmental impact, and it also has a substantial cost implication in terms of shipping product around the world. However, certainly with champagne, part of the brand value comes from the bottling; although there are some variations, champagne is associated with one shape and style of bottle. 

So, in terms of brand perception there is still a competitive advantage to be had from maintaining how the product looks, feels and is perceived, and this cannot be devalued in any way.

Level playing field

Changing the style or the perceived quality of the glass the bottle is made of is something the more prestigious brands will need to take very seriously. At the end of the day any decision needs to take into account the effect on sales and brand longevity. 

For a move like this to be carried through successfully there needs to be a level playing field across the market – by this I mean every producer needs to be bound by the same limits so as to remove the ability to gain competitive advantage in terms of brand presentation. There is evidence of governments deciding that every brewer should use the same bottle and they should all be returnable, but it remains to be seen if this can continue. 

There is also a more specific issue in this market, that throughout the process of making champagne the bottle is under enormous pressure, not only from the build up of gas within the champagne itself but also the regular handling that takes place when turning the bottles. Before altering glass weight, producers need to be clear they don’t run risk of breakages, which could not only have an impact on profits but also be physically dangerous.

With buy-in from the CIVC, the champagne industry is doing its best to create this level playing field, but it will still need to prove the brand benefits. While Tesco will undertake a move like this to be seen to be doing the right thing, it also needs to kickstart its champagne sales and in this case that may well be as much about being able to cut prices as well as demonstrating its green credentials. 

One sector that the champagne producers can learn from in navigating this shift is the whisky industry. A number of years ago whisky distillers were among the first to move into lightweight glass bottles. 

At the time, Claessens International was working alongside Johnnie Walker to refresh the Black Label brand and, while the company said it didn’t want to change the bottle, we were able to show from a financial point of view that moving to a lightweight glass design made sense for the brand. 

Changing perceptions

Today, lightweight glass has been embraced across the whisky industry. Furthermore, thanks to advances in technology, the brands using lightweight glass are the ones perceived as being higher quality brands due to the beautiful embossing and sharpness of glass that can be achieved with modern production techniques. This means it’s not just something that is saving the company money but it’s also enhancing their brand as well. 

On one level, the drinks industry has always been environmentally friendly as it has predominantly worked with returnable glass bottles. But there needs to be a change of perception for brands if we are to fully exploit the sustainable options available – like using lightweight glass – towards a realisation that sustainable can also still be premium.

To an extent the drinks industry needs to look at what the organic food industry has already been through. Go back five years and the organic industry was producing food covered in mud to differentiate itself in the market. However, now it has moved to a premium position, it has turned to using sophisticated packaging and design as a means to set it apart. It is now confident in saying we are organic and we are higher quality. 

So while Tesco may be looking to steal a march within the champagne sector with sustainability, other more established brands may take a little more convincing to take the plunge.

James Boulton is creative director at Claessens International

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